Cloney, Thomas (1774–1850), insurgent leader and catholic activist, was probably born at Ballybeg, near St Millis, Co. Carlow, the only son among four children of Denis Cloney (1738–98), prosperous farmer and middleman of Moneyhore, near Enniscorthy, Co. Wexford, and Mary Cloney (née Kavanagh; d. 1782) of Ballybeg. The Cloneys were on close terms with local protestant middlemen and gentry, especially the Colclough family, who used their influence to have Thomas admitted a freeman of Enniscorthy borough at the age of eight. He was brought up at Moneyhore and may also have received some education at Bristol. In his early twenties he helped to run the family farm and manage rented lands in Co. Wexford and Co. Carlow. His family commanded considerable local prestige and loyalty and played an active part in Wexford politics, campaigning for John Maxwell-Barry (qv) in a bitterly fought county election contest in 1797, which earned Thomas the lasting enmity of the sitting MP, George Ogle (qv), an extreme anti-catholic. Prior to the rebellion Cloney drilled with a party of mounted farmers, mostly catholic, who applied to be constituted as a yeomanry corps, but were refused permission by the authorities.
In mid May 1798, having heard he was suspected of being a United Irishman, Cloney visited a local magistrate, the Rev. Thomas Handcock, to plead his innocence, but was told that there was no evidence against him. On 29 May 1798 he led a large body of his tenants to the rebel camp at Vinegar Hill, although he later claimed that he had acted at his tenants' instigation and had not joined the United Irishmen or held any rank before the rebellion. Cloney saw himself as having little alternative but to join the rebels, believing that as a catholic he was ‘under the ban of a furious Orange ascendancy, and their rapacious satellites, a bloodthirsty yeomanry and a brutal magistracy’ (Narrative, 10). He maintained that Vinegar Hill was a scene of chaos, and that he was appalled at the indiscipline and summary executions he witnessed there.
He joined the rebels who were marching on Wexford town and assumed a position of command in the victory over a company of Meath militia at Three Rock Mountain on 30 May and in the subsequent skirmish with the Wexford garrison. With his social prestige and commanding presence Cloney stood out among the rebels: he was 6 ft 3 in. (1.905 m) tall, well built, and handsome, and Miles Byrne (qv) praised him as ‘a man of the soundest judgement, the purest honour and coolest bravery, and well fitted to be a chief’ (Memoirs, 65). On 2 June he led an attack on the yeomanry at Carrigbyrne, during which a protestant chapel at Old Ross was burned, but Cloney claimed that this was done by rebel stragglers rather than his men. He also commanded a battalion of Bantry men in the bloody assault on New Ross (5 June), and after John Kelly (qv) was wounded he took command of the entire Bantry division. At first the insurgents were successful, but they eventually succumbed to a sustained counter-attack. Cloney fought with great determination and bravery, doing his utmost to rally demoralised rebels and leading several sorties to beat back the military. On 12 June he led an unsuccessful raid on the house of Thomas Kavanagh (1767–1837) at Borris, Co. Carlow, which he believed to be well stocked with arms. Cloney had strong misgivings about the attack, since he respected Kavanagh, a benevolent landlord, and several of the yeomen defending the house were Cloney's friends or relatives. He camped at Lacken hill (13–19 June) and fought in the sharp engagement against the troops of Gen. John Moore (qv) at Goff's Bridge (Foulkesmill) on 20 June; the rebels were defeated but managed to retreat to Wexford.
With the military closing in, on 21 June he and other insurgent leaders in Wexford decided to surrender, and Cloney was chosen to undertake the dangerous mission to discuss terms with Gen. Lake (qv) at Enniscorthy; Lake refused to negotiate but allowed him to leave unmolested the next day. Cloney was then sheltered by protestant friends in Wexford, while other rebel leaders were being hanged. Disguised as a yeoman he returned to his father's house at Moneyhore, and also hid for some time in Killaughran woods, where he accidentally shot himself in the thigh and almost bled to death. On 1 August he surrendered himself to the military and was imprisoned in Enniscorthy till 16 August, when he took the oath of allegiance. He remained in Enniscorthy till March 1799, and was attacked by a yeoman who seriously slashed his face with a bayonet. He then returned to Moneyhore to manage the family's lands. His father had died in October 1798, leaving him to support his sisters, and he had great difficulty in collecting rent and debts. He believed that his efforts to collect rent were closely linked to his arrest on 8 May 1799; he was imprisoned in Wexford jail and Geneva Barracks, Co. Waterford. Court-martialled in Wexford (July 1799) for being a rebel officer and an accessory to murder, he was sentenced to death. However, Cloney, defended by Peter Burrowes (qv), had influential protestant friends who maintained that he had intervened on several occasions during the rising to protect loyalists, and the sentence was commuted to transportation for life to New South Wales; on appeal it was reduced to two years' banishment from Ireland. He was held in Wexford jail till February 1801, and after settling his affairs left Ireland in September 1801 and spent eighteen months in Liverpool, where he became friendly with William Todd Jones (qv).
Returning to Dublin in February 1803, he discussed plans for insurrection with Robert Emmet (qv), who greatly impressed him. He was rather evasive about his dealings with Emmet and may have been appointed to take charge of rebellion in Co. Wexford, where he went on 21 July 1803, but after the collapse of Emmet's rising Wexford did not stir. Cloney was arrested in September and imprisoned at Dublin Castle and from February 1804 at Kilmainham, where his health deteriorated; he was released in November 1804 and went to live at Graiguenamanagh, Co. Kilkenny.
His family's extensive property provided his income for the rest of his life, and he soon reengaged in politics, supporting liberal pro-catholic candidates such as John Colclough (1767–1807). From 1815 he was involved in the campaign for catholic emancipation; he strongly approved of O'Connell (qv) and his opposition to a government veto on episcopal appointments, and contributed to the establishment of the O'Connellite Dublin Chronicle in June 1815. An active member of the Catholic Association, he received in 1827 the association's formal thanks for his efforts in collecting the ‘catholic rent’. In January 1831 he was prosecuted with O'Connell and six others on charges of conspiracy to evade the proclamation act, but the charges were later dropped. He was known as ‘General Cloney’, and his presence on emancipation and repeal platforms linked 1798 with contemporary struggles and served to remind the government that there was an alternative to moral force.
In 1832 he published his Narrative of . . . 1798, to refute accusations from local tories intent on disrupting the alliance between repealers and liberal protestants that he had been involved in the murder of loyalists during 1798 and had burned the church at Old Ross. He maintained that the rising was primarily motivated by severe government oppression, and he played down the role of the United Irish organisation. While cautioning against popular insurrection in the future, he reminded the British government of the dangers of goading a people to rebellion. O'Connell praised his account for vividly showing the horrors of insurrection and the folly of attempting to achieve political change through violence.
Cloney became an elder statesman of the Repeal Association, and his house at Graiguenamanagh was a place of pilgrimage for nationalists. In 1843 he led a huge contingent from Carlow and Kilkenny to a monster meeting at Graiguenamanagh. In July 1848 he welcomed to his home several Young Ireland leaders who sought his moral support for their prospective insurrection. He died at Graiguenamanagh 22 February 1850 and was buried at the monastic settlement of St Mullins; he never married.