Historical entertainer Paddy Cullivan told Cara Treacy why he feels Irish revolutionary Wolfe Tone did not take his own life and was actually murdered ahead of his show on the matter coming to the ICC in Hammersmith.
It is 225 years since Wolfe Tone died.
Wolfe Tone was an Irish revolutionary who has been described as the father of Irish republicanism. One of the founding members of the United Irishmen, he went on to lead the 1798 Irish Rebellion. He was arrested and convicted for his involvement and sentenced to death. He requested to be shot but was instead sentenced to be hung.
However, he would not make it as far as the gallows, being found dead in his cell from a wound in his neck, supposedly a suicide. But the nature of his death raises questions for many with some asking what happened when he was waiting to be hanged.
For Paddy Cullivan, the disputed death of Wolfe Tone is a question of great interest – suicide or murder? This is the question he poses in his engaging live show, The Murder of Wolfe Tone which comes to the Hammersmith Irish Cultural Centre this month.
Paddy Cullivan is a historical entertainer who has performed throughout Ireland and beyond, presenting intriguing investigations into previously accepted historical events. He has a particular interest in the deaths of great Irish revolutionaries, as indicated by his current shows. Another show explores the mysterious death of Micheal Collins. Paddy brought The Murder of Michael Collins to the ICC in Hammersmith last year and it also returns this month.
A legendary figure of Irish history, Wolfe Tone sought to emancipate Ireland from Roman Catholic rule and the British. In a time of great social turbulence across the world, he hoped to spark revolution in his homeland.
On 19 November 1798, Wolfe Tone was declared dead and the cause of death was judged to be suicide but no death certificate was ever published. The story frays from there, becoming increasingly dubious as Cullivan explores the days between Wolfe Tone’s capture and death.
How did your interest with Wolfe Tone and Irish history start?
“My dad was hugely into Irish History, as was my granddad, who actually was part of the war of independence. It runs through a lot of Irish families, this love of history.
“When the 2016 centenary came along, I just wanted to go back and start doing shows that explored some of these unanswered questions that we somehow have avoided in Ireland.
“There’s always been a thing in Ireland, of deference to the results of history.”
Why are the deaths of Wolfe Tone and Micheal Collins so mysterious?
“Everything in [Micheal Collins’] story is strange: No inquest, no inquiry, no death cert. The Wolfe Tone story is also similar. For eight days he languished in a prison after supposedly trying commit suicide but he was never visited. The letters he wrote, while supposedly alive, were not in his own hand.
“And we never actually found the murder weapon, which was the razor left there by his brother, which is an impossible story as well. But historians have somehow neglected this and just looked at his diaries and said, ‘Oh, yes, he always wanted to commit suicide’.
“But I look deeper. So imagine a true crime podcast with 300 images, songs, humour but also a real investigation. This is a real reopening of the case live on stage.”
What do you feel now is the modern relevance of Wolfe Tone and of Michael Collins and their deaths to people?
“With both of them, you’re not just killing a person, you’re killing an idea. It is the idea of a free and independent Ireland, and everyone on that island getting on with each other.
“You have seen that with partitions around the world, or all of these things. And essentially, what Michael Collins and Wolfe Tone were saying was, ‘No, let’s all live together’.
“And their message would work in a modern context in Ireland, Israel, India or anywhere like that.
“They wanted to unify everybody, and their message is still relevant to this day. It’s not about identity. It’s not about what separates us as human beings, it’s what should unite us.
Do you feel that cultural unity is important in the modern day?
“I think it’s hugely important. It’s why you have an Irish Cultural Centre in Hammersmith. You retain your identity, but you do it as part of a greater fabric of community.
“I think it’s so important that we don’t ‘other’ each other. I think Wolfe Tone’s great message was not in fighting for the rights of Catholics, which he did do. He was a Protestant but he fought for Catholic Emancipation. But he wanted to replace every denomination, Catholic, Protestant and dissenter with the name Irishman. And I think that’s a wonderful message.
“It’s like a stand up comedy show with imagery.
I call it historical entertainment.”
“We’ve got to help each other and we’ve got to help immigrants. Wolfe Tone himself was an immigrant and Michael Collins lived in London for 12 years. You’ve got to live and learn about each other in order to trust and help each other.”
What would people not expect from your show?
“I think you’re gonna love me bringing the 18th century to life because I explain not only what happened to Wolfe Tone but that whole revolutionary period in France, in America and in Britain.
“It’s important to remember that Wolfe Tone went to America. He met George Washington. He went to France and then met Napoleon. He was even in France when the whole rebellion started and so he sent French missions over to Ireland. These were very international people.
“The show is a hugely colourful bringing-to-life of that era as well as then pinpointing a murder mystery in the middle of it all. And of course, we have a bit of a sing along as well. It’s like a stand up comedy show with imagery. I call it historical entertainment.”
How do people react to your shows after watching?
“You do get great reactions from the public and I always make sure that we have a discussion afterwards outside or in the pub. But funny enough, the reaction from academia has been outrageous. I did a piece in the Irish Times about my theories and two Trinity academics wrote in to try and refute my claims. I’m driving the Irish historical establishment mad.
“And other Irish academics have privately got in touch with me and said, ‘Amazing, well done’. One actually said, ‘I’m going to have to change how I do my research because you’ve really gone right back to the start’.
“But in public, they’re very annoyed about it because they think that they can glean from Wolfe Tone’s diaries what he was thinking in his head. I suppose I’m exposing a kind of laziness. They think they have all the answers and they don’t want anyone else to come in and kind of disprove them.”
Do you feel it is important to question our history?
“Of course, because we live in real time. Not to be controversial, but we won’t know for 10 or 20 years what really happened during the Ukraine War. We’ve lived through weapons of mass destruction and Tony Blair, and the Iraq War. We’ve lived through scandal after scandal. These things happen to us all the time.
“And if we just blindly accept them and don’t question what really went on, then we might as well just accept official history. History is a scandal of the past. We’re living through scandals and falsehoods and fake news all the time. The weird thing is, you see that history develops in a fake way.
“It’s a bit like when Lucy Worsley went back and found out that the Battle of the Boyne wasn’t on that date and the colour of William III wasn’t orange, it was green. Suddenly, you have a whole Unionist tradition in Ireland who kind of base themselves on totally false things, from dates to colours.
“The more you look at this, the more you find history is full of this stuff. It’s not that the winners write the history, it’s that everybody agrees on the lie, as Napoleon said”.
How did you conduct the research for both of your shows and access all of the different sources you present?
“I always say that COVID gave me a lot of time as I’m a full-time musician. Once the gigs were gone, I had a lot of time to go back and look at these things.
“Funnily enough, you may think there isn’t a lot of information, but newspapers of the day are really where we get our history. It is where the spin of those interviewed is reprinted and then that spin is what we take as official history.
“I went to the National Library, and they had all the letters he wrote. I got facsimiles of all of them. And I found that all the ones that he supposedly wrote the week that he was dying in prison, were not in his own hand”.
After having carried out so much research into Wolfe Tone’s death, what do you believe? Do you believe that it was murder?
“I think it must have been murder. The biggest and strangest thing about Wolfe Tone is that every year there’s a commemoration for Wolfe Tone in Bodenstown, which is a beautiful churchyard outside Dublin. If he had committed suicide, he wouldn’t be buried in a churchyard.
“Historically, suicides were buried in separate places and they had a stake put through their heart. Yet, that didn’t happen to Wolfe Tone. And therefore, there’s a question as to why not? In both Protestant and Catholic tradition, suicides can never be buried in consecrated ground.
“So that’s why I think we have to go back, relook at it and see who was he murdered by? And I think I know who did it and why they did it. But you’ve got to come to the show to see why.”
The Murder of Wolfe Tone is a reopening and reinvestigation into a somewhat accepted part of Irish history. Not only does Cullivan’s show uncover dismissed historical facts but it promotes a way of thinking that encourages questioning and curiosity.
“It may seem I’m being facetious that I’m putting out antagonistic titles like The Murder of Michael Collins and The Murder of Wolfe Tone.
“But this is only the starting point to ask questions and to go deeper, and I promise people who come along, you will be pleasantly surprised. This isn’t some mad, fly away thought. Real research has been done”.
Both of Cullivan’s historical shows depict culturally pervasive aspects of Irish history in a novel way through music, photos, oral history and engaging rhetoric.
“I’m thrilled to be coming back to the Irish Cultural Centre in Hammersmith. They are just such a wonderful institution. It is lovely because there’s a new plaque of Michael Collins where he lived just around the corner in Hammersmith that I’m hoping to see.
“It’s just lovely to get back to a place that in my mind is more Irish than Ireland itself, you know?”