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Theobald Wolfe Tone

Theobald Wolfe Tone (Dublin, 1763 - Dublin, 1798) arrived in the U.S. on August 1, 1795 with the stated intention of earning a living from farming. But the revolutionary bug was too strong. He quickly contacted the French minister to the U.S., Pierre Auguste Adet, who arranged Tone’s passage to Le Havre under the assumed name of James Smith on January 1, 1796. Wolfe Tone arrived alone in Paris on February 12, 1796, where he was to stay until the following September. On the boat from the US, he had fallen in with a penniless French aristocrat called Aristide Du Petit Thouars. Wolfe Tone lent Du Petit Thouars some money, and in return, the latter showed him the main sights in Paris, including the Pantheon. The two men climbed to the roof of the newly-secularised monument on March 1, "from whence we could see all Paris, as in a ground plan, together with the country for several leagues around...there being a foot of snow on the ground...It was the most singular spectacle I had ever seen."

Having left wife and children in the U.S., how did Wolfe Tone spend those seven months in Paris, after this initial introduction to the city by Du Petit Thouars? If his diaries are anything to go by, he balanced his time between listlessness, increasing impecuniousness, battles with French officialdom and visits to the opera and theatre. He also visited the Louvre, newly converted into the Museum Central des Arts, and spent time browsing among book stalls.

rue Vivienne, Byrne
Near Hôtel des Etrangers on r. de Vivienne
Tone stayed first at one of the grandest hotels in Paris, the Hôtel des Etrangers, which stood at present-day 15, rue de Vivienne (2nd arrondissement). It is “a magnificent house”,  he writes, “but I foresee as dear as the devil.” Yet to celebrate his arrival in the French capital he treated himself to dinner at the Restaurant de Beauvilliers close by in the Palais Royal. This was one of the very first and most prestigious French restaurants. Tone chose “soup, roast fowl, fried carp, salad of two kinds, a bottle of Burgundy, coffee after dinner and a glass of liqueur with excellent bread (I forgot we had colliflowers [sic] in sauce).”

After having contacted the U.S. ambassador, James Munroe, the foreign ministry and a couple of local United Irishmen (most notably Nicholas Madgett, who worked as a translator at the foreign ministry), Tone seems to have had plenty of time to frequent the opera. But Tone quickly grew lonely. From February 18 to February 20, 1796, he notes that he “dined alone every day”. By mid-March, many entries in his diary begin with the word “blank”. On March 16, for example, he writes: “Blank! Dined alone in the Champs-Elysées." The following day, the one-line entry reads “Patrick’s Day. Dined alone in the Champs Elysées. Sad! Sad!” And the day after, “Blank – theatre in the evening.”

     Menu from Restaurant de Beauvilliers             copied by Wolfe Tone in his diary
According to his biographer, Marianne Elliott, it was Wolfe Tone’s tactic from the outset to remain totally isolated so as to preserve secrecy. Indeed, his success was so complete in this respect that the British authorities did not learn of his presence in Paris until 1797. But during those early months in the French capital, Tone had no source of income. On April 20, he left the Hôtel des Etrangers, where, he writes, he had been “fleeced like 10,000 devils” and moved into much more modest accommodation at 7, petite rue Saint Roch, in the Poissonière district (street, in present-day 2nd arrondissement, no longer exists), where a fellow Irishman, John Aherne, was staying. But Wolfe Tone soon had problems there with his landlady, Mme. Brivetand they were not all of a monetary variety. On July 4, 1796, Wolfe Tone writes: “I want to change my domicile. I am lodged in the house of a little bossue, and she wants me to go to bed with her, and I won’t, for my virtue forbids it, and so she is out of humour and very troublesome sometimes. To tell the God’s truth, I have no great merit in my resistance, for she is as crooked as a ram’s horn…and as ugly as sin beside.”

On July 6, he notes that he is down to his last two louis. But help was as hand: after much dilly-dallying, the French finally found him a military commission as chef de brigade, and at the end of July they provided him with three month’s advance pay. He left for Brest shortly afterwards and partook in General Lazare Hoche’s hapless Bantry Bay expedition in December 1796. In 2012, the original 
version of the proclamation that Wolfe Tone intended to make once he landed in Bantry Bay was found by a historian in a deplorable condition and gathering dust in the military archives in Vincennes. Tone writes: "We come amongst you not as enemies to invade...not to reduce you to a state of dependence upon France, but to break the chains which have so long bound you in subjection to England, and to raise you from the abject state of a province to the rule and dignity of a free nation." Ya, right......

Tone made it back to Paris a chastened man on January 13, 1797. His mission had failed, he was short of cash, he had nowhere he could call home and the trunk containing his possessions did not turn up until the end of February. With the Paris Irish he had nothing in common, finding them “sad, vulgar wretches, and I have been used to rather better company in all respects”. He spent his first days back in Paris unhappily chez Mme. Boivert. For another short period, he stayed at the Hôtel des Etats-Unis in the rue de Tournon (6th arrondissement) near the Luxembourg gardens, before moving to the rue de Clery (2nd arrondissement), back on the Right Bank of the Seine. But by the end of March, Tone had left Paris again to join General Hoche’s army on the Rhine.

Site of cul-de-sac de Notre-Dame-des-Champs

By this time, his wife and family had arrived in Europe from the United States. In Paris, they first stayed with an Irish colonel called Henry Shee in Nanterre, then moved to 139, cul-de-sac de Notre-Dames-des-Champs (street no longer exists, situated in present-day 6th arrondissement). But after falling out with the landlady, they moved to no. 29, rue des Batailles in the Chaillot district on the Right Bank (street no longer exists, situated in present-day 16th arrondissement).

After some time in Holland wistfully preparing for another Irish expedition, Tone was back in Paris in October 1797 and met Napoleon for the first time two months later. On March 25, 1798, Wolfe Tone received orders to join the Armée de l’Angleterre in Rouen. Just over six months later, the ship that was meant to disembark him in Lough Swilly was apprehended by the Royal Navy. Tone died of self-inflicted injuries in prison on November 18th, 1798. After his death, Tone’s family is recorded as living at 751, rue Plumet in the modern-day 15th arrondissement. The French government granted Tone’s widow an annual pension of FF1,200, increased to FF2,400 in 1811. His son, William, trained at the Imperial Cavalry School in Saint Germain outside Paris, and won the Légion d’Honneur for his courage during the Battle of Leipzig in October 1813. He, like his mother, supported Napoleon during the 100 Days, which perhaps explains why they both left France for the U.S. in 1816.


Select Bibliography
Service Historique de la Défense
Wolfe Tone files, Dossiers 16y(d), 17y(d)14, 11B(2) and (3)

Partners in Revolution: The United Irishmen and France (1989)
Marianne Elliott

Wolfe Tone, Prophet of Irish Independence (1989)
Marianne Elliott 

The Autobiography of Theobald Wolfe Tone, 1763-1798 (1893)
Ed. R. Barry O’Brien

Life of Theobald Wolfe Tone, written by himself and continued by his son (1826)
Ed. William Theobald Wolfe Tone

The Writings of Theobald Wolfe Tone, volumes II and III (2001-2007)
Ed. T.W. Moody, R.B. McDowell, C.J. Woods 

"A Rough Guide to Revolutionary Paris: Wolfe Tone as an Accidental Tourist"
Sylvie Kleinman in History Ireland, March/April 2008 (vol. 16, no. 2)

"Un brave de plus: Theobald Wolfe Tone, alias Adjutant-general James SmithFrench officer and Irish patriot adventurer, 1796-8"
Sylvie Kleinman in:
Franco-Irish Military Connections, 1590-1945  (2009)