John Philpot Curran, the celebrated orator and patriot, had attached himself, in his political career, to the Whig Party: but his theoretical principles went much farther. And when the march of the Administration to despotism was pronounced – when the persecution began – I know that in the years 1794 and 1795, and particularly, at the Drogheda Assizes, in the former year, and on occasion of the trial of Bird and Hamill, where they were both employed as counsel, he opened his mind to my father; and that on the main point – on the necessity of breaking the connection with England – they agreed. Curran prudently and properly confined himself to those legal exertions at the bar, where his talents were so eminently useful, and where he left an imperishable monument to his own and to his country’s fame. It was well that there remained one place, and one man, through which the truth might sometimes be heard. He avoided committing himself in the Councils of the United Irishmen; but, had the project of liberating Ireland succeeded, he would have been amongst the foremost to hail and join her independence. On this occasion, joining his efforts to those of M Peter Burrowes, he nobly exerted himself to save his friend.
The sentence of my father was evidently illegal. Curran knew, however, very well that, by bringing the case before the proper tribunal, the result would ultimately be the same – that he could not be acquitted. But then, the delays of the law might be brought in play, and the all important point, of gaining time, would be obtained. The French Government could not, in honour, but interfere, and the case, from a mere legal, would become a political one. In politics my father had many adversaries, but few personal enemies; in private and public life, he was generally beloved and respected; his moderation, too, was known and appreciated by those who feared a revolution, and trusted to him, as a mediator, if such an event was to take place. In short, it did not appear a matter of impossibility to have finally saved him, by some agreement with the Government. Determined to form a bar for his defence, and bring the case before the Court of King’s Bench, then sitting, and presided by Lord Kilwarden, a man of the purest and most benevolent virtue, and who always tempered justice with mercy, Curran endeavoured, the whole day of the 11th, to raise a subscription for this purpose. But terror had closed every door; and, I have it from his own lips, that even among the Catholic leaders, many of them wealthy, no one dared to subscribe. Curran then determined to proceed alone. On this circumstance no comment can be expected from the son of Theobald Wolfe Tone. Those men had behaved nobly towards him, in former times, almost as perilous. The universal dread must be their excuse.
On the next day, 12th November, (the day fixed for his execution,) the scene in the Court of King’s Bench was awful and impressive to the highest degree. As soon as it opened, Curran advanced, leading the aged father of Tone, who produced his affidavit, that his son had been brought before a bench of officers, calling itself a Court Martial, and sentenced to death. "I do not pretend," said Curran, "that Mr Tone is not guilty of the charges of which he is accused. I presume the officers were honourable men. But it is stated in this affidavit, as a solemn fact, that Mr Tone had no commission under his Majesty; and, therefore, no Court Martial could have cognisance of any crime imputed to him, whilst the Court of King’s Bench sate in the capacity of the Great Criminal Court of the land. In times when war was raging, when man was opposed to man in the field, Courts Martial might be endured; but every law authority principle of the Constitution, that martial law and civil law are incompatible, and that the former must cease with the existence of the latter. This is not, however, the time for arguing this momentous question. My client must appear in this Court. He is cast for death this very day. He may be ordered for execution whilst I address you. I call on the Court to support the law, and move for a Habeas Corpus, to be directed to the Provost Marshal of the barracks of Dublin, and Major Sandys, to bring up the body of Tone."
Chief Justice: "Have a writ instantly prepared."
Curran: "My client may die, whilst the writ is preparing."
Chief Justice: Mr Sheriff, proceed to the barracks, and acquaint the Provost Marshal that a writ is preparing to suspend Mr Tone’s execution, and see that he be not executed."
The Court awaited, in a state of the utmost agitation and suspense, the return of the Sheriff. He speedily reappeared, and said, "My Lord, I have been to the barracks, in pursuance of your order. The Provost Marshall says he must obey Major Sandys. Major Sandys says he must obey Lord Cornwallis." Mr Curran announced, at the same time, that Mr Tone, the father, was just returned, after serving the habeas corpus, and that General Craig would not obey it. The Chief Justice exclaimed, "Mr Sheriff, take the body of Tone into custody – take the Provost Marshal and Major Sandys into custody, and show the order of the Court to General Craig."
The general impression was now, that the prisoner would be led out to execution, in defiance of the Court. This apprehension was legible in the countenance of Lord Kilwarden, a man who, in the worst of times, preserved a religious respect for the laws, and who, besides, I may add, felt every personal feeling of pity and respect for the prisoner, whom he had formerly contributed to shield from the vengeance of Government, on an occasion almost as perilous. His agitation, according to the expression of an eye-witness, was magnificent.
The Sheriff returned at length with the fatal news. He had been refused admittance in the barracks; but was informed, that Mr Tone, who had wounded himself dangerously the night before, was not in a condition to be removed. A French emigrant Surgeon, who had closed the wound, was called in, and declared there was no saying, for four days, whether it was mortal. His head was to be kept in one position, and a sentinel was set over him, to prevent his speaking. Removal would kill him at once. The Chief Justice instantly ordered a rule for suspending the execution.
I must collect my strength to give the remaining details of the close of my father’s life. The secrets of a State prison, and of such as were those of Dublin, at that period, are seldom penetrated; and the facts which have reached us, are few and meagre. As soon as he learned the refusal of his last request, his determination was taken, with the same resolution and coolness which he exhibited during the whole transaction. In order to spare the feelings of his parents and friends, he refused to see any one, and requested only the use of writing materials. During the 10th and 11th of November, he addressed the Directory, the Minister of Marine, General Kilmaine, and Mr Shee, in France, and several of his friends in Ireland, to recommend his family to their care. I here insert a translation of his letter to the Directory, the only one of which we obtained a copy.
"FROM THE PROVOST’S PRISON, DUBLIN,
"20th Brumaire, 7th year of the Republic,
"(10th November, 1798.)
"The Adjutant General Theobald Wolfe Tone, (called Smith,) to the Executive Directory of the French Republic.
. "The English Government having determined not to respect my rights as a French citizen and officer, and summoned me before a court martial, I have been sentenced to death. In those circumstances, I request you to accept my thanks for the confidence with which you have honoured me, and which, in a moment like this, I venture to say I well deserved. I have served the Republic faithfully, and my death, as well as that of my brother, a victim like myself, and condemned in the same manner about a month ago, will sufficiently prove it. I hope the circumstances in which I stand will warrant me, Citizen Directors, in supplicating you to consider the fate of a virtuous wife and of three infant children, who had no other support, and, in losing me, will be reduced to the extreme of misery. I venture, on such an occasion, to recall to your remembrance, that I was expelled from my own country in consequence of my attempts to serve the Republic; that, on the invitation of the French Government, I came to France; that ever since I had the honour to enter the French service, I have faithfully, and with the approbation of all my Chiefs, performed my duty; finally, that I have sacrificed for the Republic all that man holds dearest – my wife, my children, my liberty, my life. In these circumstances, I confidently call on your justice and humanity in favour of my family, assured that you will not abandon them. It is the greatest consolation which remains to me in dying.
"TW TONE, (called Smith,)
He then, with a firm hand and heart, penned the two following letters to my mother:
"PROSVOST PRISON – DUBLIN BARRACKS,
"Le Brumaire, an 7, (10th Nov) 1798
"The hour is at last come, when we must part. As no words can express what I feel for you and our children, I shall not attempt it; complaint, of any kind, would be beneath your courage and mine; be assured I will die as I have lived, and that you will have no cause to blush for me.
"I have written on your behalf to the French Government, to the Minister of Marine, to General Kilmaine, and to Mr Shee; with the latter I wish you especially to advise. In Ireland, I have written to your brother Harry, and to those of my friends who are about to go into exile, and who, I am sure, will not abandon you.
"Adieu, dearest love: I find it impossible to finish this letter. Give my love to Mary; and, above all things, remember that you are now the only parent of our dearest children, and that the best proof of our dearest children, and that the best proof you can give of your affection for me, will be to preserve yourself for their education. God Almighty bless you all.
"PS. I think you have a friend in Wilson, (5) who will not desert you."
"Adieu, dearest love. Keep your courage, as I have kept mine; my mind is as tranquil this moment as at any period of my life. Cherish my memory; and especially, preserve your health and spirits for the sake of our dearest children.
T WOLFE TONE
"11th November, 1798."
It is said, that, on the evening of that very day, he could see and hear the soldiers erecting the gallows for him before his windows. That very night, according to the report given by his jailers, having secreted a penknife, he inflicted a deep wound across his neck. It was soon discovered, by the sentry, and a surgeon called in at four o’clock in the morning, who stopped the blood and closed it. He reported, that, as the prisoner had missed the cartoid artery, he might yet survive, but was in the extremest danger. It is said, that he murmured only in reply. "I am sorry I have been so bad an anatomist." Let me draw a veil over the remainder of this scene.
Stretched on his bloody pallet in a dungeon, the first apostle of Irish union, and most illustrious martyr of Irish independence, counted each lingering hour during the last seven days and nights of his slow and silent agony. No one was allowed to approach him. Far from his adored family, and from all those friends whom he loved so dearly, the only form which flitted before his eyes, were those of the grim gaoler and rough attendants of the prison; the only sounds which fell on his dying ear, the heavy thread of the sentry. He retained, however, the calmness of his soul, and the possession of his faculties, to the last. And the consciousness of dying for his country, and in the cause of justice and liberty, illumined, like a bright halo, his latest moments, and kept up his fortitude to the end. There is no situation, under which those feelings will not support the soul of a patriot.
On the morning of the 19th November, he was seized with the spasms of approaching death. It is said that the surgeon who attended, whispered that, if he attempted to move or speak, he must expire instantly; that he overheard him, and, making a slight movement, replied, "I can yet find words to thank you, sir; it is the most welcome news you could give me. What should I wish to live for?" Falling back, with these expressions on his lips, he expired without further effort.
On closing this painful and dreadful narrative, I must allude to some hints which I have heard from a most respectable and well informed quarter, that, in consequence of the attempts to withdraw him from the jurisdiction of the military tribunals, my father’s end may have been precipitated by the hands of his jailers, and that, to conceal their crime, they spread the report of his voluntary death. It is certainly not my duty to exculpate them. That his end was voluntary, his determination, previous to his leaving France, which was known to us, and the tenor of his last letters, incline me to believe. Neither is it likely that Major Sandys, and his experienced satellites, would perform a murder in so bungling a way as to allow their victim to survive the attempt during eight days. If this was the case, his death can never be considered as a suicide; it was merely the resolution of a noble mind, to disappoint, by his own act, the brutal ferocity of his enemies, and avoid the indignity of their touch.
But, on the other side, it cannot be denied, that the character of these men would warrant the worst conclusion. The details of my father’s death and last words, only reached the public ear through their reports; no one was allowed to approach him after his wound; no medical attendant to come near him, except the prison surgeon, a foreigner, and French emigrant (6) Why was no coroner’s inquest held on his body, as was held on Jackson’s, in the very court where he died? The resistance which was opposed by the military to the warrant of the Chief Justice, was indecorous and violent in the extreme; nor was it till compelled by the firmness of Lord Kilwarden to give way, that they acknowledged the wound of their prisoner, though, according to their own report, it had been inflicted during the preceding night. Was it possible, that fearing the interference of the civil courts, they hastened his end? Or, what would be more atrocious still, admitting the fact that he had wounded himself, did they intend to conceal it, and to glut their mean and ferocious revenge, and insult their dying enemy, who had thought to escape their indignities, by dragging him out, in that state, and executing him with their own hands? That their preparations continued till interrupted by the interference of superior authority; that the wound of their prisoner was anxiously concealed, as long as possible; and that no one, even afterwards, was allowed to approach and speak to him during his long agony, are certain facts.
Between these dreadful suspicions, the reader must judge for himself. As for what passed within the Provost’s prison, it must remain forever amongst the guilty and bloody mysteries of that pandemonium. If charges of so black and bloody a nature, can be adduced, with any appearance of probability, against the agents of the Irish Government, the violence, cruelty, and lawless proceedings, in which they were indulged with perfect impunity, by their employers, not only warrant them, but give them too tremendous a probability. As for my part, I have merely stated, as I have though the whole of this work, in the fairest and fullest manner, the facts which have reached us, without any comment of my own.
Contents of Life of Wolfe Tone