Mitchel, John (1815–75), nationalist and journalist, was born on 3 November 1815 at Camnish, near Dungiven, Co. Londonderry, eldest surviving child among two sons and four daughters of John Mitchel (1781–1840), presbyterian minister of the Dungiven congregation, and his wife Mary Haslett (d. 1865). In 1822 John Mitchel senior was elected moderator of the presbyterian synod of Ulster, but in 1829 he seceded from the presbyterian church, helped found the Remonstrant synod (1830), and became a prominent unitarian.
Education and early career, 1823–45
The Mitchels moved in 1819 to Derry city and four years later to Dromalane, near Newry, Co. Down, where John attended Dr Henderson's classical school and met John Martin (qv), who became his closest friend and political associate. He entered TCD 4 July 1831 and graduated BA 16 February 1836 after an undistinguished academic career. As a boy he was fascinated by theological controversy and seemed destined for the ministry, but while at Trinity he lost interest in the subject and became sceptical of all religion.
In April 1836 he was apprenticed attorney to John Henry Quinn of Newry, and fell in love with Jenny Verner (qv) (under Mitchel), barely sixteen years old. In November 1836 they eloped but were discovered in Chester, and Mitchel spent eighteen days in Kilmainham jail on a charge of abduction. They eloped again and on 2 February 1837 were secretly married at Drumcree, Co. Armagh. Jenny was disowned by the Verners, but accepted by the Mitchels, and the young couple settled in Newry. On 3 June 1839, after completing his legal training, Mitchel formed a partnership with Samuel Fraser of Newry, and was entrusted with founding a branch office in nearby Banbridge, where he moved. He built up a successful practice, but often clashed with Orange magistrates and grew increasingly indignant at the injustices suffered by local catholics. Known for his nationalist sympathies, he subscribed to the Nation and in 1841 met Charles Gavan Duffy (qv), one of the paper's founders. Duffy was impressed by Mitchel's spirited opinions, and described him as ‘rather above the middle size, well-made and with a face which was thoughtful and comely, though pensive blue eyes and masses of soft brown hair, a stray ringlet of which he had the habit of twining round his finger while he spoke, gave it perhaps too feminine a cast. He lived much alone, and . . . was silent and retiring, slow to speak and apt to deliver his opinion in a form which would be abrupt and dogmatic if it were not relieved by a pleasant smile’ (Young Ireland, 731).
Duffy introduced him to his Nation co-founders, Thomas Davis (qv) and John Blake Dillon (qv), and Mitchel became close to both men, contributing his first article to the Nation in February 1843. In May 1843 he joined the Repeal Association and Davis appointed him to the council of the ‘82 Club in April 1845. Mitchel also wrote the Life of Aodh O'Neill (1845) for the Nation's Library of Ireland series, and after Davis's death readily accepted Duffy's offer to become assistant editor of the Nation.
With the Nation, 1845–7
Mitchel moved to Dublin on 9 October 1845 and became a central figure in the Young Ireland movement. During Duffy's frequent absences owing to illness, Mitchel assumed full editorial responsibilities and wrote most of the Nation's political articles, his forceful, pungent journalism introducing an increasingly strident note to the paper. As famine loomed in early 1846, Mitchel condemned British policy in Ireland and intimated that insurrection was preferable to death from starvation, much to the embarrassment of moderate Young Irelanders. While in London in April 1846 with an ‘82 Club deputation visiting William Smith O'Brien (qv) MP who had been imprisoned for contempt in Westminster, Mitchel called on his hero Thomas Carlyle. Like Carlyle, Mitchel saw himself as a man at odds with his age, decrying its arrogant belief in material and moral progress, its complacency and misplaced philanthropy, and Carlyle deeply influenced his thinking and writing. Carlyle returned Mitchel's visit in September 1846 and recalled that ‘his frugally elegant small house and table pleased me much, as did the man himself, a fine, elastic-spirited young fellow . . . on whom all my persuasions were thrown away’ (J. A. Froude, Thomas Carlyle (1884), i, 399).
Partly to damp down Mitchel's militancy, on 13 July 1846 Daniel O'Connell (qv) moved a resolution in the Repeal Association that all its members repudiate the use of violence to attain political objectives. Mitchel and other Young Irelanders refused and quit the Repeal Association. He afterwards opposed all attempts at reconciliation, and denounced O'Connell for betraying and emasculating the Irish people. In January 1847 the Young Irelanders founded the Irish Confederation, and Mitchel was appointed to its policy council. In spring 1847 he was greatly influenced by the proposals of James Fintan Lalor (qv), published in the Nation, that the Confederation should link their campaign for political independence to agrarian grievances: specifically Lalor proposed a rent strike to spark a social revolution that would eventually transfer land ownership to the peasantry. Mitchel at first hoped that Irish landlords could be persuaded to accept tenant right and self-government, and worked with them on the Irish Council, but by autumn 1847 he had become disillusioned with their conservatism and adopted Lalor's ideas even more strongly. The worsening famine sharpened Mitchel's resentment towards the British government, and in the Nation he complained that while the Irish starved, shiploads of food were leaving Irish ports. He claimed that the famine was not a natural disaster but a deliberate attempt to exterminate the Irish peasantry. Obsessed by the pursuit of profit and the callous doctrines of political economy, British politicians were using famine to clear Ireland's ‘surplus population’ from the land, and create a huge commercialised cattle and grain farm to feed Britain's growing industrial population.
His views had now diverged sharply from Duffy's, and after Duffy censored some of his Nation articles Mitchel resigned from the paper in December 1847; he and Duffy soon became bitter enemies. Smith O'Brien, too, sought to distance the Confederation from Mitchel's militancy, and proposed resolutions reiterating the Confederation's commitment to constitutional methods. Mitchel argued strongly that constitutional agitation had proved useless, and called for a rent and rates strike and forcible resistance to evictions to provoke a national insurrection. O'Brien's resolutions were, however, overwhelmingly adopted on 4 February 1848 and Mitchel withdrew from the Confederation's council. He then founded a weekly newspaper, the United Irishman, enlisting his friends Martin, Thomas Devin Reilly (qv), Fr John Kenyon (qv), and James Clarence Mangan (qv) as contributors. First published on 12 February 1848, its violent revolutionary tone caused a sensation. Attempting to goad the government into draconian action, it denounced the lord lieutenant, Clarendon (qv), as a ‘butcher’, called openly for national insurrection, and carried articles on pike drills and street fighting. Welcoming the French revolution of February 1848, the paper proclaimed its republicanism, called for social revolution, and attempted to persuade working-class Ulster protestants that government and aristocracy were using sectarian distinctions to blind them to their true interests: the pope, Mitchel admitted, might be ‘the antichrist . . . but he brings no ejectments in Ulster’ (13 May 1848). The United Irishman's social radicalism owed more to Mitchel's hatred of landlords and modern capitalism than any coherent socialist ideology: in fact he detested socialism's collective and utopian ideals, favouring instead a pre-industrial society in which small farmers and independent artisans lived free from government interference.
Mitchel's increasingly seditious speeches and articles eventually led to his prosecution under the treason felony act (passed on 22 April 1848 primarily to deal with Mitchel's writings). On 13 May 1848 he was arrested in his home at 8 Ontario Terrace, Rathmines, and imprisoned in Newgate. Tried at Green St. courthouse (25–7 May), he was found guilty by a packed jury and sentenced to fourteen years transportation. The severity of the sentence and Mitchel's dignified bearing won him considerable sympathy from nationalists, and contributed to the Young Irelanders’ decision to rise in July 1848. Taken to Spike Island, he was transported to Bermuda, arriving 20 June.
Imprisoned in the convict hulk Dromedary, Mitchel was relatively well treated, but his health suffered in Bermuda's intense humidity. An asthmatic, he had several near-fatal attacks, and the authorities decided to move him to a drier climate. On 22 April 1849 he sailed on the Neptune with hundreds of other convicts for the Cape of Good Hope. Beset by contrary winds, the ship only arrived at the Cape on 19 September 1849, but locals refused to accept any more convicts. Despite his personal discomfort, Mitchel greatly enjoyed the embarrassment of the British authorities. On 19 February 1850 the Neptune sailed for Van Diemen's Land, docking at Hobart on 7 April. Mitchel was given a ‘ticket of leave’, allowing him freedom to travel within his resident police district, once he gave his parole not to escape. After two years of confinement and long voyages, he was at death's door, and was allowed to live with John Martin (transported the previous summer) at Bothwell, a village forty-six miles (74 km) inland from Hobart. With Martin's care, the pleasant climate, and regular exercise, Mitchel's health improved rapidly, and he travelled across the island meeting other transported Young Irelanders including T. F. Meagher (qv) and Smith O'Brien; despite their political differences Mitchel and O'Brien much admired each other. Mitchel's wife and five children arrived in Hobart on 18 June 1851, and in August 1851 the family moved to Nant Cottage, near Bothwell. Mitchel took up sheep farming but soon became bored and when in January 1853 P. J. Smyth (qv) arrived to assist an escape attempt, he decided to take his chances. On 9 June he withdrew his parole and, after several failed attempts to get off the island, sailed from Hobart to Sydney on 19 July, arriving in New York (via Tahiti and San Francisco) on 29 November 1853.
New York, 1854
After an enthusiastic welcome from a large crowd, he went to Union St., Brooklyn, to join his mother, sister, and brother William (1830–91), who had emigrated during his exile. (William had been sent to America by the Irish Confederation to solicit money and arms after Mitchel's conviction in May 1848.) From 7 January 1854 Mitchel published the weekly Citizen, aimed at the Irish-American community. In the Citizen he serially published his famous ‘Jail journal’ (January–August 1854), his classic prison memoir and denunciation of British imperialism. With war about to break out between Russia and Britain, he unsuccessfully sought aid from the Russian ambassador for Irish independence. He also helped found the Irishmen's Civil and Military Republican Union in New York in April 1854 to take advantage of British difficulties. Mitchel hoped that the Crimean war, or an even greater war in the future, would revitalise Europe and allow Ireland to seize its independence. He believed that decades of peace had made Europe decadent and facilitated British global economic hegemony. Scoffing at economic and technological advances, he dismissed the whig belief in progress and posited instead a cyclical view in which humanity made little improvement and great powers inevitably collapsed. He revelled in the role of the menacing prophet of doom and claimed that the British empire, which he termed ‘Carthage’, was already in terminal decline, its martial spirit fatally undermined by an obsession with wealth and trade.
Soon after his arrival in New York, Mitchel became involved in bitter controversy with the city's vociferous abolitionists after he published an article approving of slavery and wishing that he could afford an Alabama plantation, well stocked with slaves. Like Carlyle, he argued that Africans were racially inferior and were better off as plantation slaves than living in barbarism in Africa, and insisted that they had more secure and comfortable lives than the exploited factory hands of Manchester or the starving cottiers of Mayo. Mitchel was roundly condemned for his inhumanity and racism, but continued to bait evangelical abolitionists. Although in his personal beliefs he was largely indifferent to religion, he detested the reforming zeal and emotional excesses of evangelical revivalism and often displayed a marked sympathy for catholicism: when his daughters Henrietta and Isabel converted to catholicism in the early 1860s he accepted their decisions with benign neutrality, wryly admitting: ‘there is a kind of hankering in all our family after the “errors of Romanism” ’ (Dillon, ii, 137). Mitchel believed that catholicism was a vital element of Irish nationality, and a strong barrier to the evils of modernity. Such sympathies did not, however, prevent him in autumn 1854 from severely attacking John Hughes (qv), catholic archbishop of New York, for criticising the Young Irelanders. Many New York catholics were appalled at Mitchel's abuse of Hughes, and the Citizen lost thousands of readers.
Champion of the South, 1855–65
Deciding to leave New York, he sold the Citizen and moved to eastern Tennessee in March 1855. He bought a farm at Tucaleechee Cove, a remote valley in the Alleghenies (May 1855–September 1856), supplementing his income with lecture tours, but his wife never took to life in the woods, and they moved to Knoxville. In October 1857 he began publishing the Southern Citizen to defend the doctrine of states’ rights and promote slavery. He regarded the agrarian and slave-holding South, with its self-reliant and martial citizens, as a haven from industrial capitalism and a latter-day version of the classical republics he so much admired. In contrast he equated the industrial North with Britain, claiming that it oppressed the South as Britain oppressed Ireland, and that in both cases he sought the repeal of unjust unions. In the Southern Citizen he published a series of letters condemning the British government's policy in Ireland during the famine, which later appeared in book form as The last conquest of Ireland (perhaps) (1860). Deciding to transfer the Southern Citizen to Washington, Mitchel moved there in December 1858. As Anglo–French relations deteriorated in summer 1859, he believed that war was imminent and decided to go to Paris. He wound up the Southern Citizen, and in August 1859 sailed for France, but soon recognised that war was unlikely and returned to Washington in February 1860. Unable to settle, he took his family to Paris in September 1860, and worked there as a correspondent for the Charleston Standard, the Irish American, and the Irishman.
Mitchel kept closely in touch with events in America, approving strongly of the secession of six southern states in February 1861. His two eldest boys, John and James, had remained in America and joined the confederate army, and Mitchel returned with his son William to join them. They entered confederate territory on 24 October 1862 and travelled on to Richmond, Virginia, capital of the confederacy. William immediately enlisted as a private in the First Virginia Infantry, his brother James's regiment. Mitchel himself served with an ambulance corps and became editor of the semi-official Richmond Daily Enquirer. But as the war turned against the South, he grew increasingly disillusioned with the confederate president, Jefferson Davis, and in December 1863 resigned from the Enquirer to become leader writer for the anti-Davis Richmond Examiner. Two of Mitchel's sons were killed in the war: William (b. 1844) in Pickett's great infantry charge at Gettysburg (3 July 1863), and John (b. 1838), who served with distinction as captain in the first South Carolina Artillery, while commanding at Fort Sumter in July 1864. James, who rose through the ranks to become a captain, was twice badly wounded but survived.
After the defeat of the South, in May 1865 Mitchel became editor of the Democratic anti-war New York Daily News. His continued denunciations of the union government led to his arrest on 14 June and imprisonment in harsh conditions at Fortress Monroe, Virginia. He found it ironic that for expressing his opinions he had been imprisoned by the two states that most prided themselves on their liberal ideals. Prolonged asthma attacks in prison took a heavy toll on his health and prematurely aged him. Representations by the Fenian movement eventually secured his release on 30 October 1865.
Last years, 1865–75
Mitchel became financial agent for the Fenians in Paris, sailing on 10 November. He had always had reservations about Fenianism (and all secret conspiracies), but believed that since war between Britain and America was possible, a formidable army of battle-hardened Fenian soldiers might be landed in Ireland. He dispensed Fenian money but remained unimpressed by their leadership, especially James Stephens (qv), and by the factionalism of American Fenians. Believing that the movement had settled back into its usual cloak-and-dagger ineffectiveness, he resigned on 22 June 1866 and returned to Richmond in October 1866. He spent the next year writing his History of Ireland from the treaty of Limerick (1867), which became a standard nationalist account. In October 1867 he moved to New York and published the weekly Irish Citizen, which strongly criticised the delusions of the Fenians, the moderation of the home rule party, and the reconstruction policies of the American government. In late 1872 he wrote some articles for the Irish American in response to the anti-Irish lectures given in America by J. A. Froude (qv). Published as The crusade of the period (1873), they were the work of a tired crusader, lacking the cutting edge of his earlier writings.
Poor health stopped him writing or lecturing (the Irish Citizen ceased publication in July 1872), and he fell into poverty, but was assisted in November 1873 by a £2,000 testimonial raised by William and John Dillon (qv), sons of his old friend. With John Dillon he discussed standing for parliament; he was still contemptuous of parliamentary politics and had no intention of taking his seat, but hoped that his candidature would embarrass the British government and remind nationalists of an alternative to the peaceful pursuit of home rule. He stood as an independent nationalist for Cork city in the general election of February 1874, but was soundly beaten. In July 1874 he returned to Ireland for the first time since 1848 to visit family and friends, and with his daughter Isabel attended a dinner in his honour at the house of Lady Wilde (qv) in Merrion Square.
Mitchel returned to New York in October 1874. In February 1875 he learned of a forthcoming by-election in Co. Tipperary and, despite his worsening health, sailed to Ireland to contest the seat, arriving at Queenstown on 17 February to find he had already been elected the previous day. Parliament declared him ineligible as an undischarged felon, but Mitchel announced he would stand as often as he was unseated. After resting in Cork, he travelled to Dromalane, and on 11 March another poll took place in which Mitchel soundly beat the tory candidate. Over the next few days his health declined rapidly, and he died 20 March 1875 at Dromalane. He was buried in his parents’ grave in the unitarian cemetery, High St., Newry, where a monument was later erected by his widow; he was also commemorated by a statue in Newry. His wife and three of his children survived him: James (1840–1908), a New York City fire marshal whose son John Purroy Mitchel (1879–1918) became mayor of New York (1913–17), Mary (1846–1910), and Isabel (1853–79); Henrietta (1842–63) had died in a Paris convent.
Reputation and influence
Mitchel has often been singled out as exemplifying the unacceptable face of Irish nationalism. The harshness of his views, especially his enthusiastic support for slavery, came to be seen as more and more repellent, and does much to explain his neglect in recent decades. Moreover, he was not made for compromise or co-operation and his inability to work with others often left him politically marginalised. He was, however, one of the most powerful polemical journalists of the nineteenth century and his influence on Irish nationalism was immense. Little of his thought was original, but it was expressed with a fierce intensity that made it memorable. In particular, the blistering anglophobic rhetoric of his Jail journal captivated generations of Irish nationalists. His portrayal of the famine as deliberate genocide became central to nationalist orthodoxy, and his bitter hatred of British rule and contempt for parliamentary politics did much to inspire Fenianism. As disillusionment with classic nineteenth-century liberalism grew, Mitchel's words fell on increasingly receptive ears. Arthur Griffith (qv) was strongly influenced by his fiery journalistic style and took up many of his ideas, notably his denunciation of free trade as the battering-ram of British imperialism. Patrick Pearse (qv) regarded the Jail journal as one of the gospels of Irish nationalism, and enthusiastically adopted Mitchel's belief that an abject nation could only redeem itself through the effusion of blood.