John Mitchel  (1815 - 1875)

John Mitchel was born on November 3, 1815 at the manse, Camnish, near Dungiven, Co. Derry to the Rev. John Mitchel, a Presbyterian Minister, and Mary (Haslett).  In 1823 the family settled in Dromalane House in Newry, when his father became minister of Newry Presbyterian Church.

Mitchel received his early education at Dr. Henderson's Classical School in Newry  where he met his lifelong friend John Martin. After completing his schooling in Newry he attended  Trinity College, Dublin from whence he graduated with a law degree in 1834. 

In 1837, he married seventeen year old Jane (Jenny) Verner of Newry, by whom he had three sons and two daughters. After completing his  apprenticeship in 1840  he practiced as an attorney in Banbridge where he met the charismatic and influential  nationalist  Thomas Davis the chief organizer the Young Ireland movement, who at the time was assistant editor of the nationalist weekly newspaper, The Nation, owned and edited by Charles Gavin Duffy.

Upon the death of  Thomas Davis  in the Autumn of 1845, Mitchel gave up his  practice in Banbridge and moved to Dublin where he assumed Davis's role as assistant editor of the Nation.   Meanwhile he had joined the Daniel O'Connell Repeal Association whose aim was to peacefully dissolve the union with England. Disillusioned with the lack of progress he joined the emerging Young Ireland movement, whose militancy and advocacy of physical force were leading to a collision between the older and younger leaders.

In July 1846, Mitchel, together with Thomas Francis  Meagher, William Smith O’Brien, Charles Gavin Duffy and others, formally separated from O'Connell's Repeal Association, and established the Irish Confederation. Mitchel assumed a prominent role in the Confederation, openly advocating the complete separation from England, a belief he fervently advocated  for the rest of his life. He firmly believed that England would never grant Ireland any degree of freedom willingly and concluded that physical force was the only option if freedom was to be achieved.

In December 1847 Mitchel resigned from the Nation which he considered to be too moderate and in February of 1848 parted company with  the Confederation in a dispute over the issue of resistance to the collection of rates.  Also in February of 1848 he published the first issue of a weekly newspaper the United Irishman whose motto for the paper was 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." In the first issue he called for  a "holy war to sweep this island clear of the English name and nation," and referred to the Lord-Lieutenant as "Her Majesty's Executioner General and General Butcher of Ireland".

In May 1848 Mitchel was arrested under the new Treason Felony Act, convicted and sentenced to transportation for fourteen years. After sentencing he was   sent from Dublin on board HMS 'Scourge' to Spike Island in Cork harbor where he was incarcerated for three days. From there he was transported to Van Dieman's Land, (now Tasmania) which he reached after spells in the hulks (skeleton ships) in Bermuda and the Cape of Good Hope. Upon his arrival in Van Dieman's Land he was granted a ticket-of-leave on parole and allowed to live amongst his fellow United Irishmen, including his old friend John  Martin, Thomas Francis Meagher, Thomas Bellew MacManus, and Kevin Izod O'Doherty, all of whom had been arrested and sentenced, as was he, to transportation. His wife Jenny and children joined him in 1851.

In June of 1853, Mitchel's  friend, Patrick J. Smyth,  traveled from New York, posing as correspondent of the New York Tribune, to facilitate his escape. After surrendered his parole and ticket-of-leave at Bothwell police station, Mitchel  made his way to New York via Hobart,  Sydney,  Batavia and  San Francisco. Upon  arrival in New York in November of 1853  he received a hero's welcome  from his fellow-countrymen.

After settling in New York he edited  James Clarence Mangan and Thomas Osborne Davis collections of  poetry.  Together with Thomas Francis Meagher he   established the Irish nationalist newspaper The Citizen in which he serialized his Jail Journal, a detailed account of his time in English prisons. The Jail Journal was published in 1854 as 'Five Years in British Prisons'. He also used The Citizen to expose and condemn British oppression in Ireland and, surprisingly, to defend the institution of slavery; arguing that slaves in the southern states were better cared for and fed than Irish cottiers (peasant farmers) or industrial workers in English cities. In 1861 Mitchel wrote The Last Conquest of Ireland  in which he  accused England of "deliberate murder" for their actions during the 1845 Irish famine. An excerpt from the book reads as follows;

A million and a half of men, women and children, were carefully, prudently, and peacefully slain by the English government. They died of hunger in the midst of abundance, which their own hands created; and it is quite immaterial to distinguish those who perish in the agonies of famine itself from those who died of typhus fever, which in Ireland is always caused by famine.

Further, I have called it an artificial famine: that is to say, it was a famine which desolated a rich and fertile island, that produced every year abundance and superabundance to sustain all her people and many more. The English, indeed, call that famine a ‘dispensation of Providence;’ and ascribe it entirely to the blight of the potatoes. But potatoes failed in like manner all over Europe; yet there was no famine save in Ireland. The British account of the matter, then, is first, a fraud - second, a blasphemy. The Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight, but the English created the famine....

The subjection of Ireland is now probably assured until some external shock shall break up that monstrous commercial firm, the British Empire; which, indeed, is a bankrupt firm, and trading on false credit, and embezzling the goods of others, or robbing on the highway, from Pole to Pole, but its doors are not yet shut; its cup of abomination is not yet running over. If any American has read this narrative, however, he will never wonder hereafter when he hears an Irishman in America fervently curse the British Empire. So long as this hatred and horror shall last - so long as our island refuses to become, like Scotland, a contented province of her enemy, Ireland is not finally subdued. The passionate aspiration for Irish nationhood will outlive the British empire.

As was typical of Mitchel he could not reconcile his views with those of Meagher and as a consequence the Citizen went out of business. After that Mitchel spent some time in Washington DC working as a reporter before relocating to Tennessee where he edited The Southern Citizen.. When the American Civil War broke out he moved to  Richmond to edit The Enquirer, the semi-official organ of Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy. The war cost him dearly as two of his sons were killed fighting in the Confederate army, John at Fort Sumter and Willie at Gettysburg. His third son James lost an arm in one of  the Seven Days battles around Richmond.

After the war ended Mitchel moved back to New York to edit the New York Daily News.  His continued advocacy of the southern cause earned him five months of confinement in Fortress Monroe in Virginia. He was released after the Fenian organization interceded on his behalf.  After a year in  Paris as financial agent for the Fenians he returned to New York where in 1867 he founded the Irish Citizen.

By 1874 Mitchel had allied himself with Clan na Gael. Flanked by the Clan leadership he gave a speech at the Cooper Institute in New York describing  his recent trip to Ireland and denouncing constitutional nationalism.  He contributed his speaking fee to the fund set up to rescue Fenian prisoners in Australia.

During his trip to Ireland in 1874 he ran  for parliament from Tipperary and won a lopsided victory against a conservative candidate. Although he won he had no intention of taking his seat in as he considered the Parliament an illegitimate body. In February of 1875 the British Parliament declared him  ineligible to hold the seat as an undischarged felon. He was subsequently re-elected unopposed  in 1875.

John Mitchel died in Dromalane House in Newry on 20 March 1875 nine days after his re-election.

Mitchel's most important works were: Life of Aodh O'Neill, Jail Journal, Last Conquest of Ireland  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.

Click here for photos relating to John Mitchel's incarceration on Spike Island

Contributed by;  Tomás Ó Coısdealha

cemetery AND grave location

Name:        Little Unitarian Graveyard                                      PHONE NO.     

ADDRESS:   High Street, Newry, Co. Down, Ireland



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