Wolfe Tone was a founder of the United Irishmen and a leading figure in the fight for Irish independence from British rule. In 1798, Tone led the United Irishmen in a major uprising, hoping to begin a nationalist and republican revolution in Ireland with the support of French troops.

By the late 1700s, many Irish people were deeply frustrated by their colonial status and limited representation in the British parliament. Inspired by the American and French revolutions, in 1798, the United Irishmen made a concerted effort to drive through a fully-fledged anti-colonial movement and rose up in an armed rebellion against British rule.

Theobald Wolfe Tone (1763 – 1798) was born in Dublin, Ireland. After studying law at Trinity College, Dublin, he became a barrister. In 1791, Tone founded the Society of the United Irishmen with Thomas Russell and Napper Tandy amongst others. The United Irishmen were a revolutionary group of Protestant and Catholic radicals who sought an end to British rule and an independent Ireland. They saw the only way of achieving this was to overthrow the establishment, as had recently happened in America and France.

The authorities watched the growth of the United Irishmen with increasing concern. On war being declared against France in 1793, they were declared illegal and they went underground. In 1796, Tone travelled to Paris in the hope of persuading France to support their cause, where he briefly became an officer in the French military. But, fighting on multiple fronts, the French could only offer small raids to support the Irish. Despite this, and amidst tensions and splintering within the United Irishmen, Tone opted to lead a major armed rebellion against the British in 1798.  The British and loyalist Irish forces responded brutally, suppressing the rising.

Wolfe Tone was captured and tried in Dublin, where he did not attempt to hide his wish to overthrow British rule, but it is said he did deeply regret the terrible violence the uprising had unleashed on both sides. He was found guilty and sentenced to be hanged, but he died before he could be executed, probably by suicide. This portrait, created long after his death, paid testament to his ongoing legacy and memory: in spite of the Acts of Union which united the Irish and British Parliaments in 1801, Irish pressures to reform British governance persisted in the nineteenth century, and to this day he is known as the ‘Father of Irish Republicans’.


Did you know?

When he was a student, Wolfe Tone eloped with Martha Witherington who he remained devoted to his entire life, although he insisted on her changing her name to Matilda.

Sources & acknowledgements

This object description and its related educational resources were researched and written by our team of historians and education specialists. For further information see the item’s home museum, gallery or archive, listed above.