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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.

Drennan, who was nine years older than Wolfe Tone, had been a republican and a democrat since his days as a medical student in Edinburgh. As the historian D.A. Chart wrote in his introduction to The Drennan Letters (Belfast, 1931), Drennan’s sympathies were with the colonists during the American War of Independence. At that time Wolfe Tone, still a schoolboy, would have been too young to know anything about republicanism. He was, in fact, keen to join the British Army and might have enlisted, as ‘an ensign in a marching regiment’, if his father, who was determined that he be a scholar, had not resolutely discouraged his military ambitions.

Drennan left the Society of United Irishmen when he realised it was becoming a conspiracy, plotting armed rebellion even though he himself had stood trial in Dublin as the author and publisher of a pamphlet which Dublin Castle had declared seditious. His reputation has therefore been overshadowed by that of Wolfe Tone. He is now remembered as a minor poet, the writer of patriotic songs, the first to portray Ireland as ‘the Emerald Isle’, and as one of the founders of the Belfast Academical Institution.

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