It is quite fitting that John Mitchel’s birth year coincided with the final defeat of the great Napoleon Bonaparte at Waterloo. Born as the son of a Presbyterian minister near Dungiven, County Derry, Mitchel was from what could be described as a “republican background.”
His reverend father, John Sr. had taken the oath of the United Irishman as a young boy in ’98, and his maternal grandfather, also a United Irishman, sheltered rebels from the yeomanry. Such a background would lend credence to the idea that his famous hatred of England, like Tone, was “rather an instinct than a principle.”
Despite being a Derryman by birth, Mitchel’s family would move to Newry, and it is Newry which Mitchel regarded as his hometown. It was in his schooling days he would meet his lifelong friend John Martin, the start of one of the most memorable of Irish friendships.
Like Tone and Emmet, Mitchel was a romantic as a young man. At the age of 21, he fell deeply in love with Jenny Verner, the daughter of a prominent ship captain, and unsuccessfully attempted to elope with her. Despite the efforts of both families to separate the two, eventually through force of will, they were married the following year, and Jenny was accepted into the Mitchel family.
Mitchel originally worked as a law clerk in Derry, but the monotonous routine and long hours tormented him, writing to his father that, “I would make any effort rather than be a clerk in a bank.”
He would find his professional calling as a barrister, setting up base in Banbridge, becoming quickly familiar with the sectarian nature of life in Ulster, often being employed as the defence of Catholics from the provocative Orange marches often held as a show of force against the Catholics who lived in Banbridge.
HIS ASCENT IN THE NATIONALIST RANKS.
The roots of Mitchel’s radicalism became readily apparent in some of his earliest letters to Martin, increasingly irritated with O’Connell’s aversion to physical force. In one such letter, dated October, 1843, Mitchel wrote somewhat forebodingly:
“How do you think the country ought to take this? I think I know how I ought to take it; but if I put it on paper, you might inform the Attorney-General, and get me arrested.”
During this time, Mitchel would become acquainted with a new breed of Irish nationalists; Charles Gavan Duffy, John Blake Dillon, Thomas Davis, the three co-founders of The Nation. Davis, in particular, became a close confidante and friend of Mitchel’s. Of Gavan Duffy, more will be said later.
It was in the service of Davis that Mitchel, as an historian, would publish his first great work, The Life and Times of Aodh O’Neill, released shortly after Davis’s death in 1845, the work dedicated to Davis’s memory. In the preface, Mitchel sets out his task, to chronicle the life of the first man, “of many a century, to conceive, and almost to realize the grand thought of creating a new Irish Nation.” A work imbued with a nationalist slant certainly and markedly Carlylean in tone, but unapologetically so.
The Tipperary Free Press in its glowing review of the work wrote:
“This history, so well told, is a great lesson for Ireland. Mr. Mitchel has done eminent and honourable service to his country. His success is complete, his undertaking is perfect. There is something in his style to which we have not been accustomed, and for which there is no model.”
That same year, Mitchel would become chief editorial writer of The Nation, leaving his legal profession and moving his family to Dublin. From here, the career of one of Ireland’s greatest journalists dutifully began.
Mitchel’s literary style so prominent in his historical accounts extended to his prose, his use of italics in extenso, his distinctively Carlylean tone, his often sardonic humour, and his always blunt delivery.
One of the first great articles Mitchel wrote would be on 8 November, titled “The Detectives”, a rather interesting account of how the state, even in the 1840s, would resort to what was effectively entrapment and “the manufacture of crime” as Mitchel would aptly describe it in order to crack down on the Ribbonmen, a notorious Catholic secret society. Mitchel wrote in a rather matter of fact way:
“The Irish People are beginning to fear that the Irish Government is merely a machinery for their destruction.”
As what was curiously being referred to as “The Famine” began to take hold throughout Ireland, an event that he himself said “would make wise men mad”, Mitchel became increasingly militant in his writings.
In “Threats of Coercion”, published only two weeks later, an article so notorious it would be nicknamed simply “the railway article”, Mitchel describes how rebels could dismantle the railway network dotted across Ireland in several fell swoops.
“First, then, every railway station within five miles of Dublin could in one night be totally cut off from the interior country. To lift a mile of rail, to fill a perch or two of any cutting or tunnel, to break down a piece of an embankment, seem obvious and easy enough.
Second – The materials of railways, good hammered iron and wooden sleepers, – need we point out that such things may be of use in other lines than assisting locomotion.
Third – Troops upon their march by rail may be conveniently met with in divers places. HOFER, with his Tyroliens, could hardly desire a deadlier ambush than the brinks of a deep cutting upon a railway. Imagine a few hundred men lying in wait upon such a spot, with masses of rock and trunks of trees ready to roll down – and a train or two advancing with a regiment of infantry, and the engine panting near and nearer, till the polished studs of brass on its front are distinguishable, and its name may nearly be read; “Now, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost! – now —.”
This rather brazen rhetoric quickly began to draw the ire of O’Connell and his notorious squeamishness towards violence. O’Connell publicly condemned the article and, in the fallout, would refer to Mitchel and those of The Nation as “Young Irelanders”.
The Repeal Association would quickly table the “Peace Resolutions” which sought to unequivocally condemn physical force under all circumstances. This culminated in a famous meeting in Conciliation Hall where Thomas Francis Meagher, of the Mitchelite party, gave the famous “Sword Speech” which refused to deny the right of a nation to assert its rights through physical force if all peaceful methods were exhausted.
The interruption of Meagher’s speech midway through was regarded as a blatant disregard for freedom of speech and an effort by the O’Connellites to maintain its stranglehold on the Association, sparking a walkout of Young Ireland, never to return to Conciliation Hall.
The Irish Confederation would be formed, yet Mitchel remained unsatisfied by its unwillingness to commit to physical force. A wedge was also beginning to form between the constitutionalist Gavan Duffy and the increasingly revolutionary Mitchel, which ultimately led to Mitchel tendering his resignation from The Nation in late 1847.
An increasing influence on Mitchel as previously mentioned in the last article of mine was James Fintan Lalor, whose agitation on the land question convinced Mitchel further yet to take up a decidedly physical force republican doctrine.
THE UNITED IRISHMAN.
Under the Treason Felony Act of 1848, it remains technically illegal to advocate, either in printing or writing, for the overthrow of the British Monarchy, an offence originally punishable by penal transportation and even life imprisonment. The law is of course not enforced today, but it is arguably the most extreme manifestation of a lèse-majesté law enforced by any nation in history.
The law itself, although theoretically far reaching in its ramifications, has historically been limited in its use against Irish republicans, even as late as the early 1970s; and indeed the roots of the law itself can be traced back to one such Irish republican in particular.
In February 1848, Mitchel would found his new venture, The United Irishman. In its prospectus issued prior to the publication of its first issue, the aims of the paper, being Mitchel’s political mode of action, were first exposited:
“1st. That the Irish people have a just and indefeasible right to this Island, and to all the moral and material wealth and resources thereof, to possess and govern the same for their own use, maintenance, comfort, and honour, as a distinct Sovereign State.
2nd. That it is in their power, and it is also their manifest duty to make good and exercise that right.
3rd. That the life of one peasant is as precious as the life of one nobleman or gentleman.
4th. That the property of the farmers and labourers of Ireland is as sacred as the property of all the noblemen and gentlemen in Ireland, and is also immeasurably more valuable.
5th. That the custom called ‘Tenant Right,’ which prevails partially in the North of Ireland, is a just and salutary custom both for North and South: – that it ought to be extended and secured in Ulster, and adopted and enforced, by common consent, in the other three provinces of the Island.
6th. That every man in Ireland who shall hereafter pay taxes for the support of the State, shall have a just right to an equal voice with every other man in the government of that State, and the outlay of those taxes.
7th. That no man at present has any ‘legal’ rights, or claim to the protection of any law, and that all ‘legal and constitutional agitation’ in Ireland is a delusion.
8th. That every free man, and every man who desires to become free, ought to have arms, and to practise the use of them.
9th. That no combination of classes in Ireland is desirable, just, or possible, save on the terms of the rights of the industrious classes being acknowledged and secured.
10th. That no good thing can come from the English Parliament, or the English Government.”
The first issue, of 12 February 1848, featured a bold letter to The Earl of Clarendon, the Lord Lieutenant General of Ireland, where Mitchel issues his invitation to a duel to the death between Ireland and England:
“An exact half-century has passed away since the last Holy War waged in this island, to sweep it clear of the English name and nation. And we differ from the illustrious conspirators of Ninety-Eight, not in principle – no, not an iota – but as I shall presently shew you, materially as to the mode of action. Theirs was a secret conspiracy, – ours is a public one. They had not learned the charm of open, honest, outspoken resistance to oppression: and through their secret organization you wrought their ruin; – we defy you, and all the informers and detectives that British corruption ever bred. No espionage can tell you more than we will proclaim once a week on the house-tops.”
In some of the finest literature worth reading of Young Ireland’s, Mitchel would, in the issues following, deliver a series of salvos, targeting not only Clarendon, but the British Prime Minister Lord Russell. Mitchel would bestow grand and deserving titles on his subjects, to name a few, “Her Majesty’s Ameliorator-General and General Developer of Ireland” and “Her Majesty’s Executioner-General and General Butcher of Ireland.” Mitchel was also courteous and affectionate, often ending his letters with “Your enemy, John Mitchel.”
“My good lord, your excuses will not do. It is your duty, if you mean to go on governing this country, to put me down – but it is also my duty to put you down, and I will do my duty.”
Mitchel also went to great lengths to appeal to the small farmers of Ireland, the “men of no property” as Tone would proclaim on the United Irishman’s masthead.
“Above all, let the man amongst you who has no gun, sell his garment, and buy one.”
Mitchel also attempted to win over the Protestants of Ulster, buoyed by reports of Orangemen being expelled from lodges for mingling with Repealers and the formation of Repeal and Tenant Right Associations in Orange districts, however this was still ultimately largely in vain.
On continental affairs, Mitchel, a lifelong Francophile, was a zealous supporter of the revolutionary wave across Europe, and was an admirer of Alphonse de Lamartine, the founding father of the Second Republic, although wrote of the Socialists that they were “something worse than wild beasts.”
By May, the British Government moved to pass the Treason Felony Bill and Mitchel was eventually arrested and charged with his new offence. Whilst at Newgate Prison, Mitchel managed to send out a final message to the world via the United Irishman.
“The game is afoot, at last. The liberty of Ireland may come sooner or come later, by peaceful negotiation or bloody conflict – but it is sure; and wherever between the poles I may chance to be, I will hear the crash of the downfall of the thrice-accursed British Empire.”
The following month, Mitchel would be convicted, and sentenced to 14 years’ penal imprisonment. Defiant still, at the dock, he proclaimed:
“I do not repent anything that I have done, and I believe that the course which I have opened is only commenced. The Roman who saw his hand burning to ashes before the tyrant, promised that three hundred should follow out his enterprise. Can I not promise for one, for two, for three, aye for hundreds?”
The United Irishman lasted sixteen editions, a good run certainly. Almost immediately, Mitchel’s followers, including Martin, established several successors, The Irish Tribune and The Irish Felon. However, for Mitchel, it would be the last time he would set foot on Irish soil for another twenty-six years.
From the day of his conviction, Mitchel set to work on his most famous work, the Jail Journal. He would first set sail to Bermuda, he was to his surprise, treated fairly in his confinement, separated from the other more unruly convicts and could read, engage in leisurely activities and even found time to engage in occasional small talk with some of the crew.
In one instance however, Mitchel writes of three prisoners who escaped but were re-captured within days and sentenced to be flogged, Mitchel grimacing at the shrieks and screams of the men being flogged. In another, not entirely unrelated part of the Journal, Mitchel defends the use of capital punishment, even against robbers, burglars and forgers. For us, of more modern sensibilities, such sentiments now may appear extreme and quite vicious, yet both theft and forgery were still punishable by death in Britain, and by extension Ireland, until 1832, well into Mitchel’s lifetime.
The most interesting part of the Jail Journal is no doubt in Chapter V, namely the diary entry of January 16, 1849, which is an internal monologue between “The Ego” and “The Doppelganger” in his cell written in Socratic dialogue, part of which can be quoted.
“Doppelganger. – In one word, you wish me to believe that your desire to plunge your country into deluges of slaughter arises out of philosophical considerations altogether.
The Ego. – Entirely: I prescribe copious blood-letting upon strictly therapeutical principles.
Doppelganger.- And revenge upon England, for your own private wrong, has nothing to do with it.
The Ego. – Revenge! Private wrong! Tell me! are not my aims and desires now exactly what they were two years ago, before I had any private wrong at all? Do you perceive any difference even in point of intensity? In truth, as to the very conspirators who made me a “felon,” and locked me up here, I can feel no personal hostility against them: for, personally, I know them not – never saw Lord John Russell or Lord Clarendon; would not willingly hurt them if I could. I do believe myself incapable of desiring private vengeance; at least I have never yet suffered any private wrong atrocious enough to stir up that sleeping passion. The vengeance I seek is the righting of my country’s wrong, which includes my own. Ireland, indeed, needs vengeance; but this is public vengeance – public justice. Herein England is truly a great public criminal. England! all England, operating through her Government: through all her organised and effectual public opinion, press, platform, pulpit, parliament, has done, is doing, and means to do, grievous wrong to Ireland. She must be punished; that punishment will, as I believe, come upon her by and through Ireland; and so will Ireland be avenged. “Nations are chastised for their crimes in this world; they have no future state.” And never object that so the innocent children would be scourged for what the guilty fathers did; it is so for ever. A profligate father may go on sinning prosperously all his days, with high hand and heart, and die in triumphant iniquity; but his children are born to disease, poverty, misery of mind, body and estate. The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge. Mysterious are the works and ways of God. Punishment of England, then, for the crimes of England – this righteous public vengeance I seek, and shall seek. Let but justice be done; let Ireland’s wrong be righted, and the wrong done to me and mine is more than avenged; for the whole is greater than its part. Now, Mein Herr, you have my theory of vengeance; and for such vengeance I do vehemently thirst and burn.”
The Jail Journal was described by Pearse as being part of the gospel of the New Testament of Irish Nationality. It is indeed Mitchel at his most authentic, the Mitchel confined to a cell aboard a convict ship and to a life on another side of the world, alone with his thoughts, his fears, his hopes, his dreams. It is not Mitchel the historian, the journalist, or even the revolutionary. It is Mitchel the man.
Eventually, Mitchel ended up in Van Diemen’s Land (modern-day Tasmania) living some time there, but by 1853 had reunited with his family and escaped to the United States. It is here that the second and most controversial act of his life commenced.
MITCHEL THE CONFEDERATE.
Mitchel would settle in New York in early 1854 and establish The Citizen. In its prospectus, it pledges itself to the reawakening of Ireland’s national spirit and to aid in Ireland’s “partaking in the great march of European Democracy” and Republicanism.
However, within weeks, a controversy of an entirely different complexion would shroud Mitchel’s reputation. In response to an anti-slavery activist, James Haughton of Dublin, and his appeal to Mitchel to resolutely stand against the slave trade, Mitchel not only refused, but denied that slavery was an offence against moral law, even stating that “we, for our part, wish we had a good plantation well-stocked with healthy negroes in Alabama.”
A protracted controversy involving Mitchel and several abolitionists followed, the scale of the controversy taking Mitchel completely aback. Mitchel would for many years afterwards, until the end of the American Civil War, double down on his support of slavery, to an extent perhaps greater than some of the Confederate leaders. Despite this zealous support, no evidence exists that suggests Mitchel himself owned slaves. His wife Jenny was generally speaking anti-slavery, although her reasoning was because of “the injury it does to the white masters.”
There was also no evidence to suggest that Mitchel explicitly spoke out in favour of slavery whilst in Ireland, a charged levelled against him by Gavan Duffy, who claimed that Mitchel was attempting to publish pro-slavery editorials as early as his days in The Nation and that this forced Mitchel’s eventual resignation.
This account is somewhat tainted by the famous and bitter animosity between the two men, little evidence of Mitchel explicitly favouring slavery during his tenure in The Nation, plus virtually no mention of slavery at all in the columns of The United Irishman, which Mitchel was the proprietor and editor of. Mitchel’s own account of his resignation, as well as Gavan Duffy’s excerpt of Mitchel’s original letter of resignation also does not explicitly mention the issue of slavery at all in either instance.
Upon the breaking out of war however in America in the year 1861, Mitchel sided decisively with the South, where he now resided with his family. In the ensuing conflict, two of his sons, John and William, would be killed fighting for the Confederates.
It is said however that in a speech given by Thomas Francis Meagher, now a Union commander of the famous 69th New York Infantry Regiment, in the autumn of 1861, Meagher exclaimed:
“Now that you have testified your love and admiration for the brave Irish soldier of the Union, I call on you to give three cheers for the two sons of John Mitchel, who are fighting as bravely on the other side.”
This sense of camaraderie Mitchel was keen to replicate, lamenting that the Irishmen of the Union were fighting the Irishmen of the Confederates, ten times their inferior (180,000 Irish-born Union troops vs 20,000 Irish-born Confederate troops).
Upon the defeat of the Confederates in 1865, Mitchel was interned following the war alongside Jefferson Davis, the Confederate President, yet was released shortly afterwards, moving to Paris to act on behalf of the IRB as their financial agent. Mitchel gracefully accepted defeat and transferred his allegiance back to the Union, accepting that the institution of slavery and the Confederate cause more generally was over.
“From the moment of General Johnson’s surrender to Gen. Sherman, at Greensboro, I perceived that the cause of the Confederacy was utterly lost. There was no longer a Confederate government – it had disappeared from human eyes; and inasmuch as a country cannot be without a government, and the only government then in fact subsisting being the Federal government of the United States, I owed to it, from that instant, full obedience – which obedience I at once yielded in good faith, as I think my fellow-citizens in the South very generally did at the same time, and for the same reason. I am, therefore, no longer a secessionist nor a rebel; but a Unionist, and a lawful citizen.”
Following the Civil War, Mitchel was approached by Colonel William Roberts and John Savage, Savage being a Civil War veteran of the Union, to become president of the Fenian Brotherhood, in part to effect reconciliation and to heal the Civil War split that divided Irish America. Although flattered, Mitchel respectfully declined the offer.
Throughout this period, Mitchel divided his time between Paris and America. He would serve as somewhat of a war correspondent in Paris during the Franco-Prussian War, his sympathies “instantly, frankly and zealously for France.” In America, he devoted his time to the publication of several works, namely the seminal piece of Famine literature, The Last Conquest of Ireland (Perhaps), in which he famously declared “The Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the Famine,” as well as a fine historical work, The Crusade of the Period, which decisively ripped apart the rampant historical revisionism of the English historian James Anthony Froude, who was interestingly enough a friend and disciple of Carlyle’s.
“Here, then, is the whole political theory, and principle of the Historian. We have you clown, throttled, stripped, disarmed, garrotted: our treatment of you and of your country has been stupid, and a scandal: it is going to be in the future what it has been in the past: and now, what are you going to do about it?”
In the final years of his life, Mitchel declared his intent to stand as a Parliament candidate for Tipperary, returning finally once more to his native land. Running on a manifesto of universal tenant-right, Fenian amnesty and Irish independence, Mitchel was elected by a sound margin.
Mitchel would die on 20 March 1875, in the home of his parents in his native Newry. A distraught Martin, his friend till death, would die only nine days later. Thus ends the life of one of the great Irish nationalists of his era.
Mitchel, in many ways, is an enigma. He was a republican, a devout Francophile, a disciple of the French Revolution, yet simultaneously a qualified admirer of Carlyle, a critic of the Enlightenment and one who seemed to be as much reactionary as he was revolutionary. Yet enigmatic as he was, he was as the song goes, simply a true-born Irishman.
I believe that it is sound to assert what Griffith held in 1913, that our estimation of Mitchel as a man should be an estimation of his service to Ireland, and to Ireland alone. That we have a right to honour Mitchel as the Indians honour Gandhi. That we have a right to agree with the Pearse of 1916, that Mitchel hated England out of love for Ireland, the land where his mother bore him and where his father’s bones were laid.
That the memory of such a man can never be swept away, even if his statues are pulverised into rubble. For he is a ghost of Ireland past, his spirit lives not in engraved statues of marble or stone, but a spirit engraved in our hearts and our minds. Let the truth of his principles live on in our actions and in our will to achieve them in our own time.
“We must have Ireland, not for certain peers and nominees of peers in College Green, but IRELAND FOR THE IRISH.”