Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Mitchel, John

MITCHEL, JOHN (1815–1875), Irish nationalist, the third son of the Rev. John Mitchel of Dromalane, Newry, a presbyterian minister, by his wife Mary Haslett, was born at Camnish, near Dungiven, co. Londonderry, on 3 Nov. 1815. He was educated at Dr. Henderson's school at Newry, where he became acquainted with his lifelong friend John Martin (1812-1875) [q. v.], and in 1830 matriculated at Trinity College, Dublin. According to his biographer, Mitchel took his degree in 1834 (Dillon, i. 15), but his name does not appear in the 'Catalogue of Graduates.' Though intended by his father for the ministry, Mitchel began life as a bank clerk at Londonderry, and subsequently entered the office of John Quinn, a solicitor at Newry. At the close of 1836 he eloped with Jane, only daughter of Captain James Verner of Newry, a schoolgirl of sixteen. The fugitives were captured at Chester, and Mitchel was taken back in custody to Ireland, where he was kept a few days in prison before being released on bail. Their second attempt was, however, more successful, and on 3 Feb. 1837 they were married at Drumcree. Mitchel was admitted a solicitor in 1840, and commenced practice at Banbridge, some ten miles from Newry. In 1842 he became acquainted with Thomas Osborne Davis [q. v.], the friend who, in Mitchel's own words, 'first filled his soul with the passion of a great ambition and a lofty purpose’ (ib. i. 70). In the following year Mitchel joined the Repeal Association, and in the autumn of 1845 abandoned his profession and accepted a place on the staff of the ‘Nation’ under Charles Gavan Duffy. In June 1846 Duffy was prosecuted for publishing in the ‘Nation’ for 22 Nov. 1845 Mitchel's ‘Railway Article.’ which was described as a seditious libel. Mitchel acted as Duffy's attorney, and the jury was ultimately discharged without coming to an agreement. Mitchel took a leading part in the discussions on the ‘moral force’ resolutions in Conciliation Hall, Dublin, and seceded from the Repeal Association with the rest of the Young Ireland party on 28 July 1846. Under the influence of James Finton Lalor [q. v.], Mitchel's political views became still more advanced; and at length, finding himself unable any longer to agree with Duffy's more cautious policy; he retired from the ‘Nation’ in December 1847. As the Irish Confederation failed to concur with his views, Mitchel shortly afterwards withdrew from any active part in its proceedings, and after the Limerick riot resigned his membership.

On 12 Feb. 1848 Mitchel issued the first number of the ‘United Irishman,’ a weekly newspaper published in Dublin, in which he wrote his well-known letters to Lord Clarendon, and openly incited his fellow countrymen to rebellion. On 20 March following he was called upon to give bail to stand his trial in the queen's bench for sedition. The charge, however, was never proceeded with, as the juries could not be relied on to convict, and on 13 May Mitchel was arrested under the new Treason Felony Act, which had received the royal assent in the previous month. He was tried at the commission court in Green Street, Dublin, before Baron Lefroy and Justice Moore, on 25 and 26 May 1848, and was sentenced on the following day to transportation for fourteen years. The sixteenth and last number of the ‘United Irishman’ appeared on 27 May 1848. In June Mitchel was conveyed in the Scourge to Bermuda, where he was confined to the hulks. In consequence of the bad state of his health he was subsequently removed in the Neptune to the Cape of Good Hope. Owing to the refusal of the colonists to permit the convicts to land, the Neptune remained at anchor in Simon's Bay from 19 Sept. 1849 to 19 Feb. 1850. In the following April Mitchel was landed in Van Diemen's Land, where he was allowed to reside in one of the police districts on a ticket of leave. Here he lived with his old friend John Martin, and in June 1851 was joined by his wife and family. In the summer of 1853 Mitchel, having previously resigned his ticket of leave, escaped from Van Diemen's Land with the aid of P. J. Smyth, and in October landed at San Francisco, where he met with an enthusiastic welcome. On 7 Jan. 1854 he started a newspaper at New York called ‘The Citizen,’ which was mainly distinguished while under his editorship for its strenuous opposition to the abolition movement. With the close of the year Mitchel ended his connection with the ‘Citizen,’ and took to farming and lecturing. From October 1857 to August 1859 he conducted the ‘Southern Citizen,’ a weekly journal in the interests of the slaveholders, which was first published at Knoxville, and subsequently at Washington. In August 1859 Mitchel visited Paris, where he went to reside in the following year. He returned to New York in September 1862, and managed after much difficulty to get through the Federal lines to Richmond. Finding that he was disqualified for military service by reason of his eyesight, he accepted the editorship of the ‘Enquirer,’ the semi-official organ of President Davis. Owing to the divergence of their views Mitchel subsequently resigned this post, and wrote the leading articles for the ‘Examiner.’ On the conclusion of the war Mitchel went to New York, where he became editor of the ‘Daily News.’ In consequence of his articles in defence of the southern cause Mitchel was arrested by the military authorities on 14 June 1865, and confined in Fortress Monroe for nearly five months. Shortly after his release Mitchel went to Paris as the financial agent of the Fenian Brotherhood in that city, but resigning that office in the following year he returned to America in October 1866. In February 1867 he refused the post of chief executive officer of the Fenian Brotherhood in America, and on 19 Oct. following published at New York the first number of the ‘Irish Citizen.’ In this paper, which was strongly democratic in American politics, he managed to offend both the Fenians and the home rulers, and owing to his health giving way it was discontinued on 27 July 1872. In the summer of 1872 Mitchel paid a short visit to Ireland, but was unmolested by the government. At the general election in February 1874 he was nominated as a candidate for the representation of Tipperary, while in America, but was unsuccessful. He was, however, elected unopposed for that constituency on 16 Feb. 1875, and landed at Queenstown on the following day. On 18 Feb. Disraeli's motion declaring Mitchel ‘incapable of being elected or returned as a member’ on the ground of his being a convicted felon was carried, and a new writ ordered (Parl. Debates, 3rd ser. ccxxii. 493-539). Mitchel was again returned by a majority of 2,368 votes over his conservative opponent, Mr. Stephen Moore, and in his address of thanks to the electors he once more declared his intention of ‘discrediting and exploding the fraudulent pretence of Irish representation by declining to attend the sittings of parliament.’ Before the petition was presented against his return Mitchel died at Dromalane on 20 March 1875, aged 59. He was buried on the 23rd of the same month in the unitarian cemetery in High Street, Newry, where a monument was erected to his memory by his widow. On 26 May 1875 the Irish court of common pleas decided that Mitchel, being both an alien and a convicted felon, was not duly elected, and that Mr. Stephen Moore was duly returned (O'Malley and Hardcastle, iii. 19-49).

Mitchel was an honest, but hopelessly unpractical man. Though possessing considerable force of character he was deficient in judgment, and his whole mind was warped by his implacable hatred of England. In appearance Mitchel ‘was tall and gaunt, his eyes were gray and piercing, his expression of countenance self-contained, if not saturnine, his features bony and sallow, with an inclining to the tawny tint, high cheeks and determined chin’ (O'Shea, i. 12). Mitchel was a ready and incisive speaker as well as a forcible writer. In his domestic life he is said to have been one of the gentlest of men. Carlyle, who met Mitchel in Ireland in September 1846, refers to him as ‘a fine elastic-spirited young fellow, whom I grieved to see rushing on destruction palpable, by attack of windmills, but on whom all my persuasions were thrown away.’ He appears also to have told Mitchel that he would most likely be hanged, but ‘they could not hang the immortal part of him’ (Froude, Carlyle, 1834-1881, i. 399). Mitchel had a family of six children. His three sons all fought on the confederate side in the American civil war. The eldest was killed at Fort Sumter, and the youngest at Gettysburg, while the second lost his right arm in one of the battles round Richmond.

Mitchel edited the poems of Thomas Osborne Davis (New York, 1846) and of James Clarence Mangan [q. v.] (New York, 1859, 8vo). The lecture which he delivered at New York on 20 Dec. 1872, on ‘Froude from the standpoint of an Irish Protestant,’ will be found in ‘Froude's Crusade—Both Sides’ (New York, 1873, 8vo). He was also the author of the following works:

  1. ‘The Life and Times of Aodh O'Neill, Prince of Ulster; called by the English, Hugh, Earl, of Tyrone. With some Account of his Predecessors, Con, Shane, and Tirlough,’ Dublin, 1846, 12mo, in ‘Duffy's Library of Ireland;’ as ‘Life of Hugh O'Neill, Earl of Tyrone,’ New York, 12mo, 1868.
  2. ‘Jail Journal, or Five Years in British Prisons,’ &c., New York, 1854, 12mo; author's edition, Glasgow [1856], 8vo; new edition, New York, 1868, 12mo. The ‘Journal’ was afterwards continued by Mitchel in the ‘Irish Citizen,’ and brought down to 1866.
  3. ‘The Last Conquest of Ireland (perhaps),’ New York, 1860, Dublin and Glasgow, 1861, 8vo. Reprinted in ‘The Crusade of the Period,’ &c., see infra; ‘author's edition,’ Glasgow [1876], 8vo.
  4. ‘An Apology for the British Government in Ireland,’ Dublin, 1860; another edition, 1882.
  5. ‘The History of Ireland, from the Treaty of Limerick to the Present Time; being a Continuation of the History of the Abbé Macgeoghegan,’ New York, 1868, 8vo; other editions, Dublin, 1869, 8vo, 2 vols., Glasgow, 1869, 8vo. The latter portion was reprinted in 1871 as ‘Ireland since '98,’ &c., Glasgow, 8vo.
  6. ‘The Crusade of the Period: and Last Conquest of Ireland (perhaps).’ New York, 1873, 12mo, in the Irish-American Library, vol. iv.; a reply to Mr. Froude's ‘English in Ireland.’

[Mitchel's Jail Journal, and other works; W. Dillon's John Mitchel, 1888, with portrait; Duffy's Four Years of Irish History, 1845-9, 1883; Sullivan's Speeches from the Dock, 1887, pp. 74-96; O'Shea's Leaves from the Life of a Special Correspondent, 1885, i. 9-24; Hodges's Report of the Trial of John Mitchel, 1848; May's Parliamentary Practice, 1883, pp. 39, 724-5; Webb's Compendium of Irish Biography, 1878, pp. 340-2; Wills's Irish Nation, 1875, iv, 695-7; Read's Cabinet of Irish Literature, 1880, iii. 329-36; Life of Mitchel, by P. A. Sillard (Duffy's National Library), 1889; Appleton's Cyclop. of American Biog. 1878, iv. 341; Gent. Mag. 1875, new ser. xiv. 593-608; Annual Register, 1875, pt. i. pp. 8-ll, pt. ii. p.137; Dublin Univ. Mag. lxxxv. 481-92; Democratic Review, xxiii. 149, xxx. 97-128, with portrait; Times, 22, 24, 29 March 1875; Freeman's Journal, 22 and 24 March 1875; Nation, 20 and 27 March 1875, with portrait; Allibone's Dict. of Engl. Lit. Suppl. ii. 1119; Brit. Mus. Cat.]

G. F. R. B.