John Mitchel

John Mitchel

Image source: John Mitchel's Jail Journel, 1861

John Mitchel was born in Camnish, Co Londonderry, on November 3, 1815, the son of
the Rev. John Mitchel, a Presbyterian Minister. He received his primary education at Dr. Henderson's Classical School in Newry, where he met his lifelong friend John Martin. At the age of fifteen he continued his educated at Trinity College, Dublin, where he received a degree in law in 1834. In 1837, he married Jane Verner, with whom he had three sons and two daughters. In 1839 Mitchel suffered his first asthma attack, marking the onset of a condition that troubled him for the rest of his life, especially in his later years.  

After completing his apprenticeship in 1840, he practiced as an attorney in Banbridge, where he met the colorful and outgoing nationalist Thomas Davis. At the time, Davis was the chief organizer of the Young Ireland movement, and assistant editor of the nationalist weekly newspaper, The Nation, owned and edited by Charles Gavin Duffy.In the fall of 1845 Mitchel was invited by Duffy to join The Nation, and he moved to Dublin to contribute to The Nation full time. He replaced Thomas Davis as the assistant editor, as Davis had recently passed after a bout with scarlet fever. At this time he also joins the Repeal Association, which, inspired by Daniel O'Connell, campaigned for the peaceful dissolution of the union with England. Mitchel, however, was also associated with the emerging Young Ireland movement, whose militant stance and advocacy for physical force when necessary lead to a collision between the older and younger leaders of the paper.

While at The Nation, Mitchel covered a wide variety of subjects, but some of his most influential work covered the famine. On October twenty fifth 1845 he wrote on "The People's Food", pointing to the failure of the potato crop, and he warned landlords that pursuing their tenants for rent would only force them to sell their other crops and cause them to starve. This began Mitchel’s strong political writing campaign against the English Rule in Ireland. He followed with pieces like "England's Difficulty is Ireland's Opportunity" on November 1, 1845, where he pointed out how powerful a role hunger had in other popular revolutions. Then on November 8, he wrote an article titled “The Detective” where he attacked the Irish Government, calling it a machine for its people’s destruction and criticizing it for not taking steps to prevent or alleviate the famine. This was followed by "Threats of Coercion" on November 22, 1845, where he advocates for attacks on railways. On December 6, 1845 in an article titled "Oregon—Ireland," he writes that should conflict  arise between England and the United States there may even be an opportunity to be had for the Irish. Then on the 28th of February, Mitchel wrote, "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.” while observing the Coercion Bill then going through the House of Lords in English Parliament.

In July 1846, Mitchel, together with Duffy and others, formally separated from O'Connell's Repeal Association, and established the Irish Confederation. Mitchel played a prominent role in the Confederation, and openly advocating for the complete separation from England. He believed that the English wouldn’t grant the Irish freedom willingly and thought that physical force was the only course they could take. In December of 1847 Mitchel left The Nation due to his hardline policy against the English Government-- one that other Young Ireland leaders were unwilling to pursue. Mitchel stated that he had “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 combinationamong 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."

Since he could no longer voice his views in The Nation, Mitchel started his own paper: The United Irishman. Edited by Mitchel and contributed to by a number of others, including John Martin, the first issue was released in February 1848. Mitchel used his new paper as a platform to continue to voice his anti-English Government stance.  He called for resistance through the non-payment of rents, and preventing the export of food from the country, which became known as boycotting. He became most vocal in highlighting how the English, in his eyes, deliberately mishandled the famine in order to reduce the Irish population to make it more manageable to control. He believed that a large majority of the Irish population were hostile towards the law makers of England, and that through a passive resistance they could bring English law into contempt.

In an article on February 12th, Mitchel correctly predicted the Government would have a response to his open letter regarding his boycotts. Noting how the English Government would have to prosecute him, Mitchel welcomed it, hoping a trial would further his agenda by shedding light on the corruption of the English Government. Only sixteen issues of The United Irishman had been published when Mitchel was arrested on April 15th 1848 and accused of seditious libels. After a delay called for by Mitchel and his defense, however, the English Government replaced the charges with those of Treason Felony. On May 20th Mitchel was found guilty by a packed jury and sentenced him to fourteen years.

Over the next five years, Mitchel wrote entries into his famous jail journal, which he
later published in the New York newspaper The Citizen. Mitchel was sent to Bermuda to work as a convict laborer to help build docks and the English Naval Base. Within months of arrival, however, the climate started to agitate Mitchel’s asthma, and he suffered constant attacks that only grew in severity. In December, Mitchel wrote a letter to the Governor of Bermuda requesting to be sent elsewhere to serve the remaineder of his sentence. In February of the following year, Michel's request is granted abd that he sent to the penal colony of Van Diemen's Land, which is now Tasmania, Australia.

Mitchel arrived in Tasmania in April of 1850. Once there, he led a much easier life than in Bermuda. As long as he reported once monthly and promised not to escape, Mitchel was essentially free to go about his business. He was then reunited with his longtime friend John Martin and together they lived in a cottage in the village of Bothwell. After a few months, Mitchel’s health began to improve rapidly, and his journal entries grow sparser. He even invites his family to stay with him in June of 185. Two years later, however, after careful planning and with the aid of P.J. Smyth Mitchel, he and his family successfully escape Tasmania and travel to New York. Upon arriving in November, he is greeted with a hero's welcome by his fellow countrymen.

Once in America Mitchel became an editor for the Irish-American nationalist
paper The Citizen. He used the paper as a platform to bring to light to Americans the abuses of the English government of the Irish people. Unfortunately, he also used it to defend and support slavery in America, believing that black slaves were better treated than cottier farmers in Ireland. His unrepentant defense of slavery lead to his parting with The Citizen, so he moved to Tennessee in 1857, where he founded The Southern Citizen. In the south, he found a more receptive audiance for his were his pro-slavery views.

When the Civil War broke out in 1861, he moved to Richmond, Virginia, the Confederate capital, to edit The Richmond Enquirer. Two of his three sons would die in the course of the Civil War and the third was injured fighting for the south. When the war ended Mitchel returned to New York. There he founded The Irish Citizen in 1867 to once again bring attention to Irish suppression. In 1875 Mitchel returned to Ireland, where he was elected in a by-election to be a member of the Parliament of the United Kingdom. Unfortunately his election was contested, and during the appeals process died suddenly, leaving behind a legacy of a strong voice for Irish Nationalism.



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"Famous Irish Lives - John Mitchel." Famous Irish Lives - John Mitchel. Famous Irish Lives. Web. 15 Apr. 2016.

McGovern, Bryan P. John Mitchel: Irish Nationalist, Southern Secessionist. 1st ed. Knoxville: U of Tennessee, 2009. Print.

Whiteley, Sam. "John Mitchel vs The British Penal System." Prison Voices. 2014. Web. 15 Apr. 2016.