An Phoblacht

United Irishmen founded

On 18 October 1791, 213 years ago, the first Society of United Irishmen was founded in Belfast.

Its inspiration was a young Dublin lawyer, Theobald Wolfe Tone, who was invited to Ulster by some Presbyterian radicals after publishing a pamphlet entitled An argument on behalf of the Catholics of Ireland.

In Belfast, Tone, Henry Joy McCracken, Thomas Russell and Samuel Neilson drafted the three resolutions of the United Irishmen that were to guide republicans for the next two centuries.

"FIRST RESOLVED — That the weight of English influence on the Government of this country is so great as to require a cordial union among all the people of Ireland, to maintain that balance which is essential to the preservation of our liberties and the extension of our commerce. SECOND — That the sole constitutional mode by which this influence can be opposed is by a complete and radical reform of the representation of the people in Parliament. THIRD — That no reform is practicable, efficacious, or just, which shall not include Irishmen of every religious persuasion".

In July 1792, Tone became a paid secretary of the Catholic Committee, and in December 1792 he organised a Catholic Convention of elected delegates in the Tailors' Hall, Dublin. The Catholic Relief Act (1793) followed, but Tone was bitterly disappointed by the limited concessions it gave.

The political thinking of Tone and his associates was strongly influenced by the democratic principles of the French revolutionary ideals of 'Liberty, Equality, Fraternity', and it was natural that they should turn to France for help.

Early in 1794, a clergyman, William Jackson, came to Dublin on a mission from France to open talks with the United Irishmen. Tone prepared for him a memorandum to show that Ireland was ripe for a French invasion.

The following April, Jackson was arrested for treason. Tone's association with him was known to the authorities, but they agreed not to take any action against him if he left the country.

Tone accepted this condition but insisted that he should not be required to give evidence against Jackson, and in fact remained openly in Dublin until after Jackson's trial.

Before sailing from Belfast to America with his wife and family in May 1795, he met his friends Russell, Neilson and McCracken on Cave Hill, and they solemnly undertook never to cease their struggle for the independence of Ireland.

Tone defined his objects as

"To subvert the tyranny of our execrable government, to break the connection with England, the never-failing source of all our political evils, and to assert the independence of my country — these were my objects."

"To unite the whole people of Ireland, to abolish the memory of all past dissensions, and to substitute the common name of Irishman in place of the denominations of Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter — these were my means."

In Philadelphia, Tone obtained letters of introduction from the French Minister to the Committee of Public Safety in Paris. Arriving there in February 1796, he soon impressed the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Delacroix, with his energy and ability.

The Directory appointed General Hoche to command an expedition, and Tone was made an adjutant-general in the French Army. He sailed with the expedition from Brest on 15 December 1796, with 43 ships and 15,000 men, but it proved abortive.

The fleet was scattered by storms and returned to France. Tone then joined Hoche in Holland, where he was organising another expedition with the help of the Dutch, but this also failed. The sudden death of Hoche in September 1797 was a blow to Tone's hopes, as the two men had a high regard for each other.

When news of the rising in Ireland came, in May 1798, Tone renewed his efforts but because of the disorganised state of the French forces the best that could be arranged was a number of small raids on different parts of the coast.

On 16 September, Tone sailed with General Hardy and 3,000 men and reached Lough Swilly. A powerful English squadron came into sight and after a sharp engagement captured the small French fleet on 12 October.

Tone was taken prisoner to Dublin and tried by court-martial on 10 November. He appeared in his French uniform, was found guilty, and sentenced to be hanged, though he pleaded for a soldier's death by firing squad.

Early on the morning fixed for his execution, he was found with an opened artery in his neck and was pronounced dead on 19 November 1798. He was buried with his ancestors in Bodenstown Churchyard, County Kildare.

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