John Mitchel

The epitome of revolutionary nationalism. The epitome of revolutionary nationalism, John Mitchel has always been a controversial figure in Irish history. A charismatic figure, excellent journalist and talented self-propagandist, John Mitchel became the epitome of revolutionary nationalism.

John Mitchel was born at Camnish, near Dungiven, Co Londonderry, in 1815, but is more closely associated with Newry, Co Down, where the family moved to 1823. The son of a Presbyterian minister, he was expected to follow his father’s footsteps, but he chose a career in law instead. In 1836, Mitchel eloped with the stepdaughter of Captain James Verner, Jane, who subsequently became his wife.

Mitchel became interested in Daniel O’Connell’s Repeal Association, and joined with his friend John Martin in 1843. He quickly became part of the Young Ireland group within the association. After the death of Thomas Davis in 1845, Mitchel joined the staff of the Young Ireland paper, the Nation. His outspoken and radical articles, hinting at armed revolution, caused great controversy. Influenced by the views of James Fintan Lawler, Mitchel proclaimed in 1847 that peasants should withhold food and rent to survive the famine. He retired from the Nation at the end of 1847, as he could no longer agree with the more moderate policies of Charles Gavan Duffy.

On February 12, 1848, Mitchel published the first edition of the United Irishman, a weekly radical paper that, following uprisings in Europe, openly advocated a 'spontaneous revolution’ in Ireland. Mitchel’s attitude combined the radical United Irish tradition of his father’s generation with the current revolutionary events in Europe.

On May 13, Mitchel was arrested under the new Treason Felony Act, which he claimed was passed because of him. His court case two weeks later attracted enormous interest at home and abroad. Mitchel’s speech from the dock and a photograph taken in prison were sold all over Ireland. Nevertheless, he was sentenced to 14 year’s transportation.

Mitchel’s transportation took him to Bermuda, then to the Cape of Good Hope, and finally to Tasmania, where he was allowed relative freedom. His family was also permitted to join him. However, being of a restless and impulsive nature, Mitchel felt too isolated from events in Ireland to be content. He undertook a risky and dramatic escape from Tasmania in 1853, finally arriving in America. In New York, he started a newspaper, the Citizen, in which he serialised a diary he had kept during his confinement. It was published in 1854 under the name of Jail Journal and has been a classic ever since.

Although his heart was in Irish rather than American affairs, Mitchel was passionately involved in the abolitionist debate, supporting the cause of southern planters. His pro-slavery stance made him an even more controversial figure, and it seems to contradict his radical policies. However, Mitchel’s views were a mixture of liberal and conservative ideas, and cannot be simply labelled one or the other.

In 1860, Mitchel moved to Paris to work as a correspondent for American newspapers. As had occurred during the Anglo-French war, Mitchel hoped Ireland might seize the opportunity to start another rebellion. Returning to Richmond, Virginia in 1862, Mitchel was willing to join the Confederate army, but was disqualified on grounds of nearsightedness and bad health. He wrote for various southern newspapers, and published books on Irish politics and history. His views on the Great Famine both influenced and echoed those of the millions of Irish emigrants, summarised by the well-known phrase, 'The Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight. But the English created the Famine.' 

Mitchel was arrested in 1865 by the military authorities and confined in Fortress Monro for nearly five months. He later claimed that he was probably the only person who had ever been a prisoner-of-state in both Britain and America.

Mitchel returned to Paris for one year, as the financial agent of the Fenian Brotherhood, but later had an uneasy relationship with the Brotherhood and the Home Rulers. Nevertheless, in 1874 he allowed himself to be put forward as Home Rule candidate in Tipperary, but he was unsuccessful. In the summer of 1874, Mitchel returned to Ireland after 26 years of exile. Having returned to America, he was put forward as a candidate again a few months later, and on 16 February 1875, he was elected unopposed for Tipperary while he was on his way to Ireland. On 18 February, Mitchel was disqualified being an escaped convict, but again was returned by a majority. However, his health was failing, and he died at his old home in Newry on March 20, 1875. He is buried at the Old Meeting House Cemetery in High Street, and a statue of him stands in John Mitchel Place, Newry.

Further Reading

Jail Journal (1982) by John Mitchel; An Apology for the British Government in Ireland (1860) by John Mitchel; The Last Conquest of Ireland  (1860) by John Mitchel.