Honoring Matilda and Willam Tone in Brooklyn

By Gerry Regan
for The Wild Geese

WGT Photo/Gerry Regan
With piper Chris Heinl in the fore, members of the Brooklyn Irish American Parade Committee head off to honor Matilda and William Tone at Green-Wood Cemetery. Carrying the American flag is Joe Ferris, and the tricolor is Kevin Peter Carroll. (Click for close-up view.)

BROOKLYN, N.Y. -- August 26 -- The success of the American Revolution, against long odds, did not go unnoticed in long-suffering Ireland. The colonists' defeat of the British, despite the setback here at the Battle of Brooklyn, planted a seed that has inspired generations of Irish nationalists yearning to cast off British dominion.

So it seemed fitting that time was taken during 12 days of commemorating the battle here to honor the widow and son of one of Ireland's most hallowed revolutionaries, Theobald Wolfe Tone.

In the heart of the one-time city of Brooklyn lies Green-Wood Cemetery, created in 1838 and still one of the world's most magnificent and historic cemeteries. In the heart of the cemetery lie the graves of Matilda and William Tone, Tone's widow and son.

What have you got in your hand?
A green bough.
Where did it first grow?
In America.
Where did it bud?
In France.
Where are you going to plant it?
In the crown of Great Britain.
-- From the United Irish catechism

Matilda and her son came to the New World after the death of Wolfe Tone in a British prison. She died in the city in March 1849, at the age of 79. She survived her son, William, by 21 years.

On a brilliantly warm and sunny day here, about 36 individuals marched to the Tones' graves, in a tribute organized by the Brooklyn Irish American Parade Committee. The committee, with 50 members, has worked since 1975 to remember the Irish in the Battle of Brooklyn and to honor the Irish for their vast contributions to the United States, to Brooklyn, and to the city and state of New York.

"Today, we remember one of the great Irishmen, Wolfe Tone," said Joe Ferris, the Committee's historian, at the grave site. He introduced WGT columnist and Irish Brigade Association co-founder Charlie Laverty, who spoke about Matilda Tone's emigration to America and her new life here, but perhaps most poignantly of the disrepair of the grave of Matilda Tone, who, in losing Wolfe, gave so much to the cause of Irish freedom.

Wolfe Tone was born in Dublin in 1764, and educated at Trinity College, Dublin. He was called to the Irish Bar in 1789 and a few years later, with Thomas Russell and William Drennan, founded the Society of the United Irishmen. Though a Presbyterian, he became assistant secretary of the Catholic Committee in 1792, and worked to overcome the religious discord that Britain manipulated to weaken Ireland's cause. He was expelled from Ireland for his intrigues against England, and spent part of his exile in America.

WGT Photo/Gerry Regan
Chuck Laverty by the grave of Matilda Tone.

Tone then made several journeys to France and convinced -- several times -- the French revolutionary government to aid a rebellion in Ireland. Three of these expeditions failed, and Tone himself was captured in Lough Swilly with the French transports on the third effort, in September 1798. He was convicted of treason, and cut his own throat in Dublin before the British could hang him.

With Tone and most of the rebellion's other leaders either dead or in prison, the British snuffed out the light of liberty in Ireland for more than 100 years. The Rising of '98 is one of Ireland's most tragic events. In the space of just a few short months that summer, about 30,000 people were killed. Many of the dead were peasants who charged cannons armed with farm implements or crude pikes, and a significant number of them were women.

"I've been here since 1960 with (the late Irish Northern Aid activist) Michael Flannery, and other rascals of that type, real revolutionaries all," Laverty recalled, smiling, saying he even had to unearth adjacent grave markers to read them. He noted with satisfaction that finally, three years ago, a coalition of New York Irish groups finally had Matilda's gravestone refurbished, and rededicated by then-Irish President Mary Robinson.

Committee Chairwoman Kathleen McDonagh announced at the site that the Tone commemoration would become an annual event. A week earlier, the Committee organized a commemoration of Irish-born Brig. Gen. Edward Hand and the 'Maryland 400,' who helped save Washington's army from destruction by repeated attacks against a much larger British force.

For more information on Wolfe Tone, visit:

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Tags: Diaspora History, Matilda Tone, Military History, Revolutionary War, United States, Wolfe Tone

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