Mitchel is one of the great propagandists of his day, although the causes he espouses often place him on the wrong side, he is loved and loathed in equal measure. He is one of the few Irishmen to have incurred the wrath of the British government and of the Federal administration of the United States.
Mitchel is born near Dungiven, County Derry in what is now Northern Ireland on November 3, 1815. The son of a Presbyterian clergyman, he creates his own pulpit in a series of journalistic enterprises in Dublin, Tennessee, Virginia and New York.
Mostly raised in Newry, County Down, Mitchel’s first political association is with the Young Ireland movement of the 1840s and the famous The Nation newspaper, founded by Charles Gavan Duffy, Thomas Davis and John Blake Dillon in 1842. But long before the abortive Young Irelander Rebellion of 1848 he has moved on, finding the editorial policies of The Nation rather too bland for his tastes.
“I could see, in front of the cottages, little children leaning against a fence when the sun shone out for they could not stand, their limbs fleshless, their bodies half-naked, their faces bloated yet wrinkled, and of a pale, greenish hue… I saw Trevelyan’s claw in the vitals of those children: his red tape would draw them to death: in his government laboratory he had prepared for them the typhus poison.”
Responding to such writing, Ireland simmers, angry and ready for rebellion. Fearful of Mitchel’s power, London’s Punch magazine emphasises his international standing by portraying him as an Irish monkey challenging the Great British Lion. The Times thunders against him. When Mitchel produces his own republican newspaper, The United Irishman, which, in its inaugural edition, claims that “the world was weary of Old Ireland and also of Young Ireland” thus attacking both Daniel O’Connell and his younger antagonists with the same broadsword. He aims to be an equal opportunities offender and succeeds admirably.
The United Irishman sells out and is shut down by the British authorities after a mere sixteen issues. In order to silence Mitchel, to rob him of his heroic status and his possible martyrdom, the British government passes the Treason Felony Act 1848, which seeks to treat treason as a common crime. He is later tried before an elegantly and efficiently packed jury, found guilty of treason-felony, and deported to Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania). The result is one of the greatest works of Irish political history, The Jail Journal, in which Mitchel writes about his own experience of deportation and advocates a far more militaristic approach to Ireland’s “English problem” than would have been popular heretofore.
Mitchel is acclaimed by Patrick Pearse, who declares The Jail Journal to be “the last of the four gospels of the new testament of Irish nationality, the last and the fieriest and the most sublime.” Éamon de Valera reveres Mitchel, and when in 1943 he imagines Ireland as “the home of a people who valued material wealth only as a basis for right living, of a people who, satisfied with frugal comfort, devoted their leisure to the things of the spirit,” he too is delving into The Jail Journal for his inspiration.
(From: #OTD in 1848 – John Mitchel Publishes First United Irishman, Stair na hÉireann | History of Ireland)