Wolfe Tone’s Argument on Behalf of the Catholics of Ireland

Theobald Wolfe Tone and the frontispiece of "Argument on behalf of the Catholics of Ireland"
Theobald Wolfe Tone and the frontispiece of “Argument on behalf of the Catholics of Ireland”

In 1724 Swift asked in the Drapier Letters, “Were not the People of Ireland born as Free as those of England?”  In 1791 Theobald Wolfe Tone answered, “We are free in theory, but slaves in fact.”

Theobald Wolfe Tone was born in Dublin 250 years ago (on 20th June, 1763). He is not an original thinker, nor a systematic one. But he does act as a “lightning conductor” (as Thomas Duddy puts it), bringing together ideas about liberty, independence and popular sovereignty and applying them to the Irish situation. These ideas picked up over time were incorporated in pamphlets, writings and finally in Wolfe Tone’s actions. He died in prison in Dublin, after arrest for his part in the failed 1798 Rising, on 19th November, 1798.

Tone’s best argued piece is probably Argument on Behalf of the Catholics of Ireland, published in 1791. It is an argument based on justice, liberty and the rights of man. In the preface To the Reader he appeals directly to the work of Thomas Paine. Tone does not, he says, make an argument about “the abstract right of the people to reform their legislature; for after PAINE, who will, or who need, be heard on the subject?”

Paine had written many times on republican government, where (Common Sense):

the legislative part [is] managed by a select number chosen from the whole body, who are supposed to have the same concerns at stake which those have who appointed them, and who will act in the same manner as the whole body would act were they present.

Earlier in 1791, Paine had published the first part of Rights of Man, which was intended to answer Burke’s criticisms of the French Revolution.  In that book, Paine asserted that no people or government had the right to bind their posterity for ever, that laws derive their force from the consent of the living, that governments came either from superstition, power, or “The common interest of society and the common rights of man”. He argues for the French people’s rights to reform their government, compares it favourably with the British model, and touches on the Universal Right Of Conscience included in its workings. A mixed government, says Paine, is no answer:

In mixed Governments there is no responsibility: the parts cover each other till responsibility is lost; and the corruption which moves the machine, contrives at the same time its own escape.

The arguments and republicanism of Paine underpin Tone’s arguments, though he carefully avoids criticising the monarchy. Tone notes, as did Swift before him, that Ireland has plentiful resources, yet is poor and unknown. The blame for this he lays at the feet of poor government, and underlying that, internal division. Ireland, Tone says, has no real government. The Grattan Parliament (dating from 1782) has insufficient powers and, as Paine would expect of a mixed government, is corrupt. Instead of the English government directing it, or acting over its head (as in the earlier Woods halfpence affair), Westminster now bribe members with benefits draw directly from the Irish purse. Irish trade and industry is still restrained (just as it was in Swift’s and Berkeley’s time) for fear it affect English trade interests. Tone reiterates (as Molyneaux and Swift did) that Ireland is subject to the same King as England, but that that does not imply Ireland is (or should be) subject to the nation of England.

To counteract this, Tone asserts that the power of the Irish people needs to be strengthened, so they can prevent such attacks on their prosperity. Reform of the parliament is discussed in England, but how much more urgently (says Tone) is it needed in Ireland. Of the four million population, three million as Catholics are not represented at all. Of the remaining one million, only 60,000 are electors, returning just 82 members of parliament. Thus, Tone says, no reform will be “honourable, practicable, efficacious or just”, if Catholics are not permitted the vote. This is a point at which Tone’s arguments sharply diverge from those likely to be supported by Swift.

He rebuts the standard arguments used by Protestants against such liberation including: that the Catholics do not keep to oaths (why then, asks Tone, do they not forswear themselves to allow themselves to vote now?), that they are ignorant (Tone heatedly points at the Catholic exclusion from education, “and then we make the incapacity we have created an argument for their exclusion from the common rights of man!”), and that the Irish left to themselves will inevitably fall under French rule. Tone finds this objection particularly trying and considers that on examination, Ireland will be found “as competent to our own government, regulation and defense, as any State in Europe”. Tone foresees that a truly just government comprising Catholic and Protestant members should be possible,

if the odious distinction between Protestant, and Presbyterian, and Catholic were abolished, and the three great sects blended together, under the common and sacred title of Irishman, what interest could a Catholic member of Parliament have, distinct from his Protestant brother sitting on the same bench[?]

Tone concludes by pointing out that, quite aside from expediency, the Protestant minority have no answer to give if the Catholics of Ireland demanded their rights. He points out the hypocrisy of talking about the Rights of Man on the one hand, and denying them to actual men on the other. Tone concludes

In a word, the alternative is, on the one hand, Reform, and the Catholics, justice and liberty; on the other, an unconditional submission to the present, and every future Administration […] who may indulge with ease and safety their propensity to speculation and spoil, and insult, while the people remain divided.

This pamphlet had an immediate impact, becoming both a “best-seller” and acting as encouragement to both Catholics and Protestants seeking reform.

The same year the pamphlet was published, Tone and others founded the United Irishmen. Aiming first at forming political union between Roman Catholics and Protestants so that liberal parliamentary reform could be achieved, the organisation became more radical when it became clear reform by constitutional means was unlikely to happen. In 1798 they started a revolt, which was defeated. Wolfe Tone himself died in custody on 19th November 1798.

In reaction to the 1798 Rebellion Westminster took direct control of Ireland with the Act of Union in 1801. The Irish parliament was no more. Full Catholic Emancipation had to wait until 1829, after a long campaign headed by Daniel O’Connell.


Google books version of Argument on Behalf of the Catholics of Ireland

There are many editions of Paine’s Rights of Man available, this version from USHistory.org is split into sections for easy reading. The first 16 sections relate to Paine’s 1791 answer to Burke. The rest was published as a second  part in 1792.

The first part of Paine’s Rights of Man also available from UCC.

Paine’s full works (in four volumes) are available online here.

A History of Irish Thought, pp. 208-210.

Thomas Duddy, Theobald Wolfe Tone, in Dictionary of Irish Philosophers

More on the life of Wolfe Tone: a general overview and more detail and with a focus on his time in Trinity College.

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