London — An historically important copy of the speech made by Wolfe Tone at his court martial – following his arrest during the 1798 Irish Rising – is to be offered at Bonhams Fine Books and Manuscripts sale in London on Wednesday 26 June. It is among a file of documents relating to the rebellion kept by George Hewitt, Adjutant-General of the British Army in Ireland 1791-99 and Commander-in-Chief of Ireland, 1813-16. The documents are estimated at £10,000-15,000.
Wolfe Tone (1763-1798) is regarded as the father of Irish Republicanism. A founding member of the Society of United Irishmen, he led the 1798 Irish Rebellion against British rule. Poorly organized and lacking the promised level of support from the French, who were waging war with Britain on land and sea elsewhere, the rebellion was put down relatively swiftly by British troops. Tone and his fellow rebel leaders were arrested and tried for treason.
Tone’s speech at the court martial has a special place in the long history of Irish independence, especially the closing words which he was prevented from uttering by the judge. ‘I will not detain you longer, I have attempted to establish the independence of my country; I have failed in the attempt; my life is in consequence forfeited & I submit’. Tone was found guilty of treason, but died in prison before the sentence of execution could be carried out.
Consultant Felix Pryor, who catalogued the documents for Bonhams, said, ‘The original manuscript of Wolfe Tone's speech to the court martial no longer exists. This official government transcript copied out at the time is therefore likely to be the closest we will ever get to what Wolfe said and what he intended to say before he was cut short by the judge.”
Other documents in the file include:
• A printed proclamation headed, ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, Union’ issued by the French General Jean Hardy, reassuring the Irish people of France’s continued ‘desire to avenge your wrongs and assure your independence.’ Only one other copy of the proclamation is known to exist, housed in the National Library of Ireland.
• Two handwritten memoranda on the defence of Ulster by the Commander in Chief of Tyrone, General John Knox, showing the effectiveness of the British intelligence operation and correctly identifying Lough Swilly as the location of the French invasion. Knox wrote ‘The Experience of this year has proved that the body of the people of Ulster are inimical to Government, & are ready to rise into rebellion whenever an opportunity presents itself.’
• A transcription of the celebrated speech by Tone’s fellow Rising leader, Bartholomew Teeling, which he intended to make at his court martial, but was forbidden from doing so. It includes the famous peroration: ‘If to have been active in endeavouring to put a stop to the blood-thirsty policy of an oppressive Government has been treason, I am guilty.’