John Mitchel was born at Camnish, near Dungiven, Co Derry. The Irish nationalist, writer for The Nation and founder of The United Irishman newspaper openly preached rebellion against England. 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.
While in America, he was editor of the Richmond Examiner and a strong advocate of Confederate rights and championed slavery. Mitchel was a critic of international capitalism, which he blamed for both the pending Civil War and the Great Hunger. In 1861 Mitchel wrote The Last Conquest of Ireland (Perhaps), a jeremiad accusing England of “deliberate murder” for their actions during the Great Hunger. This tract did much to establish the widespread view, as Mitchel famously put it, that “The Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the Great Hunger.” He was imprisoned for several months after the Civil War ended.
His return to Ireland, evoked huge enthusiasm amongst an Irish population devastated by the Great Hunger and emigration. Mitchel was elected as MP for Tipperary in 1875, but was disqualified as a convicted felon. He contested the seat again in the resulting by-election, again being elected, this time with an increased vote. At the time of his sudden death, an election petition had been lodged, and the courts subsequently decided that voters in Tipperary had known that Mitchel was ineligible. Therefore, the seat was awarded to his Conservative opponent.
A significant number of Gaelic Athletic Association clubs are named in his honour, including Newry Mitchel’s GFC in his home town, John Mitchel’s Claudy, Castlebar Mitchels GAA, John Mitchel’s Glenullin and others both north and south of the border, as well as several in England and Australia.
Mitchel is remembered for his involvement in radical nationalism, and in particular for writings such as “Jail Journal”, “The Last Conquest of Ireland (Perhaps)”, “The History of Ireland”, “An Apology for the British Government in Ireland”, and the less well-known “The Life of Hugh O’Neill”. He was described by Charles Gavan Duffy as “a trumpet to awake the slothful to the call of duty; and the Irish people”.
Photo: Statue of John Mitchel in Newry, located at John Mitchel Place, an extension of Newry’s main street, Hill Street.