John Mitchel (Irish: Seán Mistéal; 3 November 1815 – 20 March 1875) was an activist for Irish nationalism, author,and political journalist. Born in Camnish, near Dungiven, County Londonderry, Ireland 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 being elected to the British House of Commons in 1875, only to be disqualified because he was a convicted felon. His Jail Journal is one of Irish nationalism's most famous texts.
- 1 Family
- 2 Early life
- 3 Marriage and family
- 4 Early politics
- 5 The Nation
- 6 The United Irishman
- 7 Mitchel's policy on armed resistance
- 8 Charged with sedition
- 9 Jury-Packing
- 10 Treason Felony Act 1848
- 11 Trial and sentence
- 12 Speech from the Dock
- 13 Deportation and the Jail Journal
- 14 The United States
- 15 Racism and Pro-Slavery Advocacy
- 16 Elected an MP
- 17 Miscellaneous
- 18 Additional Sources
- 19 Books by John Mitchel
- 20 Biographies
- 21 References
John Mitchel's father, also John, was educated mainly at the University of Glasgow and became a Presbyterian clergyman. William Dillon, Mitchel's biographer tells that "about the year 1810, he was put in charge of the church at or near Dungiven, in the county of Derry." It was here that he met and married Mary Haslett. In 1819, the Rev. Mitchel was called to Derry, where he remained for some four years, when he received the "call" from both Newry and Armagh. He accepted the call to Newry, and remained there, respected by all classes, until his death in 1840. After her husband's death Mrs Mitchel travelled a good deal. In 1853, when her son escaped from his exile in Van Diemen's Land and went to the United States, she, with her other son and two of her daughters, went there to receive him. She lived in the US for several years then recrossed the Atlantic, and went to live in London. From there she went to Newry, where she remained until her death in 1865.
At the age of four, John Mitchel was sent to a classical school, run by an old minister named Moor, nicknamed "Gospel Moor" by the students. He read books from a very early age. When a little over five years old, he was introduced to Latin grammar by his teacher and made quick progress.
When he was seven, the family had moved to Newry, where he attended a school run by Mr McNeil. Mitchel did not get on with McNeil, who considered the topics that Mitchel was reading (Caesar) too advanced for him. John was discouraged by this and began to pay less attention in class, where McNeil pronounced him stupid. He was taken out of the school, and sent to a classical school, kept by a Dr Henderson. The encouragement and support of Dr Henderson laid the foundations of his classical scholarship which was to play such a major part in his later life. Mitchel also met at the school his lifelong friend, John Martin, who was to experience and share in much of his later career. In 1830 John, then not yet 15 years old, entered Trinity College, Dublin, with the encouragement of Dr Henderson. He took his degree in 1834, at the age of 19. He decided against becoming a minister and went to work first as a bank clerk in Derry, where Mrs Mitchel's brother, William Haslett, was director of a bank, and then in late 1835 or early 1836, he entered the office of a Newry solicitor, John Quinn, who was a friend of his father.
Marriage and family
In the spring of 1836 he met Jane Verner, the only daughter of Captain James Verner. Though both families were opposed to the relationship, they became engaged in the autumn and were married on 3 February 1837, by the Rev. David Babington, in the parish church of Drumcree. Their first child, John, was born on 24 January 1838. Their second, James, born in February 1840, was to be the father of the New York Mayor John Purroy Mitchel. At this time Mitchel was a member of a literary society, and contributed essays from time to time. He also contributed a series of letters to The Times newspaper on Canadian politics, which were published. Also around this period, a project was started to hold a public dinner for Daniel O'Connell, the leader of the Repeal Association. John Mitchel took an active part in the preparation, and though violence was anticipated, Newry then being a stronghold of the Orange Order, it went off peacefully. Around 1839, Mitchel suffered his first attack of asthma, which was to trouble him for the rest of his life. In 1840 Mitchel completed his apprenticeship, and was sworn in as an attorney. He then formed a partnership with a Mr Fraser, a successful attorney in Newry. They decided to expand the practice, and established an office in Banbridge, which Mitchel took charge of. John Mitchel and his family spent the next five years in Banbridge, where two more children were born, Henrietta in October 1842, and William in May 1844.
According to his biographer William Dillon, Banbridge at this time was in an Orange constituency, and the Orangemen liked to "walk" to their assemblies, to commemorate important historical anniversaries. On their return homeward in the evenings some of them would pass through Catholic neighbourhoods, and "stop at the doors of Catholic homes to play party tunes". This would lead to confrontation, and would often end in the wrecking of houses, beatings or even killings, on both sides. John Mitchel was often employed by the Catholics in the legal proceedings arising out of these affrays. Dillon suggests that it was having seen how these cases were dealt with by magistrates, many of whom were Orangemen themselves, that instilled in him a "hatred of injustice", at a time when he was taking a keen interest in politics. Until his marriage, John Mitchel had by and large taken his politics from his father, who according to Dillon states had "begun to comprehend the degradation of his countrymen". Soon after the granting of Catholic emancipation in 1829, it was decided by the "popular party" to run a Catholic candidate for Newry, then regarded as a stronghold of the ascendancy party, which resented "so insolent a proceeding on the part of the Catholics". Many members of the Rev. Mitchel's congregation took an active part in the elections on the side of the ascendancy, and pushed for the Rev. Mitchel to do same, which he resolutely refused to do. Because of this he was nicknamed "Papist Mitchel."
Further evidence of John's political development is found in a letter of October 1842, to his friend John Martin, responding to Martin's sending him a copy of The Nation: "I think The Nation will do very well"; and again in October, on the arrival of 20,000 additional troops in Ireland: "How do you think the country will take all this?" he asks, "I think I know how it ought to take it; but if I put it on paper, you might inform the Attorney-General, and get me arrested."
On Mitchel's frequent trips to Dublin, he came in contact with the Repeal members who gathered about the office of The Nation (later to be known as Young Ireland) and in the spring of 1843, Mitchel joined the Repeal Association and began to contribute to The Nation. He publicised a pamphlet by his uncle, Mr Haslet, Mayor of Derry, on the estates of the London Societies in Ulster, wrote a leading article entitled "Convicted Criminals", and contributed half of an article on "Anti-Irish Catholics", the first part of which was written by Thomas Davis. In "Convicted Criminals", published in The Nation on 2 March 1844, Mitchel, responding to a complaint by an English Member of Parliament, Busfield Ferrand, that a "convicted conspirator" (Daniel O'Connell) had been cheered in the House of Commons, wrote: "History has some examples of convicted 'conspirators' who were not altogether disreputable characters. Conspirators whose memory all good men revere, and whose conviction is the very thing that has advanced their principles and made their names immortal. Christ was a convicted conspirator… The Son of God was crucified between two thieves, and those who passed by, among whom was some progenitor of Busfield Ferrand, reviled Him, wagging their heads. His degradation and abasement were, in the eyes of those Ferrands, complete. He was a convicted conspirator… And now behold that criminal is the Saviour of the world. Ah! Mr Busfield Ferrand, those 'partial juries' and valiant Chief Justices' are powerful indeed, but not all-powerful. They positively cannot turn innocence into guilt; and irrespective of all the Sheriffs, Judges and special panels… the essence of crime and virtue is absolutely out of the jurisdiction of the courts of law." It was with Davis's encouragement that Mitchel wrote his first book, Life of Hugh O'Neill, which Davis never got to see published. Thomas Davis died on 16 September 1845, of scarlet fever. His death was entirely unexpected and caused dismay among his friends. William Dillon (Mitchel's biographer) believed that it was immediately after the publication of "Hugh O'Neill" that Charles Gavan Duffy proposed that he join the staff of the The Nation, a proposal "which he said, had the effect of "changing the whole course" of John Mitchel's life. According to Dillon, from that time forward, John Mitchel's life was that of a public man, and the next two and a half years of his life formed "part of the history of Ireland."
Mitchel accepted Duffy's invitation to join the staff of The Nation, in the autumn of 1845. He discarded his profession, and brought his wife and children to live in Dublin, first, for a short time at, George's Place; then at 1 Heathfield, Upper Leeson Street, and finally at 8 Ontario Terrace, Rathmines, where he was arrested in 1848.
For the next two years Mitchel wrote both political and historical articles and reviews for The Nation. He covered a wide range of subjects, including the Famine, on which he contributed some influential articles which attracted significant attention. On 25 October 1845 he wrote on "The People's Food", pointing to the failure of the potato crop, and warning landlords that pursuing their tenants for rents would force them to sell their other crops and starve.
He reviewed Curran's Speeches, Carlyle's Life of Cromwell, a pamphlet by Isaac Butt on The Protection of Home Industry, The Age of Pitt and Fox, and later on The Poets and Dramatists of Ireland, edited by Denis Florence MacCarthy (4 April 1846); The Industrial History of Free Nations, by Torrens McCullagh, and Father Meehan's The Confederation of Kilkenny (8 August 1846).
But it was Mitchel's political writings in The Nation that would show how strongly he felt with regard to English rule in Ireland.
On 1 November 1845 his article was on "Foreign Relations", and was titled, "England's Difficulty is Ireland's Opportunity". In this edition also he raised the issue on "Potato Disease", he pointed out how powerful an agent hunger had been in certain revolutions.
On 8 November, in an article titled "The Detectives", he says, "The people are beginning to fear that the Irish Government is merely a, machinery for their destruction; that, for all the usual functions of Government, this Castle-nuisance is altogether powerless; that it is unable, or unwilling, to take a single step for the prevention of famine, for the encouragement of manufactures, or providing fields of industry, and is only active in promoting, by high premiums and bounties, the horrible manufacture of crimes!"
He followed this up on 22 November, with an article titled "Threats of Coercion", in which he advocated attacks on railways if they were used against the people by the Government, in response to an article in the London journal The Standard, which outlined how the railroads could be used for troops in Ireland. This led to a failed prosecution of the paper in the following year, Mitchel acting as solicitor for the editor, Gavan Duffy.
On 6 December 1845, Mitchel's article "Oregon—Ireland" referred to the dispute then pending between England and America about Oregon. He wrote, "If there is to be a war between England and the United States, tis impossible for us to pretend sympathy with the former. We shall have allies, not enemies, on the banks of the Columbia, and distant and desolate as are those tracts beyond the Rocky Mountains, even there may arise an opportunity for demanding and regaining our place among the nations."
On 20 December Mitchel made an appeal to the Protestants of Ireland to join their fellow countrymen. In the article "The Protestant Interest" he pointed to the efforts of the Whig leaders to win support in Ireland by the promise of gratuity and places. "But, Protestants of Ireland, shall it be so? Is it not time for all to rise above such vile influences as these? Does not our national interest, our national honour (for, after all, we are a nation), demand that we spurn the mean practice of both these foreign factions! that we shuffle off the coil of filthy place-hunting politics, that has kept us so long grovelling in the dust!... Ah! if you would hearken to us – and a hope dawns upon us that you will – if the Protestant magnates of the land would even now place themselves at the head of our national Confederacy, and, in this inter-regnum of foreign rule, would meet us as brothers."
In his article "The Administration of Justice", on 7 February 1846, Mitchel pointed out that the Englishman made his own laws, that they were not imported, that "no stranger," or "slave of a stranger, sat upon his judgment seats," that English men had grown "to love and honour their native land, and expected no premium upon its betrayal."
He wrote again on the Famine on 14 February, condemning the inadequate response, and asked whether the Government had even yet any conception that there might be soon "millions of human beings in Ireland having nothing to eat".
On 28 February, he observed on the Coercion Bill which was then going through the House of Lords, "This is the only kind of legislation for Ireland that is sure to meet with no obstruction in that House. However they may differ about feeding the Irish people, they agree most cordially in the policy of taxing, prosecuting and ruining them."
In an article on "English Rule" on 7 March, he wrote: "The Irish People are expecting famine day by day... and they ascribe it unanimously, not so much to the rule of heaven as to the greedy and cruel policy of England. Be that right or wrong, that is their feeling. They believe that the season as they roll are but ministers of England's rapacity; that their starving children cannot sit down to their scanty meal but they see the harpy claw of England in their dish. They behold their own wretched food melting in rottenness off the face of the earth, and they see heavy-laden ships, freighted with the yellow corn their own hands have sown and reaped, spreading all sail for England; they see it and with every grain of that corn goes a heavy curse. Again the people believe—no matter whether truly or falsely— that if they should escape the hunger and the fever their lives are not safe from judges and juries. They do not look upon the law of the land as a terror to evil-doers, and a praise to those who do well; they scowl on it as an engine of foreign rule, ill-omened harbinger of doom."
Mitchel made the acquaintance of Thomas Carlyle during his connection with The Nation. Carlyle described a dinner at Mitchel's house in 1846, saying that Mitchel was "a fine elastic-spirited young fellow, whom I grieved to see rushing to destruction palpable by attack of windmills, but upon whom all my persuasions were thrown away". Carlyle later said, when Mitchel was on trial, "Irish Mitchel, poor fellow… I told him he would most likely be hanged, but I told him, too, that they could not hang the immortal part of him."
In 1847 Mitchel resigned his position as leader writer on The Nation. He later explained that he had come to regard as "absolutely necessary a more vigorous policy against the English Government than that which William Smith O'Brien, Charles Gavan Duffy and other Young Ireland leaders were willing to pursue". He "had watched the progress of the famine policy of the Government, and could see nothing in it but a machinery, deliberately devised, and skillfully worked, for the entire subjugation of the island—the slaughter of portion of the people, and the pauperization of the rest," and he had therefore "come to the conclusion that the whole system ought to be met with resistance at every point, and the means for this would be extremely simple, namely, a combination among the people to obstruct and render impossible the transport and shipment of Irish provisions; to refuse all aid to its removal; to destroy the highways; to prevent everyone, by intimidation, from daring to bid for grain and cattle if brought to auction under 'distress' (a method of obstruction which put an end to Church tithes before); in short, to offer a passive resistance universally; but occasionally, when opportunity served, to try the steel." This revolutionary line conflicted with the stance of The Nation, so Mitchel started his own paper, The United Irishman.
The United Irishman
The first number of The United Irishman appeared on 12 February 1848. In the Prospectus it was announced that the paper would be edited by John Mitchel, "aided by Thomas Devin Reilly, John Martin of Loughorne and other competent contributors." it was said that the projectors of the journal "believed that the world was weary of old Ireland and also of Young Ireland—that the day for both these noisy factions is past and gone—that Old and Young alike have grown superannuated and obsolete together. They believe that Ireland really and truly wants to be freed from English dominion." Mitchel took as the motto for the paper the words of Wolf Tone, "Our independence must be had at all hazards. If the men of property will not support us, they must fall; we can support ourselves by the aid of that numerous and respectable class of the community, the men of no property." The Prospectus finished: "To enforce and apply these principles — to make Irishmen thoroughly understand them, lay them up to their hearts, and practise them in their lives—will be the sole and constant study of the United Irishman".
Mitchel through his paper called for resistance against British rule in Ireland, through the non-payment of rents, and preventing the export of food from the country and became the most vocal in highlighting how the British, in his opinion, deliberately exasperated and mismanaged the Irish Potato Famine to reduce the population (which the British Government considered to have a surplus) to more manageable levels.
The doctrine which The United Irishman was to follow was stated as follows: "that the Irish people had a distinct and indefeasible right to their country, and to all the moral and material wealth and resources thereof, to possess, to govern the same, for their own use, maintenance, comfort and honour, as a distinct Sovereign State; that it was within their power and their manifest duty to make good and exercise that right; that the life of one peasant was as precious as the life of one nobleman or gentleman; that the property of the farmers and labourers of Ireland was as sacred as the property of all the noblemen and gentlemen in Ireland, and also immeasurably more valuable; that the Tenant Right custom should be extended to all Ulster, and adopted and enforced by common consent in the other three provinces; that every man who paid taxes should have an equal voice with every other man in the government of the State and the outlay of those taxes; that no man at present had any 'legal' rights or claim to the protection of any law and that all 'legal' and constitutional agitation in Ireland was a delusion; that every freeman, and every man who desired to become free, ought to have arms, and to practise the use of them; that no 'combination of classes' in Ireland was desirable, just, or possible save on the terms of the rights of the industrious classes being acknowledged and secured; and that no good thing could come from the English Parliament or the English Government".
In the first editorial, addressed to "The Right Hon. the Earl of Clarendon, Englishman, calling himself Her Majesty's Lord Lieutenant – General and General Governor of Ireland," Mitchel stated that the purpose of the journal was to resume the struggle which had been waged by Tone and Emmet, the Holy War to sweep this Island clear of the English name and nation." Lord Clarendon was also addressed as "Her Majesty's Executioner-General and General Butcher of Ireland".
(For the full text of the letter see here.)
The paper had a big circulation and began to exercise a great influence on the masses of the people. In Mitchel's Letters to "The Protestant Farmers, Labourers and Artisans of the North of Ireland," Mitchel maintained that England did not care about any religion and plundered Protestants as well as Catholics. "The Pope," he wrote, "we know is the 'Man of Sin,' and the 'Antichrist,' and also, if you like, the 'Mystery of Iniquity,' and all that; but he brings no ejectments in Ireland. The Seven Sacraments are, to be sure, very dangerous, but the quarter-acre clause touches you more nearly. In short, our vicious system of Government, and especially the infamous land laws, are the machinery that brought you to this pass".
Commenting on this first edition of The United Irishman, Lord Stanley in the House of Lords, on 24 February 1848, maintained that the paper pursued "the purpose of exciting sedition and rebellion among her Majesty's subjects in Ireland… it is language used in no common way, and for this reason I have called the attention of her Majesty's Government to it. This is not a mere casual article in a newspaper—it is the declaration of the aim and object for which it is established, and of the design with which its promoters have set out; that object being to do everything possible to drive the people of Ireland to sedition, to urge them into open rebellion, and to promote civil war for the purpose of exterminating every Englishman in Ireland. I hope, my Lords, her Majesty's Government will not say that this is a matter quite in theory—that it is below contempt, and that we should allow it to pass by in silence. If such a publication had appeared in England, I should have been very much inclined to think the good sense and sound judgment of the people would have rejected the article at once as a seditious invective, whose very violence, like an overdose of poison, prevented its effect.
"But this language is addressed, not to the sober-minded and calm-thinking people of England, but to a people, hasty, excitable, enthusiastic and easily stimulated, smarting under great manifold distresses, and who have been for years excited to the utmost pitch to which they could go consistently with their own safety, by the harangues of democrats and revolutionists.
"This paper was published at five pence, but, as I am informed, when the first number appeared, so much was it sought after, that, on its first appearance, it was eagerly bought in the streets of Dublin at one shilling and sixpence and two shillings a number. With the people of Ireland, my lords, this language will tell; and I say it is not safe for you to disregard it. These men are honest; they are not the kind of men who make their patriotism the means of barter for place or pension. They are not to be bought off by the Government of the day for a colonial place, or by a snug situation in the customs or excise. No; they honestly repudiate this course; they are rebels at heart, and they are rebels avowed, who are in earnest in what they say and propose to do.
"My Lords, this is not a fit subject, at all events, for contempt. My belief is, that these men are dangerous—my belief is, that they are traitors in intent already, and if occasion offers, they will be traitors in fact. You may prosecute them—you may convict them; but depend upon it, my Lords, it is neither just to them, nor safe for yourselves, to allow such language to be indulged in. I believe, because I have this strong persuasion of the earnestness and honesty of these men, that it is my duty to call your Lordships' attention to the first number of this paper, called The United Irishman, which is intended to produce an excitement leading to rebellion, for the purpose of showing you the language held forth, and the object avowed by these men, to whom a large portion of the people of Ireland look up with confidence, and for the purpose of asking her Majesty's Government if this paper has come under their consideration, and if so, whether the Law Officers in Ireland have been consulted, and if it is the intention of the Government to take any notice of it."
Only 16 editions of The United Irishman had been produced when Mitchel was arrested, and the paper suppressed. Mitchel concluded his last article in The United Irishman, from Newgate prison, entitled "A Letter to Farmers", "For me, I abide my fate joyfully; for I know that whatever betide me, my work is nearly done. Yes; Moral Force and 'Patience and Perseverance' are scattered to the wild winds of heaven. The music my countrymen now love best to hear is the rattle of arms and the ring of the rifle. As I sit here, and write in my lonely cell, I hear, just dying away, the measured tramp of ten thousand marching men—my gallant Confederates, unarmed and silent, but with hearts like bended bow, waiting till the time comes. They have marched past my prison windows to let me know that there are ten thousand fighting men in Dublin— 'felons' in heart and soul. I thank God for it. The game is afoot, at last. The liberty of Ireland may come sooner or come later, by peaceful negotiation or bloody conflict— but it is sure; and wherever between the poles I may chance to be, I will hear the crash of the down fall of the thrice-accursed British Empire".
Mitchel's policy on armed resistance
Mitchel wrote in The Nation on 5 February 1848, "I say distinctly… that I do not recommend an immediate insurrection… Mr Doheny has shown most graphically how the people would be butchered if they rose in armed resistance to the poor rates; but the only resistance to rates I spoke of was passive resistance. Passive resistance was the word".
It was Mitchel's opinion that the great mass of the Irish people were hostile to the law and the law makers of England, and that passive resistance could bring English law into contempt. He urged the people not to pay rent or poor rates, and to resist the forcible sale of farm produce to pay rent. Mitchel's policy has since come to be known as "boycotting".
Mitchel had come to the view that "the whole system ought to be met with resistance at every point; and the means for this would be extremely simple; namely, a combination amongst the people to obstruct and render impossible the transport and shipment of Irish provisions; to refuse all aid in its removal; to destroy the highways, to prevent everyone, by intimidation, from daring to bid for grain or cattle if brought to auction under distress;" (a method of obstruction which had put an end to tithes before) "in short, to offer a passive resistance universally, but occasionally, when opportunity served, to try the steel".
Writing in the United Irishman, on 12 February, Mitchel anticipated the Government's response to his open letter to Lord Clarendon: "Yes, of course you will prosecute before long; in self-defence, I hope, you must... I intend, then, to pay special regard to the jury lists, to excite public attention continually to the jury arrangements of this city; and, above all, to publish a series of interesting lectures on "the office and duty of jurors", more especially in cases of sedition, where the "law" is at one side, and the liberty of their country at the other... this same anticipated prosecution is one of the chief weapons wherewith we mean to storm and sack the enchanted Castle. For be it known to you, that in such a case you shall either publicly, boldly, notoriously, pack a jury, or else see the accused rebel walk a free man out of the Court of Queen's Bench – which will be a victory only less than the rout of your Lordship's redcoats in the open field. And think you that in case of such a victory, I will not repeat the blow? and again repeat it,— until all the world shall see that England's law does not govern this nation?
"But you will pack [the jury]? You will have up The United Irishman before twelve of your Lordship's lion-and-unicorn tradesmen who are privileged to supply some minor matters for the vice regal establishment? Will you do this, and carry your conviction with a high hand? I think you will, nay, I think you must, if you and your nation mean to go on making even a show of governing here".
Mitchel thought the time for action had come: the mass agitation of O'Connell had failed, and as to Parliamentary action, "I am weary of constitutional agitation, and will never lift a finger to help it more. I believe we have not the materials for it, and that the show of constitutional power we possess was exactly devised by our enemies to delude us into an endless and drift agitation. We have miserable franchises, and every day makes them worse. We have a government that first makes us poor, and then tempts our poverty with bribes and promises. We have few men of public virtue and national spirit, and in a sinking and debased province we cannot hope to rear such men more abundantly."
Mitchel felt that the Government would respond only to "armed opinion": "must the force of opinion always be legal? – always be peaceful? Does opinion then mean law? Does opinion cease to be opinion the moment it steps out of the trenches of the constitution? Why, sir, I hold that there is no opinion in Ireland worth a farthing which is not illegal. I hold that armed opinion is a thousand times stronger than unarmed – and further, that in a national struggle that opinion is the most potent whose sword is sharpest, and whose aim is surest. We are told it was opinion and sympathy, and other metaphysical entities that rescued Italy, and scared Austria back from Ferrara without a blow. Yes, but it was opinion with the helmet of a national guard on his head, and a long sword by his side; it was opinion, standing, match in hand, at the breech of a gun charged to the muzzle. Now, I say all this, not to vindicate myself, for I have nowhere recommended the Irish nation to attain legislative independence by force of arms in their present broken and divided condition (as Mr O'Connell's resolution imputes to me), not to vindicate myself, but to vindicate the original free constitution of our confederacy".
Mitchel's Letter to Lord Clarendon (see below) asserted that "we differ from the illustrious conspirators of Ninety-Eight, not in principle – no, not an iota – but, as I shall presently show you, materially as to the mode of action. Theirs was a secret conspiracy – ours is a public one. They had not learned the charm of open, honest, outspoken resistance to oppression and through their secret organization you wrought their ruin – we defy you, and all the informers and detectives that British corruption ever bred. No espionage can tell you more than we will proclaim once a week on the house-tops. If you desire to have a Castle detective employed about the United Irishman office in Trinity Street I shall make no objection, provided the man be sober and honest. If Sir George Grey or Sir William Somerville would like to read our correspondence, we make him welcome for the present – only let the letters be forwarded without losing a post. So that you see we get rid of the whole crew of informers at once."
Mitchel evidently anticipated open conflict between the Irish people and the state, but wished to await the best opportunity. He believed that passive resistance to "so-called law" could not be effectively carried out without occasional outbreaks of violence, preferably street-fighting in cities rather than in the open fields since the police and soldiers had superior arms and were better trained. Opportunities for such conditions would arise, in particular, whenever the Government attempted to arrest any of the popular leaders and the Government "went through the farce of trying him with a packed jury."
Charged with sedition
Such an opportunity arose when on 15 April 1848, legal proceedings were instigated against John Mitchel. The grand jury were called on to find against him for "seditious libels," and also against O'Brien and Meagher for seditious speeches. Isaac Butt acted on behalf of both O'Brien and Meagher, and in both cases the juries were not sufficiently packed to secure a conviction against them. Mitchel's trial still remained though, and there was to be no mistake in his case. Mitchel's defence had entered a "dilatory plea" and this technical delay was seized upon by the Government. The charges of sedition against him were replaced with the newly enacted charge of Treason Felony.
In a letter to Lord Clarendon, John Mitchel addressed the issue of Jury Packing, and made the following observations:
(For the full text of the letter see here.)
"Why should you pack a jury against us? Remember, my lord, you belong to that liberal and truly enlightened party called 'Whigs;' it is only a 'Tory,' you know, who packs;—and remember, also, that although I deny the lawfulness of your 'law' and your law-courts altogether, and hold a trial for sedition before a packed jury in Ireland quite as constitutional a proceeding as a trial before an unpacked one, yet your lordship cannot take this view of the matter. Your case is that there is law in the land—that we have broken that law, and are to be tried by that law. Remember, therefore, all the fine things that your jurists and statesmen have said and written about the great palladium of British liberty and so forth: remember how the learned Sir William Blackstone hath delivered himself on this point;—how that 'the founders of the English laws have with excellent forecast contrived that the truth of every accusation, whether preferred in the shape of indictment, information, or appeal, should be confirmed by the unanimous suffrage of twelve of his (the accused person's) equals and neighbours, indifferently chosen, and superior to all suspicion.' A trial for 'sedition' here is a mere political voting, and as your faction (that is, the English faction,) have held the sole appointment of all the officers and clerks employed in that business, they have always been able by stealing lists, or juggling and falsifying cards, and numbers, to secure twelve men who will vote for the Castle, and find anyone guilty whom the Castle does not love..."
"...First, then, you are to suppose that the list of names has been delivered safely by the Recorder to the Sheriff, and been by him duly numbered, and the number of each name written on a separate card—that the list, in fact, the whole list, and nothing but the list, is now actually in the ballot-box, faithfully numbered to correspond with the Sheriff's book—you must suppose all this, albeit I know a rather violent supposition;—and then, in presence of the attorneys for the Crown and for the accused criminal, forty-eight cards are to be taken out of the box.
"On one side of a table stands a grave-looking elderly gentleman with the ballot-box before him; on the other side sits a second still more grave, with an open book; in the book is written, each several number, on the margin, and opposite the number the name of the juror thereby denoted. The first grave gentleman shakes the box, puts in his hand, and takes out a card, from which he reads the number—then the other grave gentleman turns to that number in the book, and pronounces the name of the juror so numbered, whose name and address are then taken down as one of the forty-eight; and this process is repeated forty-eight times... it is said—I say nothing, but it is said—that those two gentlemen know each juror just as well by his number as by his name: and so, when the first takes out a card and finds 253, for example, written on it—if he knows that 253 would vote for the people, and against the Crown, it is said he gives out (as solemn as he looks), not 253, but, say, 255, or some loyal number; and thus a safe man is put on the list. Or, if anyone is standing by, and has an opportunity of seeing the card, he cries 253, and winks, or otherwise telegraphs to this other grave gentleman. Then the onus is upon the man with the book, who has nothing to do but call out a loyal man for the disloyal number, and so you have safe voters still. They never make the mistake, these elderly gentlemen, of turning out the whole forty-eight all of the right sort there is no need: there is a margin to the extent of twelve: and so they generally leave about nine or ten dubious names amongst the forty-eight. The Crown has afterwards the right to strike off twelve peremptorily, without reason assigned, and always gets rid of the men who would vote for the people.
"Thus, my lord, your jury is safely packed, and your verdict, or rather vote, is sure. They poll to a man for the Crown."
The Spectator (an English Journal) referring to the approaching trial of John Mitchel and addressing the issue of Jury Packing thus wrote: "Ministers were bound to take that course [Packing the Jury]. We see its inconvenience and risks,—the additional inflation of the notoriety-hunting men in buckram; the chances of an adverse verdict from an Irish Jury; the possible tarnish on Whig popularity." P. A. Sillard, one of Mitchel's biographers says that "In its burning hatred against the Irish the grave Spectator let out its fears of an acquittal, its fears that the jury might not be sufficiently well packed; but it might depend on Lord Clarendon that this latter all important point would not be forgotten." Freeman's Journal (an Irish Newspaper) which advocated the cause of Repeal, commenting itself on the pending trial wrote: "The bar has been absolutely gutted of all its professional worth, and every popular man has been tempted with the bribe—and all this before a single information was sworn! All the distinguished men who defended the State prisoners in '43 have been gained over to the side of the Crown. Even the junior men were sought to be drawn off from the accused, which proves the malicious littleness of the entire transaction." "The sneer about the "notoriety-hunting men" was also in English good taste, Sillard suggests commenting on the Spectator; "so accustomed are they to the like that they imagine everyone as base as themselves."
Treason Felony Act 1848
"To suppress plain-speaking in the press and at public meetings, the Government proposed a new and stringent law, by which what was only sedition, punishable by a brief imprisonment, became treason-felony, punishable by transportation for life." This is how Charles Gavan Duffy described the new law. To justify his proposal for a fundamental alteration in the right of free meeting and free publication of opinion, the Home Secretary read only extracts from two or three articles and speeches, but the House found them sufficient. On its third reading, on 18 April 1848, Prime Minister Lord John Russell said "as long as he had any breath in him he would oppose the Repeal of the Legislative Union", which clearly shows the motivation behind the new act. Mitchel said in a published letter to Russell:
(For the full text of the letter see here.)
"The Crown and Government... are, it seems, in danger, and want 'further security'. Security against her own beloved, highly-favoured, too-indulgently used, but ungrateful subjects! ... what is strangest than all, it seems to be from the Irish that you fear this danger most; the people whom you have been nourishing, cherishing and spoon-feeding, by means of so many kind and well-paid British nurses, for two years—on whom you have lavished so many tons of printed paper, so many millions of cooked rations—these are the people who plot 'treason,' and eagerly flock to hear 'open and advised speaking,' eagerly devour 'published, printed, and written' language all urging them to arm for the overthrow of British rule in Ireland!"
On 13 May, while having dinner with his family, Mitchel was served a warrant for his arrest on two charges of "felony" under the new Act. He was accompanied to the Police office by his brother William and Thomas Devin Reilly. The chief Police Magistrate Mr Porter handed Mitchel a warrant for his committal, which affirmed that "John Mitchel... did wilfully and feloniously compass, imagine, invent, devise, and intend to deprive and depose our most Gracious Lady the Queen, from the style, honour, and royal name of the imperial crown of the United Kingdom, and levy war against her Majesty, in order, by force and constraint, to compel her to change her measures and counsels; and such compassings, imaginations, inventions, devices, and intentions, did... express, utter and declare, by publishing certain printings in a certain news paper called The United Irishman."
Trial and sentence
The Commission Court opened on 20 May, and Baron Lefroy proceeded to charge the grand jury. On Monday the foreman handed down a true bill against Mitchel. The Clerk of the Crown asked for what the bill was. To illustrate the rapidity with which the whole case was despatched; and the absolute indifference "whether there was justice done or not," P.A. Sillard, one of Mitchel's biographers, quoted from the speech of Mitchel's defence Council Robert Holms, "The foreman of the Grand Jury, gentlemen, having been asked if the jury had found bills against the prisoner—replied— 'Oh yes, we find him guilty of sedition.' 'Gentlemen,' said the officer of the court, 'he is not indicted for sedition.' 'Well,' said the fore man, 'we find him guilty of treason.' 'But, gentlemen,' again interrupted the officer, 'the charge against Mr Mitchel is for felony.' 'Oh, no matter!' said the foreman, 'sedition, treason, or felony, it is all the same to us." Sillard concluded, "Justice! the thing is not to be had in British law courts. The petty jury having been sworn, the remaining portion of this awful scene was very quickly gone through."
The Attorney-General stated the case and endeavoured to defend himself against the accusation of having tampered with the jury-list. The witnesses were then examined, and at 12.15pm, Robert Holmes, a veteran Republican of '98, and the brother-in-law of Robert Emmet, rose to address the jury on behalf of the prisoner. This was to be his last ever speech, and in it took the views of the prisoner and made them his own. It was according to Sillard "the grand old Republican of '98 resolved to attest the justice of the Republican of a later day, and hurl defiance in the face of English law."
(For the full text of the speech see here.)
Holmes having concluded his speech, counsel for the Crown, Mr Henn, replied. Judge Moore then charged the jury, who retired to consider their verdict, which after some time they brought in and handed down to the clerk of the Crown. That verdict was "Guilty."
On the following morning, the clerk of the Crown went through formality of asking if Mitchel had anything to say why sentence should not be passed upon him. Mitchel said: "I have to say that I have been found guilty by a packed jury—by the jury of a partisan sheriff—by a jury not empanelled even according to the law of England. That is the reason I object to the sentence being passed upon me."
Baron Lefroy then proceeded to pass sentence. He denied that the jury had been packed, reiterated the offences mentioned in the indictment, and concluded by saying:— "I wish you to understand [addressing Mitchel] that we have, with the utmost anxiety, and with a view to come to a decision upon the measure of punishment which it would be our duty to impose, postponed the passing of sentence upon you till this morning. We have with the utmost deliberation, examined the matter, with an anxiety to duly discharge the duty which we owe on all hands— the duty which we owe the prisoner of not meting out punishment beyond the just measure of the offence, and the duty we owe to the public that the degree of punishment will be such as to carry out the object of all punishment, which is not the mere infliction of the penalty upon the person convicted, but the prevention of crime—that that punishment should carry with it a security to the country, as far as possible, that one who has offended so perseveringly—that so deliberate a violator of the law shall not be permitted to continue his course of conduct to the disturbance of its peace and prosperity. We had to consider all this—to look at the magnitude of the crime, and to look also at the consideration that if this were not the first case brought under the Act, our duty might have obliged us to carry out the penalty it awards to the utmost extent; but taking into consideration that this is the first conviction under the Act—though the offence has been as clearly proved as any offence of the kind could be—the sentence of the court is that you, John Mitchel, be transported beyond the seas for the term of fourteen years."
An eruption of indignation followed and as soon as silence had been restored, Mitchel delivered his opinion.
Speech from the Dock
"The law has now done its part, and the Queen of England, her crown and Government in Ireland, are now secure pursuant to Act of Parliament. I have done my part also. Three months ago I promised Lord Clarendon, and his government, in this country, that I would provoke him into his courts of justice, as places of this kind are called, and that I would force him publicly and notoriously to pack a Jury against me to convict me, or else that if I would walk out a free man from this dock, to meet him in another field. My lord, I knew I was setting my life on that cast; but I warned him that in either event the victory would be with me, and the victory is with me. Neither the jury, nor the judges, nor any other man in this court, presumes to imagine that it is a criminal who stands in this dock. I have kept my word. "I have shown what the law is made of in Ireland. I have shown that her Majesty's Government sustains itself in Ireland by packed juries by partisan judges, by perjured sheriffs. I have acted all through this business, from the first, under a strong sense of duty. I do not repent anything I have done: and I believe that the course which I have opened is only commenced, The Roman who saw his hand burning to ashes before the tyrant, promised that three hundred should follow out his enterprise, Can I not promise [Mitchel looking at Martin, Reilly, and Meagher, who stood round the dock] for one, for two, for three, aye, for hundreds."
According to Mitchel's biographers, an outburst of passion followed this speech, and several voices exclaimed, "Yes, Mitchel, for thousands." "And promise for me," as Mitchel was led away.
Deportation and the Jail Journal
He was transported to Ireland Island, Bermuda, where the Royal Navy was notoriously using convict labour to carve out a dockyard and naval base. Bermuda had long been used as a penal colony. In the 17th century, numerous Irish Prisoners-of-War (POW) and civilians were sent to Bermuda (see Irish Diaspora) and sold into servitude following Cromwell's invasion of Ireland. (Bermuda would be used as late as the Second Boer War as a place to which Boer POWs were removed). In the 19th century, owing to a lack of manual labourers in Bermuda, the Royal Navy had begun using convicts from British and Irish prisons to build its dockyard. These men were housed in prison hulks, where many succumbed to disease, particularly yellow fever. Convicts were treated harshly, and worked hard. Conditions were severe enough to lead to prison revolts, and the executions of rioters. Surviving his time in Bermuda, Mitchel was then sent to the penal colony of Van Diemen's Land (modern-day Tasmania, Australia). It was during this journey he wrote his Jail Journal, in which he repudiated British policy in Ireland and advocated a more radical brand of nationalism.
The United States
Mitchel, aided by Patrick James Smyth, escaped from the colony in 1853 and settled in the United States, where he edited the collections of the poetry of Mangan and Davis, He established the radical Irish nationalist newspaper The Citizen in New York, as an expression of radical Irish-American anti-British opinion. The paper was controversial for its defence of slavery by highlighting the (supposed) hypocrisy of the abolitionists in the debate.
Racism and Pro-Slavery Advocacy
Mitchel claimed that slaves in the southern United States were better cared for and fed than Irish cottiers, or industrial workers in English cities like Manchester. His views were explicitly racist, negroes were "an innately inferior people" opining "We deny that it is a crime, or a wrong, or even a peccadillo to hold slaves, to buy slaves, to keep slaves to their work by flogging or other needful correction. We wish we had a good plantation well-stocked with healthy negroes in Alabama." In correspondence with his good friend John Kenyon he states that he wanted to make the people of the US "proud and fond of [slavery] as a national institution, and advocate its extension by re-opening the trade in Negroes." He claimed that slavery was inherently moral, it was "good in itself" and that he "promotes it for its own sake."
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 1845 Irish famine. 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 Famine."
Mitchel resigned from the paper and toured as a spokesman for the South. In 1857 in Knoxville, Tennessee, he founded a new paper, the Southern Citizen to promote "the value and virtue of slavery, both for negroes and white men", advocate the reopening of the African slave trade and encourage the spread of slavery into the American West. He moved the paper to Washington in 1859. When the Civil War broke out in 1861 he moved to Richmond, Virginia, the Confederate capital, to edit the powerful Richmond Enquirer. As a spokesman for the cause of the South, he was the first to claim that slavery and abolition were not the cause of the conflict but simply used as a pretence. Two of his sons died in the war, and a third lost an arm. He equated the Confederacy with Ireland, as both were agricultural economies tied into an unjust union. The Union States and England were:"..the commercial, manufacturing and money-broking power ... greedy, grabbing, griping and grovelling".
Mitchel fell out with Jefferson Davis, whom he regarded as too moderate. Abraham Lincoln was described as follows: "...he was an ignoramus and a boor; not an apostle at all; no grand reformer, not so much as an abolitionist, except by accident – a man of very small account in every way."
Mitchel moved to New York City in 1865 to edit the Daily News. The Tweed Machine put him in prison for a short time but he was released with the assistance of the Fenians. Slavery was dead and Mitchel returned his focus to the issue of Ireland. He founded his third American newspaper, the Irish Citizen in New York City, but the paper failed to attract readers and folded in 1872. In part this was because he used it to criticise the Irish-born Catholic archbishop of New York, John Hughes. Mitchel worked for a time in Paris as financial agent for the Fenians before again returning to the States.
Elected an MP
Mitchel returned to Ireland where in 1875 he was elected in a by-election to be an MP in the British parliament representing the Tipperary constituency. However his election was invalidated on the grounds that he was 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 number of Gaelic Athletic Association Clubs are named in his honour:
- Newry Mitchel's GFC in his home town, in County Down
- John Mitchel's of Birmingham
- John Mitchel's of Brisbane, Queensland
- John Mitchel's of Liverpool
- John Mitchel's of Belfast, County Antrim
- John Mitchel's of Claudy and John Mitchel's of Glenullin, both in County Derry
- John Mitchel's of Tralee, County Kerry
- John Mitchel's of County Waterford
- John Mitchel's of Dromiskin, County Louth
- Castlebar Mitchel's, County Mayo
- Fort Mitchel, Spike Island, Cork Harbour
A statue to Mitchel was also erected by the people of Newry, and is located at John Mitchel Place, an extension of Newry's main street, Hill Street.
Mitchel Park in Dungiven is named after him.
Mitchell County, Iowa, USA is named in his honour.
Mitchel remains an important figure in Irish history 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".
Fort Mitchel on Spike Island is name in his honour.
- 2003 essay by James Quinn: "John Mitchel and the rejection of the nineteenth century"
- Article by Fabian Boyle: "Newry Foresters Inspired By Presbyterian Patriot"
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Books by John Mitchel
- An Apology for the British Government in Ireland, O'Donoghue & Company. 1905
- Jail Journal, M.H. Gill & Sons, Ltd 1914
- Jail Journal: with continuation in New York & Paris, M.H. Gill & Son, Ltd
- The Crusade of the Period, Lynch, Cole & Meehan 1873
- Last Conquest of Ireland (Perhaps), Lynch, Cole & Meehan 1873
- History of Ireland, from the Treaty of Limerick to the Present Time, Cameron & Ferguson 1868
- Reply to the Falsification of History by James Anthony Froude, Entitled 'The English in Ireland' or The Crusade of the Period, Cameron & Ferguson n.d.
- History of Ireland, from the Treaty of Limerick to the Present Time (2 Vol), James Duffy 1869
- Life of Hugh O'Neill, P.M. Haverty 1868
- The Last Conquest of Ireland (Perhaps), (Glasgow, 1876 – reprinted University College Dublin Press, 2005) ISBN I-905558-36-4
- Davis, Poems and Essays Complete, Introduction by John Mitchel, P.M. Haverty, P.J. Kenedy, 9/5 Barclay St. New York, 1876.
- The life of John Mitchel, William Dillon, (London, 1888) 2 Vols.
- Life of John Mitchel, P.A. Sillard, James Duffy and Co., Ltd 1908
- John Mitchel, P.S. O'Hegarty, Maunsel & Company, Ltd 1917
- Mitchel's Election a National Triumph, Charles J. Rosebault, J. Duffy, 1917
- Irish Mitchel, Seamus MacCall, Thomas Nelson and Sons Ltd 1938
- John Mitchel: First Felon for Ireland, Edited By Brian O'Higgins, Brian O'Higgins 1947
- John Mitchel Noted Irish Lives, Louis J. Walsh, The Talbot Press Ltd 1934
- John Mitchel, A Cause Too Many, Aidan Hegarty, Camlane Press 2005
- Jail Journal was first serialised in his first New York City newspaper, The Citizen, from 14 January 1854 to 19 August 1854
- William Dillon, The life of John Mitchel (London, 1888) 2 Vols. Ch I-II
- William Dillon, The Life of John Mitchel (London, 1888) 2 Vols. Ch III
- William Dillon, The Life of John Mitchel (London, 1888) 2 Vols. Ch IV
- Young Ireland, T.F. O'Sullivan, The Kerryman Ltd, 1945.
- The Nation newspaper, 1844
- The Nation newspaper, 1845
- The Nation newspaper, 1846
- William Dillon, The Life of John Mitchel (London, 1888) 2 Vols p177.
- The United Irishman, 1848
- P.A. Sillard, Life of John Mitchel, James Duffy and Co. Ltd, 1908
- William Dillon, Life of John Mitchel, (London, 1888), Ch VI.
- For a better account of Butt's defence of O'Brien and Meagher read The Road to Excess by Terence White
- Dennis Gwynn, Young Ireland and 1848, Cork University Press 1949.
- Four Years of Irish History 1845–1849, Sir Charles Gavan Duffy, Cassell, Petter, Galpin & Co. 1888
- The Last Conquest of Ireland (Perhaps), 1860
- History Ireland, May 2007, p.30.
- History Ireland, May 2007, http://www.historyireland.com/volumes/volume15/issue3/features/?id=166
- The Great Dan, Charles Chevenix Trench, Jonathan Cape Ltd, (London 1984), p274.
- Fogarty, Lillian (1921). Fr. John Kenyon – A Patriot Priest of '48. Dublin: Whelan & Son. p. 163.
- History Ireland, May 2007, p32.
- James Patrick Byrne; Philip Coleman; Jason Francis King (2008). Ireland and the Americas: Culture, Politics, and History : a Multidisciplinary Encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO. p. 597.
- History Ireland, May 2007, p.34.
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