John Mitchel was one of the great propagandists of his day, although the causes he espoused often placed him on the wrong side, he was loved and loathed in equal measure. He was one of the few Irishmen to have incurred the wrath of the British government and of the Federal administration of the USA.
John Mitchel was born near Dungiven, Co Derry on 3 November 1815. The son of a Presbyterian clergyman Mitchel created his own pulpit in a series of journalistic enterprises in Dublin, Tennessee, Virginia and New York.
Mostly raised in Newry, Co Down, Mitchel’s first political association was with the Young Ireland movement of the 1840s and the famous Nation newspaper, founded by Charles Gavan Duffy, Thomas Davis and John Blake Dillon in 1842. But long before the abortive Young Ireland rebellion of 1848 Mitchel had moved on, finding the editorial policies of the Nation rather too bland for his tastes.
Inflamed by the suffering he witnessed on a trip to Galway, it was Mitchel, more than any other writer or politician, who shaped the nationalist perception of An Gorta Mór:
‘I could see, in front of the cottages, little children leaning against a fence when the sun shone out for they could not stand, their limbs fleshless, their bodies half-naked, their faces bloated yet wrinkled, and of a pale, greenish hue… I saw Trevelyan’s claw in the vitals of those children: his red tape would draw them to death: in his government laboratory he had prepared for them the typhus poison.’
Responding to such writing, Ireland simmered, angry and ready for rebellion. Fearful of Mitchel’s power, London’s Punch magazine emphasised his international standing by portraying him as an Irish monkey challenging the Great British Lion. The Times thundered against him. When John Mitchel produced his own republican newspaper, the United Irishman, which, in its inaugural edition, claimed that ‘the world was weary of Old Ireland and also of Young Ireland’ thus attacking both Daniel O’Connell and his younger antagonists with the same broadsword. Mitchel aimed to be an equal opportunities offender and succeeded admirably.
The United Irishman sold out and was shut down by the British authorities after a mere sixteen issues. In order to silence Mitchel, to rob him of his heroic status and his possible martyrdom, the British government passed the 1848 Treason Felony Act, which sought to treat treason as a common crime. Mitchel was later tried before an elegantly and efficiently packed jury, found guilty of treason-felony, and deported to Tasmania (Van Diemen’s Land). The result was one of the greatest works of Irish political history, The Jail Journal, in which Mitchel wrote about his own experience of deportation and advocated a far more militaristic approach to Ireland’s ‘English problem’ than would have been popular heretofore.
John Mitchel was acclaimed by Pádraig Pearse, who declared ‘The Jail Journal’ to be ‘the last of the four gospels of the new testament of Irish nationality, the last and the fieriest and the most sublime’. Éamon de Valera revered Mitchel, and when in 1943 he imagined Ireland as ‘the home of a people who valued material wealth only as a basis for right living, of a people who, satisfied with frugal comfort, devoted their leisure to the things of the spirit’, he too was delving into ‘The Jail Journal’ for his inspiration.
Image: Statue of John Mitchel in Newry, Co Down – ‘After twenty-seven years in exile for the sake of Ireland he returned with honour to die among his own people and he rests with his parents in the 1st Presbyterian Old Meeting House Green at Newry.’