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For sale: Wolfe Tone's handwritten speech from the dock

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Wolfe Tone

Wolfe Tone

Wolfe Tone

A 1798 proclamation and a previously unknown handwritten copy of Wolfe Tone's speech from the dock before his death sentence will be auctioned next weekend.

A treasure trove of manuscripts from the bloody rebellion that convulsed Ireland 222 years ago are among the lots offered by Whyte's Auctioneers in Dublin next Saturday.

The speech in Tone's handwriting and other historical documents had remained in the possession of the descendants of General Sir George Hewett, who was adjutant general of the British army in Ireland in 1798. Among papers quietly snapped up at auction in London last year, they will now be auctioned separately in Dublin.

An estimate of €50,000 to €70,000 has been placed on Tone's speech. He was a barrister and a writer who often kept handwritten copies of his papers and letters.

In his address to the Court Martial, he states the independence of his country had been the great object of his life. A founding member of the United Irishmen, Tone told the court: "I have laboured... to create a people in Ireland by raising three millions of my countrymen to the rank of citizens."

Born into a Church of Ireland family in Dublin in 1763, he had tried to "abolish the infernal spirit of religious persecution by uniting the Catholics and the dissenters [Presbyterians]".

Having helped to persuade France to send troops to aid the fight for Irish independence, Tone became an adjutant-general in the French army, and was arrested after French naval ships surrendered in November 1798 following a fierce naval battle off the Donegal coast.

Tone was taken to Dublin and faced a charge of high treason. He told the court that he sought French help to achieve an independent Ireland and he knew that failure meant he had forfeited his life.

He handed his handwritten speech into the court and it has remained in official British archives in Kew since then. The National Library of Ireland has a microfilm copy of it. But it has now emerged he had written out a copy of his speech in his prison cell which was kept by General Hewett.

Dr Sylvie Kleinman, a researcher affiliated to the Department of History in Trinity College said that French archives showed Tone played a pivotal role in French military aid to the Irish rebellion. Comparing the UK copy in Tone's hand with the one for sale, she said they were a mirror image.

Tone's writings were published by his son William in Washington in 1826. Dr Kleinman said Tone was a gifted writer and his diary was "lively, sad, funny, despondent, hopeful, almost like a blog. Tone wrote what he felt and what he observed in others. Sometimes far from sober".

Tone asked the court for an officer's execution by firing squad but the court declared he should be "hanged, his head to be struck off, fixed on a pike, and placed in the most conspicuous part of the city".

Tone slashed his throat in his cell and died several days later. "One could say he robbed Dublin Castle of the spectacle of his death," said Dr Kleinman. This newly discovered copy of his speech is a symbolic reminder of what she called Ireland's first failed revolution, which inspired the 1916 generation.

Also being auctioned in the Hewett papers is a 1798 Proclamation which was distributed in the West of Ireland by the French military. Referring to the 1796 French attempt at a military intervention, it states: "Irishmen! You have not forgotten Bantry Bay!" France desired to "avenge your wrongs and assure your independence".

The French and Irish rebel force was finally defeated at Ballinamuck in Co Longford. It is estimated around 30,000 died during the Rebellion,.

Whyte's lists an estimate of €8,000 to €12,000 for this proclamation and states there is only one other example in the National Museum.

Sunday Independent