Digging through some files recently I came across this article on John Mitchel I’d written some years ago for a publication in Australia on the Young Irelanders. I can’t remember why but the book never saw the light of day. So here it is ….
Only the most committed readers of this blog may know that John Mitchel, the Irish patriot, author of Jail Journal and numerous other books, and father of physical-force Irish Republicansim is a relative of mine.
This article is about the last year of Mitchel’s dramatic life – right to the end he caused political upheaval, fierce opposition, adoring support, a women’s strike against men (!) and even a new law to be passed in Parliament banning former felons from becoming MPs.
So, for a change of subject, here’s a bit of Irish history.
John Mitchel’s Return to Ireland 1874-5
For much of the 1990s I lived in the tiny village of Coalbrook, Co. Tipperary. Our view looked out on the rolling landscape of the Slieveardagh Hills, and, by remarkable circumstance, in the distance we could see the Widow McCormack’s house, scene of the 1848 rebellion. John Mitchel, imprisoned in his hulk-ship cell as prisoner 2014 en route to Van Diemen’s Land, with typical outspokenness, called it a ‘poor extemporised abortion of an uprising in Tipperary [at] this cursed Ballingarry’. It was strange, as a Mitchel 150 years later, to wander around that deserted shell with all its associations with the Young Irelanders.
When, in 1998, different events were held in the area to commemorate 1848, I was honoured as a relative of John Mitchel to be asked by Dr William Nolan of University College Dublin to give a lecture on ‘the Patriot’ at the Slieveardagh Summer School. On its conclusion, Mr William Corbett of Drombane, Thurles generously presented me with a bound edition of a John Mitchel Scrapbook 1874-75 that he had purchased at auction in 1976. Within its covers, an anonymous hand has assiduously cut and pasted eighty pages of newspaper clippings containing a mine of information relating to the events of the last year of Mitchel’s life.
Reading the Scrapbook I was struck by the details of a fascinating and (in true Mitchel style) gripping story in its own right. It appears to me that the events surrounding his double return, double election and death have often been telescoped into a brief addendum in accounts of his life, overshadowed perhaps by the intense drama of his earlier adventures. It is these events on which I wish to reflect in this essay.
Mitchel set out from New York on 14 July 1874 on the Idaho, accompanied by his daughter Isabel and a Dr. Carroll of Philadelphia, and arrived in Queenstown (Cobh), largely unannounced, eleven days later. It was twenty-six years since he had seen the Irish coast. Evidently ill, his friends in Cork were struck by his prematurely aged appearance. Newspaper reports described his health as fragile,
‘He looks careworn, and his voice is far from robust, while a hollow asthmatic cough falls occasionally and disagreeably on the ear.’
Sentiment was largely sympathetic to the old rebel, now a naturalized American citizen, apparently back on a personal visit. The Freeman’s Journal opined that
‘After the lapse of a quarter of a century – after the loss of two of his sons … John Mitchel again treads his native land, a prematurely aged, enfeebled man. Whatever the opinions as to the wisdom of his course … none can deny the respect due to honest of purpose and fearlessness of heart.’
After large public demonstrations of support in Cork and Dublin, he arrived in Newry on 28 July, unhindered by the forces of the state. There he was welcomed by his brother-in-law, Mr Hill Irvine, and so returned once again to his boyhood home of Dromolane. After a stay of some weeks, he left Newry for Dublin on 8 September where he was met by John Martin and others. Then on 25 September, he continued to Killarney and thence on to Cork for departure back to America on 1 October 1874 on the steamer Minnesota. The visit was low key throughout, but Mitchel was never a man to go quietly. The scene was set for his second return.
Back in America on 8 December 1874, Mitchel lectured on ‘Ireland Revisited’ at the Cooper Institute in New York. The event was organized by the Clan-na-Gael Association. Its size and long list of prominent nationalists (including O’Donovan Rossa) in attendance, spoke of Mitchel’s undimmed charisma and political influence. The Irishman noted that ‘his love of Ireland, if possible, seems to have increased, while his hatred of the oppressor has unquestionable suffered no mitigation.’ Certainly Mitchel displayed no softening of his zealous desire for independence. His speech is worth commenting on in detail in that it reveals much of his thinking as he entered the last tumultuous year of his extraordinary life. In it he spoke with characteristic flamboyance, nationalistic optimism and a fair degree of prophetic foresight. He outlined three specific reasons for re-visiting his homeland. These were thoughts he had kept largely private until this point, ‘you may suppose that while in Ireland, though my mouth was shut, my eyes and ears were open’. The first motive was that he wished to visit his relations in the North. His second was more political,
‘knowing that Irish history is not yet concluded, that it is not a book that is closed and sealed – knowing that a high destiny is inevitable to Ireland, that she is indestructible and immortal – I desired to see “How fares it with old Ireland, and how does she stand (loud cheers)”.’
Although these reasons were persuasive, the third was clearly the catalyst for his voyage. Mitchel had been nominated (unknown to him) by citizens of Cork and Tipperary in a general election of early summer of 1874 when still in America. However, it was the reaction to his nomination that galvanised him into action. His words reveal a man with undimmed political passion. This was no purely private return.
There was a class of newspapers in Ireland which said that I was ineligible; that my sentence of felony was not yet discharged; that if I went there I should be arrested; that a vote for me was a vote thrown away; that I dared not set foot in Ireland at all. Well I would not be dared (loud and prolonged cheering). I said to myself, ‘One of these days I intended to go, and as friends are desirous of my presence I may as well go now’. I felt offended by the assumption on the part of Irish gentlemen that I was a proscribed man; that I was legally exiled from my country and dared not go back; that Cork and Tipperary could not elect me to represent them … Of course, I was well aware that in landing I was placing myself in the power of mortal enemies. It was nevertheless my intention, if any vacancy should occur, to offer myself as a candidate – not to test the question of eligibility, but to get the Irish members to put in operation the plan suggested by O’Connell at one time, of declining to attend in Parliament altogether (enthusiastic applause) that is, to try to discredit and explode the fraudulent pretence of representation in the Parliament of Britain.
In the same speech, Mitchel dismissed the Home Rule movement, despite the best intentions of it members including his closest friend John Martin, as hopelessly naïve. On Martin, Mitchel commented, he ‘now attends Parliament like other good Irishmen, a demoralising practice’. Mitchel argued that the fruitless experience in Parliament of even someone like Thomas Francis Meagher demonstrated that
‘the fact that this Home Rule League goes to Parliament and sets it hope therein, puts me in indignation against the Home Rule League … they are not Home Rulers but Foreign Rulers. Now it is painful for me to say even so much in disparagement of so excellent a body of men as they are … after a little while they will be bought.’
As with O’Connell’s constitutional reform, Mitchel’s impatience with the Home Rule League lay in its unwillingness to resort to physical force. He argued
‘One would suppose that the affair of keeping the peace within the borders of Ireland would be an Irish affair. But no Home Ruler has claimed that in Parliament. That is left out of Home Rule policy. Not one of them has ventured to say they want to arm themselves and become volunteers. They have not breathed so Irish a sentiment.’
The only way England would ever surrender was if she were ‘beaten to her knees’. He contended that Home Rule candidates were not representing their own constituencies but in reality
‘they are representing the I. R. B. (loud cheers). Yes there is a great mass of silent, quiet power now holding itself still, collecting itself together – making itself ready should an opportunity present itself.’
When no vacancy arose in 1874 Mitchel returned to Brooklyn with the clear intention of returning in the spring of 1875 ‘if I could see my way of doing good there’. His hopes were fulfilled perhaps more quickly that he imagined following the resignation of Colonel Charles White MP for Tipperary in January 1875. Almost immediately, on 3 February, Mitchel set sail from New York once again. Somewhat ironically, it was John Martin who wrote to the Fenian activist C. J. Kickham announcing his friend’s candidature and promising that Mitchel ‘will immediately come to Ireland and present himself before the electors of Tipperary.’
Martin’s awkward position was highlighted by his own ambivalence over Mitchel’s quest. He hoped that Mitchel would be elected since ‘no living Irishman better deserves the highest political honour that his country can bestow’. This despite Martin’s view that Mitchel’s New York speech judged ‘the Home Rule movement in particular and the policy of the Home Rule party in a spirit that seems to me neither impartial nor friendly.’ In what can only be described as supreme optimism, Martin concluded that after Mitchel’s election ‘the Home Rule movement will not suffer, but will prosper and advance all the more.’
His benign hopes were not shared by other Home Rulers. Rev. Thadeus O’Malley, in a letter to the electors of Tipperary, passionately warned them not to do ‘an extremely foolish thing’ in returning Mitchel who was ‘utterly unfit’ to be the member for Tipperary. Martin had made a ‘grave mistake’ in backing Mitchel ‘blinded by too intense an admiration of Mr. Mitchel’s rare abilities and his close affinity for him.’ Mitchel had given ‘gross personal insult to the sixty gentlemen representing the League in the House of Commons.’ How could the electors of Tipperary send to Parliament ‘its avowed enemy’ who, in light of his ‘expressed contempt for their cause’, would find it impossible to co-operate with the Home Rule movement?
O’Malley developed his case against Mitchel at a more profound level with an argument that continues to reverberate down the generations through contrasting figures like O’Connell and the Young Irelanders; Redmond and Pearse; Collins (post-Treaty) and de Valera; and Hume and Adams. In short, it revolved around the divide between those holding to the effectiveness, morality and electoral validity of constitutional nationalism as against the ineffectiveness, immorality and electoral invalidity of physical force republicanism.
O’Malley argued that Mitchel’s ‘insane notion’ of revolution in 1848 destroyed the chances of the National Confederation of ‘achieving something great for Ireland’ at a time when they were poised to do so. Most damning of all in O’Malley’s eyes was Mitchel’s arrogant disregard for democracy and the assumption that his path was the only legitimate one despite the absence of popular support within the National Confederation. He wrote that although Mitchel
‘had a perfectly free debate upon his motion for three whole nights and was utterly defeated by a large majority, instead of loyal obedience to the verdict he broke away from the Confederation altogether, putting himself at the head of a little clique or coterie of his own.’
Seen from this perspective, Mitchel’s imminent election put the Home Rule movement neatly on the horns of a dilemma. To oppose Mitchel was to be seen to betray an Irish hero. To welcome his renewed political role in Ireland was to invite criticism from an unbending and formidable foe. In the end, it was to be Mitchel’s failing health and the actions of the British Government that resolved their quandary.
Mitchel was elected unopposed on 16 February 1875 while still a day off the Irish coast. With unprecedented haste, within two hours of receiving the news by telegram and before the House of Commons had even received formal confirmation of the result, Disraeli gave notice of a motion for 18 February to declare the result invalid and to move a new writ for the county of Tipperary. His actions divided opinion and over the next few days there followed a rather torturous legal debate on Mitchel’s eligibility and fact that a decision of the House was being used to disqualify him rather than a judicial decision. In the event the motion was passed by 269 votes to 102.
Even The Times said ‘it seems most difficult, if not impossible’, to support the conclusion reached by the Crown.
‘To say that John Mitchel is a “felon” so far that he is incapable of being elected … but for all other purposes is as free as air, is to enunciate a proposition belonging rather to the domain of scholastic divinity than that of right human reason’.
Other London papers however were scathing in their dismissal of ‘a score of Tipperary nobodies’ who ‘render themselves again and again ridiculous if only they can vex the “enemies of the country”.’ The Daily Express caricatured Mitchel as a
‘form of Tipperary caprice [that] savours of Donnybrook Fair or the traveling show-box. The ringmaster, the punster, the posturer – somersault, grimace and grin, all are present in all their comic integrity’, such activities are ‘the refuge of imbeciles.’
Meanwhile in the midst of this controversy, John Mitchel had arrived at Queenstown on 17 February, accompanied by his only surviving son, Captain James Mitchel. That afternoon he traveled by train to Tipperary Town and then on to Clonmel. Crowds of thousands greeted him in both places and he vowed to contest Tipperary as often as a vacancy arose and ‘would go before any Irish constituency that would return him.’
Mitchel was back to stay – but surely no one realised just how short that stay was to be. His appearance was described without sympathy by a Daily News correspondent,
‘He is physically a wreck; pale, wan, feeble and emaciated … he has almost wholly lost the Irish accent, and there has been substituted for it what I may call an American intonation.’
Mitchel returned to Cork to rest as his supporters considered their next move. Meetings were held all over the county during the weekend of 20-21 February, the most important being a conference in Tipperary. In Thurles, ‘grave doubts [were] expressed as to the propriety of renominating Mitchel’ but the overall mood was one of bullish determination that renomination should proceed, not least in protest at the disenfranchisement of the voters of Tipperary. Interestingly C. J. Kickham advised against this, arguing that, after much effort, Mitchel’s re-election and inevitable expulsion would not add to the cause and it would be more effective to propose James in John’s place.
Perhaps if his words had been heeded, John would have lived longer – a second election was to cost him his life. His rapid decline was made evident by his failure to deliver a lecture ‘On Tipperary’ in Cork’s Theatre Royal on 26 February. Mitchel had to be helped from the stage ‘looking very ill’. Mr. John Dillon (son of John B. Dillon Young Irelander) read the text to a large audience in which Mitchel had concluded
‘To elicit from Tipperary the magnificent declaration of faith in the National right of Ireland, I consider that it was well worth my while to cross the ocean.’
Events proceeded apace towards the second election on 11 March. Heavyweight political voices spoke out for Mitchel, not least Issac Butt and Charles Stewart Parnell. The latter wrote a letter to The Freeman stating
‘On broad constitutional grounds it must become everyone to protest against the decision of an obscure legal question by a party vote, in hot blood, of the House of Commons … I beg you to put down £25 as my contribution to Mr. Mitchel’s committee.’
Then, on 5 March, the worst fears of Mitchel’s supporters were realised when Stephen Moore of Barne, Clonmel, a wealthy Conservative proprietor, put his name forward to contest the seat. Mitchel would not have a second walk-over and his opponent would likely be declared the winner in light of Mitchel’s inevitable disqualification. Canvassing for the two candidates was ‘conducted with energy and determination’ all over the county in the days running up the election. One correspondent was even shown a remarkable document entitled ‘A pledge by the women of Tipperary’ that promised
‘we will never walk with, talk with, cook for, wash for, court, marry, or countenance, but let live and die as they like any man who will not vote for and support John Mitchel for Tipperary’!
The result, announced on 12 March, declared that Mitchel had polled 3,114 votes to 746 for Moore. Unsurprisingly, the result elicited radically different political interpretations. English papers like the Morning Mail pointed out that only one third of the 9,246 registered voters had exercised their franchise and concluded (with remarkable logic) that this level of abstention entitled Moore ‘morally as well as legally to the seat.’
Mitchel, in a letter to The Irish Times indicated he would not attempt legally to defend his seat against Parliament’s decision to declare him ineligible. By this time he was already confined to his deathbed in Dromolane. His last letter was published on St. Patrick’s Day, 17 March 1875. In it he expressed his gratitude to the electorate of Tipperary and answered calls for him to ‘carry on the war at the bar of the House and before the judges.’ He wrote
If … any friend of mine in Tipperary thinks he has reason to be surprised at my manner of meeting the present emergency, or that I have, ever, at any time or in any manner, led him or others to suppose that I should act otherwise than I am doing, I can only refer him to my whole past political career and to all my published speeches and writings so far as they relate to this subject of Irish representation.
By this he meant that the matter was ‘now complete’ in that no more could be done to expose Tipperary’s effective disenfranchisement and the ‘fraudulent’ system of Irish representation in Parliament. He concluded with his last published words,
‘So now, my friends of Tipperary, I ask your favourable construction, and bid you farewell for the present, with God save Ireland.’
He died on 20 March at 8.00am, surrounded by family, but far from Jenny his wife of 38 years and son James who had returned to New York a week before.
John Mitchel was buried in the peculiar family graveyard in Newry, originally connected to the Non-Subscribing Presbyterian Church of which his father had been minister, but now completely surrounded by a convent of the order of Poor Clares. Revd. Craig Nelson gave the address from a pulpit from which Mitchel’s father had often preached. In it he revealed something of the ambivalence that many felt as they reflected on Mitchel’s flawed legacy,
But I may freely and candidly state, that as much as I loved and admired the man, I had no sympathy with his political views, nor with the means and measures by which he proposed to carry them out. But his most decided, and even his bitterest antagonists must and do admit his honesty of purpose, his self-sacrificing devotedness, his consistent and faithful adherence to his convictions, and his unswerving and untarnished truthfulness.
During the procession, John Martin had been unable to continue and had retired to one of the following carriages. In a bizarre twist of fate, during the graveside oration, he collapsed was carried out by mourners. He was never to recover and died a week later, also in Dromolane. The two old friends, united by ideals, transportation, and family ties were now joined in death.
Tributes and biographies poured in for Mitchel, reflecting his ability to divide reaction in death as in life. Some from a nationalist outlook were overblown and sentimental. The Freeman’s Journal was more measured,
‘we may lament his persistence in certain lines of action which his intelligence must have suggested to him could have but been futile issue … his love for Ireland may have been imprudent. But he loved her with a devotion unexcelled’.
Others from a British perspective were scathingly critical. The Morning Mail described Mitchel’s defense of slavery as his ‘prostituting great talents to a very low end’. The Standard concluded,
‘His powers through life, however, were marred by want of judgment, obstinate opinionativeness, and a factiousness which disabled him from ever acting long enough with any set of men’
The Daily Telegraph argued with some persuasiveness that Mitchel’s political ambitions had failed because
he had no taste for the practical part of war. He was a solicitor and a journalist and knew nothing of that most elementary kind of insurrection, street barricades, and was utterly unsuited by temperament or power to organize a real revolt. His sole idea was that the whole people should rise one day, and that, after a brief fight, the soldiers would fraternise with the populace and a Provisional Government replace the Lord Lieutenant.
However, in another sense the act of failure itself contained the seeds of later triumph. A few decades later Patrick Pearse was to describe Mitchel as one of the ‘four evangelists’ of Irish nationalism who had left behind a holy and authoritative body of teaching to be obeyed by the faithful ‘calling’ every living Irishmen to a blood sacrifice for Ireland – a call fulfilled in the Easter Rising of 1916.
In the light of history, perhaps one of the most mistaken claims of the British papers was by The Morning Post that
‘we cannot believe that Mr. Mitchel’s opinions are shared by any considerable number of Irish electors. He was, we imagine, the last exponent of them that will attract any considerable attention.’
The debate continues. Iconoclastic Irish Times columnist Kevin Myers described Mitchel as the exhibiting ‘the psychopathology of the terrorist’ in his apology for political violence as shown in
the personalization of a political injustice so that ego becomes one with the nation; the demonisation of an entire species, in this case the English; vengence becomes a therapy and national requirement; and the transformation of political will into a weapon of punishment, designed to hurt people, and be morally sure of the rightness of that hurt.
Inspirer of hatred or inspiring idealist? Apologist for terror or freedom fighter? Opponent of democracy or man ahead of his time? Arrogant or bravely uncompromising? Wasted talent or glorious visionary? Naively out of touch with religious divisions within Ireland or non-sectarian hero? Which way someone answers these questions will probably rest on their prior political assumptions. One thing is sure; John Mitchel stands out as one of the most dramatic, controversial and memorable figures of 19th Century Ireland.
 John Mitchel, Jail Journal (London: Sphere Books, 1983) 69. First published in Mitchel’s The Citizen newspaper in New York from 14 January 1854 to 19 August 1854.
 ‘John Mitchel Arrives in Ireland’, unknown newspaper, 26 July 1874.
 Freeman’s Journal. 27 July 1874.
 An oath bound organisation which recognised the Supreme Council of the IRB as the rightful ‘government’ of Ireland. The term IRB stands for Irish Republican Brotherhood, a secretive militant otherwise known as the Fenian movement.
 Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa (1831-1915): member of the IRB; manager of the Irish People, 1863; imprisioned 1865-71; exiled to the USA where he editied the United Irishman; died in New York.
 The Irishman, 2 January 1875.
 The Irishman, 2 January 1875.
 The Irishman, 2 January 1875.
 The Irishman, 2 January 1875.
 The Irishman, 2 January 1875.
 The Irishman, 2 January 1875.
 John Martin letter to C. J. Kickham, unknown newspaper, 30 January 1875.
 John Martin letter to C. J. Kickham, unknown newspaper, 30 January 1875.
 Thadeus O’Malley, ‘John Mitchel’s Candidature’, The Freeman’s Journal, 12 February 1875. Mitchel and Martin were of course brothers in law after Martin’s marriage of John sister Henrietta.
 Thadeus O’Malley, ‘John Mitchel’s Candidature’, The Freeman’s Journal, 12 February 1875.
 The Times, 20 February 1875.
 The Daily Express, 19 February 1875.
 The Daily Express, 17 February 1875.
 The Daily News, 18 February 1875.
 The Mail, 26 February 1875.
 Issac Butt (1813-70): Constitutional nationalist; Professor of Political Economy, Trinity College, Dublin, 1836-40; brilliant lawyer; tried to hold onto an identity that was Protestant, unionist and Irish; defended the young Irelanders in 1848 and the Fenians in the 1860s. Conservative MP for Youghal, 1852-65; Home Rule MP for Limerick, 1871-9.
 The Freeman, 5 March 1875.
 Unknown newspaper, 5 March 1875.
 Unknown newspaper, 5 March 1875.
 The Morning Mail, 13 March 1875.
 The Irish Times, 12 March 1875.
 The Freeman’s Journal, March 17 1875.
 Revd. Craig Nelson, funeral oration for John Mitchel, Morning Mail, 24 March 1875.
 The Freeman’s Journal, 22 March 1875.
 The Morning Mail, 22 March 1875.
 The Standard, 22 March 1875.
 The Daily Telegraph, 22 March 1875.
 Patrick Pearse, Political Writings and Speeches (Talbot Press: Dublin, 1952) 91.
 The Morning Post, 22 March 1875.
 Kevin Myers, ‘The Physical Force Tradition’ in Kevin Myers: From the Irish Times column ‘An Irishman’s Diary’, (Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2000) 31.