Published in An Phoblacht, 26 June 1925.
The military side of Tone’s career was so splendid, and the political work he did so great, that the economic and social ideals that inspired him as well as the revolutionary tactics that he adopted have been very much obscured and are known to few.
Tone the reformer
He began, as so many revolutionaries do, as a reformer and pamphleteer, desiring to better the conditions of the people of Ireland. To do this he sought to unite the various warring religious factions on a common ground, the reform of the colonial Parliament of his time, by extending the franchise to all sections of the community, Catholic as well as Protestant, poor as well as rich.
This, at that time, was as revolutionary a change as “Bolshevism” would be today. He put great faith in a Parliament so composed. One of the addresses circulated by Wolfe Tone and his comrades declares that the forces that enslave, degrade and impoverish the Irish people,
“Can be resisted with effect solely by unanimity, decision and spirit in the people, qualities which may be exerted most legally, constitutionally and effica-ciously by that great measure essential to the prosperity and freedom of Ireland – an equal representation of all the people in Parliament … We have gone to what we conceive the root of the evil; we have stated what we conceive to be the remedy – with a Parliament thus reformed everything is easy; without it nothing can be done.”
Great human ideals
A few more quotations from the various manifestos issued will prove that there was something greater and deeper in the alliance with France than the mere linking up with a nation at war with England. In July, 1791 the fall of the Bastille was celebrated in Belfast and a manifesto issued which contained the following words:
“Here then we take our stand, and if we be asked what the French Revolution is to us, we answer, much. Much as men. It is good for human nature that the grass grows where the Bastille stood … Go on then – great and gallant people; to practise the sublime philosophy of your legislation, to force applause from nations least disposed to do you justice … you are in very truth the hope of the world, of all except a few men in a few Cabinets who thought the human race belonged to them, not them to the human race; but now are taught by awful example and tremble.”
The rights of man
Another manifesto supposed to have been written by Tone himself in collaboration with Samuel Neilson and others applies to one of the slogans of the French Revolution, adopting it as one of the battle cries of the United Irishmen:
“This Society is likely to be a means the most powerful for the promotion of a great end. What end? The Rights of Man in Ireland. The greatest happiness of the greatest number in this island, the inherent and indefeasible claims of every free nation to rest in this nation … The greatest happiness of the greatest number – on the rock of this principle let this Society rest; by this let it judge and determine every political question, and whatever is necessary for this end let it not be accounted hazardous, but rather our interest, our duty, our glory and our common religion. The Rights of Man are the Rights of God, and to vindicate the one is to maintain the other. We must be free in order to serve Him whose service is perfect freedom.”
In this manifesto the linking up internationally of all revolutionary societies was advocated – as far as I know for the first time in the world’s history, for the three planks in their platform are – propaganda by publication; the accomplishment of “a National Convention of the People of Ireland” and “communication with similar societies abroad – as the Jacobin Club of Paris, the Revolutionary Society of England, the Committee of Reform in Scotland. Let the nations go abreast. Let the interchange of sentiments among mankind concerning the Rights of Man be as immediate as possible.”
“When the people come forward, the aristocracy, fearful of being left behind, insinuate themselves into our ranks and rise into timid leaders or treacherous auxiliaries. They mean to make us their instruments; let us rather make them our instruments. One of the two must happen. The people must serve the party, or the party must emerge in the mightiness of the people, and Hercules will then lean on his club … ‘Dieu et mon Droit’ (God and my Right) is the motto of kings. ‘Dieu et la liberté,’ exclaimed Voltaire when he beheld Franklin, his fellow citizen of the world. ‘Dieu et notre Droits’ (God and our Rights) let every Irishman cry aloud to each other the cry of mercy, of justice, and of victory.”
Against English social system
No-one can fail to see that Wolfe Tone gave his life for the freedom of Ireland from not only foreign political and military control, but from the more subtle and cruel oppression and enslavement that resulted from the establishment of the English social system and the English economic system.
For the oppressed
Link up the oppressed peoples and classes of the world was his cry, and it is well if those who gather to honour him, his life and his death should understand this and ponder well on the policy of Ireland’s greatest thinker, fighter and martyr.