Wolfe Tone: Republican Hero or Whig Opportunist?

The man who brought the French to the aid of the Irish cause in the 1790s has long been an Irish national hero. Andrew Boyd finds his ideals less easy to pin down.

Sinn Fein, the IRA, Fianna Fail and a surprising number of Irish academics all believe Theobald Wolfe Tone (1763-98) to have been the founder of ‘Irish Republican Nationalism’. Yet there are many reasons for doubting if Wolfe Tone had any sustained interest in republicanism as a form of government when, in May 1791, William Drennan, an Ulster Presbyterian, revealed, in a letter to his sister, plans to establish a political society which would have ‘as its particular purpose’ the rights of man, the independence of Ireland and republicanism. Webb’s Compendium of Irish Biography, published in Dublin in 1878, names Drennan, not Wolfe Tone, as having ‘originated the establishment of the Society of United Irishmen’ – the first republican movement in Ireland.

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