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Mitchel, Johnlocked

  • Brigitte Anton

John Mitchel (1815–1875)

by unknown engraver, pubd 1848 (after Leon Gluckman)

Mitchel, John (1815–1875), Irish nationalist, the first surviving son of John Mitchel (d. 1840), a Presbyterian minister, and his wife, Mary Haslett (1786–1865), was born at the manse, Camnish, near Dungiven, co. Londonderry, on 3 November 1815. His father was appointed minister of Newry Presbyterian Church in 1823, and the family moved to Dromalane House. John Mitchel was educated at Dr Henderson's classical school at Newry, where he met his lifelong friend John Martin (1812–1875). In 1830 he matriculated at Trinity College, Dublin, and graduated in 1834. His father was deeply disappointed that Mitchel felt he had no vocation for the ministry. After an attempt at working as a bank clerk he entered the office of John Henry Quinn, a solicitor at Newry. At the close of 1836 he eloped with Jane Verner, a sixteen-year-old schoolgirl [see below]. 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 February 1837 they were married at Drumcree church. The marriage was said to have been extremely happy, and the couple had six children. In 1840, after being admitted a solicitor, Mitchel entered into partnership with Samuel Livingstone Fraser, a successful attorney, and ran the branch office at Banbridge, often defending Catholics against local Orangemen. In 1839 he helped organize a public dinner for Daniel O'Connell in Newry. In the same year he began suffering from asthma, an illness that haunted him for the rest of his life.

In 1842 Mitchel became acquainted with Thomas Davis, the friend who, in Mitchel's own words, 'first filled his soul with the passion of a great ambition and a lofty purpose' (Dillon, 1.70). The following year Mitchel and Martin joined Daniel O'Connell's Repeal Association, but only after the death of Davis in September 1845 did he totally commit himself to politics, and accept a place on the staff of The Nation. Sir Charles Gavan Duffy, the paper's proprietor and editor, described him as follows:

He was rather above the middle size, well made, and with a face which was thoughtful and comely, though pensive blue eyes and masses of soft brown hair, a stray ringlet of which he had the habit of twining round his finger while he spoke, gave it, perhaps, too feminine a cast …

Duffy, bk 3, 191

As early as on 22 November 1845 his Nation article 'Threats of coercion' caused great controversy, as Mitchel suggested that railways could be sabotaged in an Irish uprising. In June 1846 Duffy was prosecuted for publishing it, but the jury could not reach a verdict. In the same year Mitchel published The life and times of Aodh O'Neill, prince of Ulster; called by the English, Hugh, earl, of Tyrone, and edited the poems of Thomas Davis.

Mitchel seceded from the Repeal Association with the rest of the Young Ireland party on 28 July 1846. Under the influence of James Fintan Lalor, Mitchel's political views became more radical, and he began to proclaim that peasants should withhold rent to survive the famine. Finding himself unable any longer to agree with Duffy's more moderate policy, he left The Nation in December 1847. After the council of the Irish confederation voted against his radical ideas, he withdrew from that also.

On 12 February 1848 Mitchel issued the first number of the United Irishman, a weekly newspaper published in Dublin, which included his well-known letters to Lord Clarendon, and to the protestant farmers in the north. With the onset of revolutions in Europe, Mitchel openly advocated a 'spontaneous revolution' in Ireland. A charismatic figure and excellent writer, Mitchel came to epitomize revolutionary nationalism and Irish hatred of British rule in Ireland.

On 13 May Mitchel was arrested under the new Treason Felony Act, which he claimed was passed because of him. 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 fourteen years' transportation. His paper was suppressed. Immediately after the verdict, he was taken by the Shearwater to Spike Island, co. Cork, as the authorities feared a rescue operation in Dublin. The court case had attracted enormous interest in Ireland and abroad, and copies of Mitchel's speech from the dock and a photograph of him taken in prison were sold all over Ireland. The press heavily questioned the legality of the verdict, since the jury had been packed.

In June Mitchel was conveyed in the Scourge to Bermuda, where he was confined to the hulks. Because of his bad asthma, he was removed in the Neptune to the Cape of Good Hope. Owing to the colonists' refusal to permit the convicts to land, a stance that Mitchel wholeheartedly supported, the Neptune remained at anchor in Simon's Bay from 19 September 1849 to 19 February 1850. In April 1850, Mitchel arrived in Van Diemen's Land, where he was allowed to reside with John Martin in one of the police districts on a ticket-of-leave. In June 1851 he was joined by his wife and family. On 9 June 1853 Mitchel resigned his ticket-of-leave, and escaped from Van Diemen's Land with the aid of Patrick James Smyth and his wife, hiding for over a month until sailing on 2 August to Tahiti, and from there on the Julia Ann to San Francisco, where he met with an enthusiastic welcome. After moving to New York in the hope that he could achieve something for Ireland there, he started a newspaper, The Citizen, on 7 January 1854. It became known for its strong opposition to the abolition movement, and for serializing Mitchel's Jail Journal, a detailed personal account of his transportation, published as a book in 1854; it became a classic of Irish revolutionary writing. His criticism in the Journal about Duffy's conduct during his trials in 1848–9 led to a bitter and acrimonious quarrel between the two men.

At the close of the year Mitchel moved to East Tennessee, and took to farming and lecturing. This was the first of many moves, reflecting his restlessness caused by the feeling that his real Irish home was barred to him. From October 1857 to August 1859—together with the major of Knoxville, William G. Swan—he conducted the Southern Citizen, a weekly journal advocating the interests of the southern states, which was first published at Knoxville, and subsequently at Washington. His pro-slavery stance has been widely criticized, being regarded as contradictory to his revolutionary ideas. It was based on the belief that slavery was a better system than the wage slavery of industrialization. He was highly influenced by the ideas on slavery of Thomas Carlyle. Additionally, he felt that there were two nations in America, north and south, and he was strongly in sympathy with the agrarian lifestyle of the southern planters.

Although Mitchel was heavily involved in the debate over abolition his heart was in Irish rather than American affairs. In 1859 he edited the poems of James Clarence Mangan, and a year later An Apology for the British Government in Ireland and The Last Conquest of Ireland (perhaps) were published; in these he again emphasized that 'The Almighty, indeed, sent the potato blight. But the English created the Famine' (Last Conquest, 1860, 219).

In August 1859 Mitchel visited Paris, where he went to reside in the following year as correspondent for American newspapers, hoping that in the event of an Anglo-French war, Ireland would seize the opportunity. In Paris, his daughter Henrietta finally converted to Catholicism, a step that Mitchel accepted, being very tolerant in religious matters. Although his writings reflect his Presbyterian upbringing, he felt that his own beliefs were often 'almost pagan'.

Mitchel returned to New York in September 1862, after the outbreak of the civil war, 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 nearsightedness, he became editor of The Enquirer, the semi-official organ of the Confederate president Jefferson Davis. Owing to a divergence in their views Mitchel resigned this post in 1864, and began writing the leading articles for The Examiner. Additionally, he joined the Richmond city guard and the ambulance corps. The American Civil War cost Mitchel dearly. Fighting in the Confederate army, his sons John and William were killed, and another son, James, was severely wounded.

On the conclusion of the war Mitchel went to New York, where he became editor of the Daily News, a staunch southern paper. In consequence of his articles supportive of the southern cause Mitchel was arrested by the military authorities on 14 June 1865, and was confined in Fortress Monroe for nearly five months. Later he mused:

I suppose that I am the only person who has ever been a prisoner-of-state to the British and the American Government one after the other. … I despise the civilization of the nineteenth century, and its two highest expressions and grandest hopes, most especially—so the said century sees nothing that can be done with me, except to tie me up.

Dillon, 2.218

The treatment Mitchel received in prison was extremely harsh, and his health broke down irretrievably. Shortly after his release on 30 October 1865 he went to Paris as the financial agent of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, hoping that amid the mounting tensions between England and America, the Fenians could accomplish a revolution in Ireland. When he realized that this would not happen, he resigned that office in the following year, returning to America in October 1866. Here he began work on his History of Ireland, which was published in 1867. In February 1867 he refused the post of chief executive officer of the Fenians in America, and on 19 October following published at New York the first number of the Irish Citizen. In this paper, which was strongly democratic in American politics, he opposed both the Fenians and the home rulers, but spoke at a rally in New York in support of the families of the Manchester martyrs in the winter of 1869/70. In the same year he serialized a continuation of the Jail Journal, which embraced the years 1853–66. Increasing health problems caused him to discontinue his paper on 27 July 1872, which rendered his financial situation very insecure. In the same year he wrote letters against James Anthony Froude's anti-Irish prejudices in The Irish-American, which were published as a book, The Crusade of the Period (1873). In February 1874 Mitchel, despite his dislike of the home rule movement, allowed himself to be put forward in absentia as its candidate in Tipperary. He failed. In summer 1874 Mitchel returned to Ireland after twenty-six years of exile. On 16 February 1875 he was elected unopposed for Tipperary while he was on his way once again to Ireland, arriving the following day. On 18 February Mitchel was disqualified for being a convict, but was again returned by a majority of 2368 votes on 11 March, when he declared that he would not take his seat. Mitchel died at Dromalane House, Newry, on 20 March 1875. He was buried on the 23rd of the same month in the Unitarian cemetery, Old Meeting-House Green, High Street, Newry, where a monument was erected to his memory by his widow, who regretted that after following him all over the world, she had not accompanied him to Ireland. On 26 May 1875 the Irish court of common pleas posthumously issued another disqualification of Mitchel. Mitchel's ideas strongly influenced the Irish republican movement especially at the beginning of the twentieth century. However, since that time, no new biography has been written about him. A statue of him stands in John Mitchel Place, Newry.

Mitchel's wife, Jane [Jenny] Mitchel [née Verne] (1819/20–1899), was born Jane Verner, only daughter of Mary Ward (d. before 1847?). Her mother was the daughter of a coachman on the Verner estate in Loughgall, co. Armagh, and Captain James Verner was most likely her stepfather. There were rumours of illegitimacy, and the Verner family later denied that Captain James was ever married to Mary Ward.

Jenny Mitchel was gentle and petite in appearance, but strong-willed and independent-minded. Although she opposed John's desire to give up his profession to work on The Nation, she soon got involved in Young Ireland activities herself. When John started the United Irishman, she organized his newspaper files, edited contributions, and wrote anonymous letters to the editor. Her politics were as radical as her husband's. After his arrest she urged his friends to attempt a rescue operation, and was deeply disappointed when he was transported without resistance. Eager to follow her husband into exile, she would have immediately set out for Bermuda, but he urged her to wait until he was settled. With her five children she set out to Van Diemen's Land on 22 January 1851, and immediately after the birth of her sixth child, Isabel, she organized Mitchel's escape with Smyth.

In America and France Jenny Mitchel supported her husband's activities, and was able to organize the frequent moves of the household quickly and successfully. When John returned to America in 1862, she remained in Ireland with two of her daughters, Minnie and Isabel, but soon decided to bring food and clothing to blockaded states. However, the blockade runner, Vesta, ran aground and caught fire, which left them stranded on a sandy island near the coast of North Carolina. They made their way back to Richmond only with great difficulty. While she supported the southern states, she did not openly advocate slavery. During the war, she worked as a nurse in Richmond.

After her husband's death Mitchel established a partnership with her son James in a photolithographic firm, and was the manageress in his absence. Jenny Mitchel died on 31 December 1899 at her home in Briggs Avenue, Fordham, New York, and was buried in Woodlawn cemetery, Bronx, New York.


  • W. Dillon, Life of John Mitchel, 2 vols. (1888)
  • R. O'Conner, Jenny Mitchel: Young Irelander (1988)
  • B. Anton, ‘Northern voices: Ulsterwomen in the Young Ireland movement’, Coming into the light: the work, politics and religion of women in Ulster, ed. J. Holmes and D. Urquhart (1994), 60–92
  • Blackwood's pedigrees, 16.82–6 [family trees of the Mitchels and the Martins]
  • T. F. O'Sullivan, The Young Irelanders, 2nd edn (1945)
  • L. J. Walsh, John Mitchel (1917)
  • P. S. O'Hegarty, John Mitchel (1917)
  • C. G. Duffy, Young Ireland: a fragment of Irish history, 1840–1845, rev. edn, 2 vols. (1896)
  • P. A. Sillard, The life of John Mitchel (1889)
  • R. J. Hayes, ed., Manuscript sources for the history of Irish civilisation, 3 (1965)
  • R. J. Hayes, ed., Manuscript sources for the history of Irish civilisation: first supplement, 1965–1975, 1 (1979)
  • B. Ó Cathaoir, John Mitchel (1978)
  • J. Mitchel, letters, 1849–54, PRONI, MIC 426 Reel 1/3 and 1/4


  • Col. U., Rare Book and Manuscript Library, corresp. and papers
  • NL Ire., corresp.
  • PRONI, letters to family
  • PRONI, letters by Jenny Mitchel, MIC 426 Reel 1/3 and 1/4
  • Col. U., William Brown Meloney MSS, incl. letter by Jenny Mitchel
  • New York Historical Society, MSS of Charles O'Conner, Richard O'Gorman, James Adam Dix
  • NL Ire., journals of W. J. O'Neill Daunt
  • NL Ire., letters to Samuel Ferguson [copies]
  • NL Ire., Hobson MSS, comments on Mitchel
  • NL Ire., Larcom MSS, comments on 1845
  • NL Ire., Lennon MSS
  • NL Ire., corresp. with William Smith O'Brien
  • NL Ire., O'Conner Trust MSS
  • PRONI, Joseph Connellan MSS


  • M. & N. Hanhart, two lithographs, 1848 (after daguerreotype by L. Gluckman), NG Ire.
  • daguerreotype, 1848 (Jenny Mitchel)
  • lithograph, pubd 1848 (after daguerreotype by L. Gluckman), NG Ire., NPG [see illus.]
  • photograph, 1848, repro. in J. Mitchel, Jail journal, cover
  • group portrait, 1866
  • C. Baugniet, lithograph (after photograph), BM
  • C. Baugniet, lithograph (after daguerreotype by L. Gluckman), NPG
  • T. Farrell, plaster death mask, NG Ire.
  • H. A. Kernoff, ink and pencil on card, NG Ire.
  • drawing (Jenny Mitchel), repro. in O'Conner, Jenny Mitchel
  • group portrait, chromolithograph (The illustrious sons of Ireland), NPG
  • illustration (in Bermuda), repro. in ILN [n.d.]
  • statue, John Mitchel Place, Newry, Ireland

Wealth at Death

Dromalane House automatically went to eldest son; testimonial movement collected $10,000 in 1873

, 63 vols. (1885–1900), suppl., 3 vols. (1901); repr. in 22 vols. (1908–9); 10 further suppls. (1912–96); (1993)