John Mitchel was born in Camnish, near Dungiven, Co Derry. He became a leading Member of both Young Ireland and the Irish Confederation. He also became a public voice for the Southern American viewpoint in the United States in the 1850s and 1860s before ending up elected to the British House of Commons, only to be disqualified because he was a convicted felon. His Jail Journal is one of Irish nationalism’s most famous texts.
Convicted of treason in 1848, Mitchel was sentenced to fourteen years transportation in Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania). In 1853, he escaped to America, where he published his Jail Journal, which would later inspire Pádraig Pearse in 1916, specifically, his writings and passionate belief that Irishmen of all religions should unite against British rule under the Irish tricolour.
While in America, he was editor of the Richmond Examiner and was a strong advocate of Confederate rights. As the American Civil War rumbled to life in the 1860s, the Mitchel clan sided with the Confederate rebels. Mitchel himself served in the Confederate Army’s Ambulance Corps, while all three of his sons served with distinction in the Confederate forces: John and Willie were both killed in battle, while James was maimed. He was imprisoned for several months after the Civil War ended.
Many Nationalists in Ireland had long attacked the ‘political’ slavery of whites as well as the actual slavery of blacks. In 1841, Daniel O’Connell, issued an appeal to his countrymen in America urging them to support the cause of abolition. The address provoked outrage in the United States. Many Irish and American supporters of repeal in the North and South denounced O’Connell’s missive as a dangerous intrusion into American affairs that would disrupt the Union, threaten Irish acceptance in the Democratic Party, and ultimately distract the world from the true cause of home rule for Ireland. When O’Connell’s movement failed to achieve its goal, many blamed the disappointment on his utopian quest to end African slavery.
John Mitchel touched off a firestorm of controversy in the midst of the debate over Kansas and Nebraska in 1854 that he did not oppose slavery. The man who Frederick Douglass had once argued ‘sanctified’ the cause of Ireland through ‘martyrdom’ in pursuit of liberty stated that he even wished to own ‘a good plantation, well stocked with healthy negroes in Alabama’. Mitchel shockingly denied that it was a ‘crime’, a ‘wrong’, or even a ‘peccadillo’ to ‘hold slaves’ or ‘keep slaves to their work by flogging or other needful coercion’.
Mitchel’s return to Ireland, evoked huge enthusiasm amongst an Irish population devastated by ‘An Gorta Mór’ and emigration.
Photo: Statue of John Mitchel on John Mitchel Place, Newry