“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 objectives. 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.”– Theobald Wolfe Tone
One of the oldest plaques in Dublin on street level must be that marking the birthplace and boyhood home of republican icon Theobald Wolfe Tone. The plaque is on the Axa Insurance building on what is today known as Wolfe Tone Street but was formerly Stafford Street.
Henry Boylan, biographer of Tone, has noted that:
Tone’s background and education in no way foreshadowed his romantic and tragic life. His father, Peter Tone, was a coachmaker and the son of a prosperous freehold tenant on the estate of the Wolfes of Blackhall, near Clane, in Co. Kildare. He called his first-born after the young squire, Theobald Wolfe.
The National Library of Ireland have a fantastic image of Stafford Street from between 1880 and 1900, which was taken by Robert French. The street was crucially important to the development of Tone as a youngster, and he was also educated in a school on Stafford Street, noting in his memoirs that he learnt Latin and Greek at this school. In time Tone’s father would lose not only his home on Stafford Street but another property owned at Summerhill, with Tone noting in his memoirs that both ‘were sold much under their value’ in an hour of financial need.
A plaque was placed on the boyhood home of Wolfe Tone by the ‘1798 Centenary Committee’, which was established to mark the centenary of the 1798 rebellion. Among those involved in the organising of events to mark this centenary were Maud Gonne, James Connolly and W.B Yeats. A beautiful coloured certificate associated with The Wolfe Tone and Ninety Eight Memorial Association recently came up for auction at Whyte’s in a lot of items connected to the centenary.
A leading-light in the United Irishmen movement which first consisted of liberal Protestants aligned to the constitutional reforms demanded by Henry Grattan, but which later turned to militant revolutionary republicanism, the combination of Tone’s writings and his romanticised role in the uprising of 1798 has led to him frequently being regarded as the ‘father of Irish republicanism’. The centenary of the uprising in 1898 was a significant moment for Irish nationalism, and as Yvonne Whelan has noted it “provided an opportunity for nationalists to commemorate what they saw as Ireland’s loyalty not to Britain but to Irish heroes and the struggle against British rule.”
On 15 August 1898, ‘Wolfe Tone Day’, 100,000 people came onto the streets to see the laying of the foundation stone for a monument dedicated to Wolfe Tone. The foundation stone began its journey in Belfast, in many ways the ideological birthplace of Irish republicanism as it was there that the United Irishmen were formed. The placing of a plaque on the birthplace of Tone then was not a ‘one off event’, but part of a broader period of commemoration.
Today, the plaque bears all the signs of its historic lifespan, notice for example that several letters are now missing from the piece:
Coincidentally, the Wolfe Tone statue for which a foundation stone was laid in 1898 was never completed. It was not until 1967 that Tone would finally have a statue in the city, thanks to the sculptor Edward Delaney. In 1971 this statue was targeted by loyalist extremists, just like Wolfe Tone’s grave in Bodenstown which was also bombed. Newspaper reports noted that “the statue was wrecked, leaving only the base. Huge slabs of the bronze sculpture were hurled 20 feet in the air.” The irony in the statue of a Dublin Protestant, who had been instrumental in establishing his political movement in Belfast, falling victim to a Northern Irish bomb was lost on few!