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  • Matilda Tone in America:Exile, Gender, and Memory in the Making of Irish Republican Nationalism
  • David Brundage

On October 8, 1996, a small gathering organized by the Irish-American Labor Coalition took place in Brooklyn's Greenwood Cemetery to honor a long-dead Irish republican named Matilda Tone. Though wind and rain marred the occasion, several dozen people looked on as Mary Robinson, president of the Republic of Ireland, unveiled a painstakingly restored headstone marking Tone's grave and eulogized her for her efforts to lead Ireland toward a "nonsectarian, democratic and inclusive politics."1 Referring to the dedication of statues of Eleanor Roosevelt and the jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald that had occurred just days earlier, the Irish president observed that it was "a good week for women in New York City."2

Despite the valiant efforts of Robinson and the Irish-American Labor Coalition, however, the critically important contribution of Matilda Tone to the making of Irish republican nationalism remains largely unknown. Though discussed in biographies of her husband, the United Irishman Theobald Wolfe Tone, and in an important essay by Nancy J. Curtin, Matilda Tone's name does not appear in any of the general histories of Irish nationalism.3 Nor do other Irish republican women of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries receive much attention in such works. The still prevalent historical "mindset," as Mary Cullen has put it, "that sees males as the active agents of change in human history and females almost solely in support and follower roles" is [End Page 96] undoubtedly the main cause of this neglect.4 But also contributing to this omission has been the tendency of most historians of Irish nationalism—and other nationalist movements—to focus on political action and leadership, rather than on cultural activity and representation, a focus that has almost inevitably privileged the role of men over women.

On this last point, however, current historiography is changing. Historians are increasingly attentive to nationalism as, among other things, a kind of cultural project, and especially to the ways in which nationalist activists and intellectuals have used memories of the past to build movements in the present. Nationalists in many times and places have deployed books, speeches, stories, songs, poems, paintings, and monuments to cultivate and refresh memories of past oppressions and struggles, typically lavishing particular attention on the heroes and martyrs of such struggles.5 In the case of Irish republican nationalism, the Irish diaspora in the United States has been especially prominent. The "American connection," as Jack Holland termed it, was never just a matter of "guns, money, and influence."6 Even more important was the fact that the American Irish were often the main proprietors of collective memory. They began to assume this role early in the nineteenth century—well before the Famine—with the activities of members of the Society of United Irishmen who were exiled to America following their defeat in the bloody rebellion of 1798. These exiles, mainly middle-class and often Protestant, built societies devoted to Irish independence, organized nationalist banquets and parades in American cities, and published a steady stream of books and pamphlets designed to keep the memory of separatist republicanism alive and well in America even as it grew dimmer in Ireland itself.7

But it was not one of the United Irishmen, but Matilda Tone, widow of the organization's leading propagandist and strategist, who turned out to be the most important figure in this regard. Her painstaking efforts to bring her late [End Page 97] husband's contributions to light culminated in the 1826 publication of a mammoth two-volume work, the Life of Theobald Wolfe Tone. It was on the basis of this book that Wolfe Tone was constructed as the potent hero and symbol he became to subsequent generations of Irish republicans on both sides of the Atlantic. In fact, Matilda Tone's labor in compiling, editing, and publishing this foundational text was arguably one of the Irish diaspora's greatest contributions to the making of republican nationalism.8

This point, however, is not the only reason to study her efforts: such a study also illuminates the centrality of gender for an understanding...


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