John Mitchel

From A Compendium of Irish Biography, 1878

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Mitchel, John, a politician and journalist, was born in Newry, 3rd November 1815. His father, who had been a United Irishman, was the Unitarian clergyman of the district. Mitchel was educated at Newry, studied for a time at Trinity College, and in 1835 married Jane Verner, a girl of extraordinary beauty, but sixteen years of age.

He practised as a solicitor at Banbridge until 1845, became more and more deeply interested in the progress of the Repeal movement, wrote for the Nation, and contributed a Life of Aodh O'Neill to Duffy's Irish Library. After the death of Thomas Davis, Mitchel removed to Dublin, and became editor of the Nation. His brilliant, trenchant, and picturesque style added greatly to the influence of the paper, and he became a prominent figure in the circle of young men that surrounded O'Connell.

In July 1846, Mitchel, Meagher, O'Brien, Duffy, and others, hopeless of effecting anything for Ireland by peaceful means, formally separated from O'Connell's party, and established the Irish Confederation. In the proceedings of this body Mitchel took a prominent part, openly advocating the doctrine of the necessity of complete separation from England, which he clung to during the rest of his life. He gradually became even more extreme than his associates; in December 1847 he withdrew from the Nation, on the 5th February 1848 abandoned the Confederation on the question of the advisability of immediate resistance to the collection of rates, and shortly afterwards issued in Dublin the first number of the United Irishman newspaper. In this publication he advocated a "holy war to sweep this island clear of the English name and nation," and the Lord-Lieutenant was addressed as "Her Majesty's Executioner General and General Butcher of Ireland."

On 21st March he was arrested, but let out on heavy bail; and in a few days re-arrested on a charge of "treason-felony." He was indicted under the Act 11 Victoria cap. 12, passed on 22nd April 1848, whereby certain political offences previously classed as high treason or misdemeanour, and subjecting the offender to death or simple imprisonment, were brought under the new designation of treason-felony, the punishment prescribed for which was the same as that of ordinary felons. On 24th May he was brought to trial at the Commission Court in Dublin, and was defended by Robert Holmes, brother-in-law of Robert Emmet. He was found guilty, and on the 27th was sentenced to fourteen years' transportation, and immediately removed in fetters on board H.M.S Shearwater and conveyed to Spike Island, whence, on 1st June, he was taken in the Scourge to Bermuda.

In April 1849 he forwarded in a convict vessel to the Cape. The colonists refused to receive convicts, and after a detention of eight or nine months in Table Bay, the vessel went on to Tasmania, where she arrived in April 1850. Here he was allowed at large on parole, and lived with his old friends John Martin, Meagher, MacManus, and Kevin Izod O'Doherty, and was solaced by reunion with his family, who went out to join him. In 1853 his friend Patrick J. Smyth proceeded from New York to Tasmania, with the purpose of achieving his escape. In company with Mr. Smyth, Mitchel presented himself, armed, to a magistrate, and handed in a resignation of parole, thereby technically keeping himself within the bounds of his word of honour. He then fled, and after many wanderings, found means to reach the United States, where he met a hearty welcome from his fellow-countrymen.

He who had so strenuously advocated freedom at home now openly joined the pro-slavery party. In 1854, in his paper, the Citizen, he thus answered an appeal James Haughton of Dublin had made to the Irish exiles to side with the abolitionists: " Now let us try to satisfy our pertinacious friend, if possible, by a little plain English. We are not abolitionists: no more abolitionists than Moses, or Socrates, or Jesus Christ. We deny that it is a crime, or a wrong, or even a peccadillo, to hold slaves, to buy slaves, to sell slaves, to keep slaves to their work by flogging or other needful coercion. 'By your silence,' says Mr. Haughton, 'you will become a participator in their wrong.' But we will not be silent when occasion calls for speech; and as for being a participator in the wrongs, we, for our part, wish we had a good plantation well stocked with healthy negroes in Alabama. There now, is Mr. Haughton content?"

After carrying on the Citizen for some time, he edited the Southern Citizen at Knoxville, Tennessee; and as editor of the Richmond Enquirer, during the American Civil War, consistently supported the side of the slaveholders. Two of his sons were killed fighting in the Confederate army — one at Gettysburg, the other at Fort Sumter. He himself was a prisoner in United States hands for some time. After the war he published the Irish Citizen in New York, which he ultimately gave up on account of ill health. A considerable sum of money was collected and presented to him as a mark of esteem, on occasion of his visit to Ireland in January 1875.

He had hardly returned to the United States after this his first visit to Ireland since 1848, when a vacancy occurred in the parliamentary representation of the County of Tipperary. His name was put forward, and he was returned without opposition on 16th February, on the basis, in his own words, of "Home Rule — that is, the sovereign independence of Ireland."

He landed next day at Cork, in declining health, and was enthusiastically received. On the 18th an animated debate took place in the House of Commons on the question whether he should be allowed to take his seat, and by 269 to 102 votes a new writ was ordered to be issued, on the ground that Mitchel was a convicted felon whose guilt was not purged by expiration of sentence or by pardon. He was re-elected by the same constituency, 11th March, but died at Newry nine days later (20th March 1875), aged 59. He was buried at Newry. The seat was awarded to a Conservative candidate, who at the election had registered 746 votes to Mitchel's 3,146. John Mitchel's most important works were: Life of Aodh O'Neill, Jail Journal, Last Conquest of Ireland (Perhaps), an edition of Mangan's Poems, History of Ireland from the Treaty of Limerick, and Reply to the Falsification of History by J. A. Froude.

Sources

7. Annual Register. London, 1756-1877.

233. Manuscript and Special Information, and Current Periodicals.

308. Speeches from the Dock: Alexander M. Sullivan. Dublin, 1868.

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