23 JUNE 1939, Page 25


Theobald Wolfe Tone : A Biographical Study. By Frank MacDermot. (Macmillan. r5s.)

OF all the national leaders in Irish history one might have expected that Daniel O'Connell would have been the most popular in Ireland today. He was typically Irish in appearance and manner, humorous, forceful, practical and above all suc- cessful. One finds him described, however, by a writer in a popular Irish journal of this month, who holds him responsible for the introduction of the National School system, the instru- ment of Anglicisation which " shrivelled up " the Irish intellect, as " one of the worst, most disloyal, most contemptible of rene- gade Irishmen." O'Connell has certainly failed to hold first place in the hearts of his countrymen, and this place has been taken by Wolfe Tone. Every June thousands flock to his grave in Bodenstown churchyard to venerate his memory and listen to patriotic orations; the Wolfe Tone Weekly, published in Dublin, supports Republican principles; and there is the Wolfe Tone Annual.

Tone is much more than a popular hero, however, for he is the intellectual corner-stone on which the fabric of modern Irish Republicanism is laid. In a pamphlet circulated among Republicans in Ireland in 19r6 Pearse hailed him as the Pro- phet of Separatism and referred to him as " the greatest of all our political thinkers." There is actually little solid political doctrine enunciated in his works, and as a would-be reformer of Irish social conditions he had many limitations. He was a Protestant out of sympathy with ecclesiastical Catholicism, a little bourgeois intolerant of all Anglo-Irish efforts for reform, he had no practical knowledge of the Irish peasantry whose burdens he was anxious to remove, and he was not prepared to work out constructive plans. He considered that Ireland could never be happy or prosperous under English rule, and, influ- enced by French revolutionary doctrines, desired the establish- ment of republican government and the complete separation of the two islands.

Although Tone loved his country, and was ready to risk his life for her, he was no Romantic and was fully alive to her faults. When contemplating the activities of Napoleon in the Middle East he once exclaimed: " What pygmies we are in Ireland! " Hampered by narrow minds and Governmental re- striction, and being eminently a man of action, he thirsted for wider spheres, and this must explain his admiration for France and his desire to identify himself with the anti-British efforts of the Directorate. In Mr. MacDermot's interesting chapter which describes Tone's activities in Paris, he observes : " He was 32 years of age, and France was decidedly a young man's country." Yet Tone, although intoxicated with the fumes of revolutionary doctrine, did not completely lose his head, for we find these words written in his journal during his French visit : " Looked over Paine's Age of Reason; Second part, Damned Trash! "

Beginning with a description of Tone's origins—his father was a Dublin coach-maker, his brothers and his sister were all adventurers, and came to untimely ends—Mr. MacDermot goes on to give an account of his early life in Dublin, London, and America, his connexion with the United Irishmen, and the treasonable plotting with France which involved him in the final catastrophe. His heart was never in study or in the law, he looked upon classical learning as " nonsense," and never settled down seriously to work as a barrister. At Trinity College, Dublin, where he shone in oratory, he left an im- pression of charming instability, while when keeping his law terms in London, he formed a project for the colonisation of the Hawaiian Islands, and then tried to enlist as a soldier in the East India Company's service. That he would be caught up into the vortex of Irish politics, that he would become a United Irishman, might have been foreseen from the begin- ning, it was a matter of blood and circumstance.

The story of Irish politics in the eighteenth century is such an intricate one that the common reader may well find it wearisome, but Mr. MacDermot provides just enough detail to give us the necessary background and no more. While disapproving of every manifestation of the French Revolution, to which I think he is unnecessarily harsh, he gives us a very fair account of its repercussions in Ireland. But his sympathies obviously lie with Grattan and those other members of the Anglo-Irish gentry who, while repudiating violence, were working sincerely for reform. He regards the Union as having

been necessary if England was to win the war with France, but considers that it should have been followed by some form of benevolent autocracy which would have built up a new political and economic structure upon a foundation of equality irrespective of religion. " A strong hand suppressing turbulence and injustice with equal resolution would have gradually (he says) forced all sorts of Irishmen into co-operation for the welfare of their country."

But notwithstanding the fact that Mr. MacDermot, had he lived in Ireland at the close of the eighteenth century, would not have accepted Tone's solution of the Irish problem, and handed the country over to the United Irishmen, he is eminently fair to him. He pays a handsome tribute to his courage, enthusiasm, and ability, and does ample justice to his sincerity, humour and charm. The extracts given from the famous Autobiography are extremely well chosen to illustrate his powers of imagination and literary gifts, and will send many readers to the original. Mr. MacDermot has utilised much unpublished material in writing this interesting biography which will be highly acceptable to all serious students of Irish