The death of Wolfe Tone


Madam, - Donal Kennedy (March 13th) is right: it has never been proven beyond reasonable doubt that Theobald Wolfe Tone committed suicide by cutting his own throat while awaiting execution.

It is also true that his death was a very convenient one for Dublin Castle for the reason cited by Mr Kennedy (a writ of habeas corpuswas pending).

On the other hand, neither has it been proven that Tone didn't take his own life; and on the balance of probabilities most scholars agree that he did.

This became an "issue" only because of one of those peculiar vagaries of Irish history. Republican separatism, which started the 1790s as a Protestant (and in particular Presbyterian) innovation, was by the end of that turbulent decade identified with the Catholic majority, for whom suicide was an anathema (indeed a mortal sin).

For Tone, the secular republican, his Senecan suicide represented no such moral dilemma (for more on Tone's "alleged inconsistencies", see Kevin Whelan's essay in review in the latest issue of History Ireland). This calls to mind the apocryphal story of the undergraduate essay which neatly side-stepped the issue by concluding that "Theobald Wolfe Tone was captured in Lough Swilly, recognised, arrested, and brought in chains to Dublin, where he died of a cut throat".

- Yours, etc,

TOMMY GRAHAM, Editor, History Ireland, Palmerston Place, Dublin 7.

Madam, - To adapt a saying of the gallant Tone: "My trade is historical truth." I am well aware of the controversy which has haunted Tone's death.

But reading his complete writings convinced me, for the first time, that he attempted to take his own life. I tried to show (An Irishman's Diary, March 10th) the terrible strain he had been under and his objection to being hanged as a traitor. The refusal of a soldier's death (by firing squad), I believe, pushed him over the edge.

In reply to Donal Kennedy's specific query, William Sandys, who was in charge of the Provost prison, and the sentinel who guarded Tone told an inquest (on November 20th, 1798) that Tone acknowledged "he had given himself the wound in his throat".

- Yours, etc,