Mitchel: a most conservative of revolutionaries

Author: Cionnaoth Ó Muireagáin
Issue: 24 – April 2008

Mitchel: a most conservative of revolutionaries
In the nomenclature of Irish Nationalist figures John Mitchel stands as a colossus, but what was his contribution.

Any analysis of Mitchel must put him firmly in the political, social and economic context of mid 19th century Ireland. Additionally, it must also take account of his fiery, quixotic temperament. The Act of Union 1801 was in its first half century, O�Connell was basking in the glory of Catholic Emancipation post-1829, the population of Catholic Ireland was expanding rapidly and teetered on the edge of cataclysm whilst the British Empire viewed itself as the Liberal light of the world spreading its economic and political opinions to all parts of the globe. But a small group of Irishmen of incredible talent and vision called Young Ireland were making their dissenting views heard slowly but surely. Young Ireland was a �spectrum of nationalisms� with each aspect receiving varying degrees of emphasis from 1842 through to 1848. At different times the Young Ireland movement was constitutional, revolutionary, cultural and economic; held together by the belt buckle that was Thomas Davis. Mitchel�s career is inextricably linked to the beliefs and fortunes of this small group.

Mitchel�s contribution to the Young Ireland movement started in 1843 when he joined the Repeal Association where he advocated the use of constitutionalism and was bountiful in his praise and respect for O�Connell and his tactics. However this would all change and most notably from 1845 onwards when he was on an increasingly revolutionary path which would lead him to conviction and transportation in 1848. The spectrum of nationalism spoken of already can be seen clearly in Mitchel�s writings in the period 1843�1848; commencing with O�Connell�s constitutional Repeal of the Union and progressing to calls for violent rebellion.

One area in which Mitchel undoubtedly contributed to Irish nationalism was in both the high standard and vitriolic nature of his writing. First Davis and later Duffy felt the need to temper his writing style at �The Nation�. Without such restraints he reached his most volcanic at his own short lived publication �The United Irishman�. Heavily influenced by Shakespeare and Thomas Carlyle, his Biblical, apocalyptic denunciations of the British system and descriptions of the horrors of the Famine still make for striking reading, �Oh! Pity and terror! What a tragedy is here deeper and darker than any bloody tragedy ever yet enacted under the sun, with all its dripping daggers and sceptred palls.�

�what reeking breath of hell is this oppressing the air, heavier and more loathsome than the smell of death arising from the fresh carnage of the battlefield.

The level of invective and vitriol which Mitchel injected into Young Ireland through his writing is a subject on which his reputation has been both added to and suffered from. In his History of Ireland Mitchel cited with relish Tone�s confession that �my object was to secure the independence of my country under any form of government, to which I was led by a hatred of England, so deeply rooted in my nature, that it was rather an instinct than a principle.� Here Mitchel places himself in the apostolic succession of hatred of English oppression, a place which would be applauded by many later nationalists, most notably Pearse. On the other hand his contribution to the movement is demeaned by John Duffy who claimed that while �Davis loved Ireland, Mitchel hated England�. Indeed, Duffy claimed further that hatred of England was all that Mitchel had by way of reasoned argument in favour of his revolutionary appeal, discarding the nurturing, love of culture and history so important to Davis. Mitchel�s biographer, William Dillon wrote that, �from the opening of the year 1848 down to the day of his death, John Mitchel�s mind was dominated by a ruling passion. That ruling passion was hatred of the British Imperial system�hatred of the system in all its workings, but, above all, hatred of the system as it worked in Ireland.� In support of the theory that Mitchel had indeed nothing to offer but hate, he himself wrote, in November 1857, to a close friend that he was driven by a hatred arising out of his shame at the oppression of Ireland rather than by a positive love of his country. However in contrast to this image of the vitriolic prophet of hate one can see in his writings that there existed a deep love of both the people of Ireland and the land itself. During his time in Tasmania in Jail Journal dated 13th September 1848 he writes, �well known to me by day and night are the voices of Ireland�s winds and waters, the faces of her ancient mountains. I see it, hear it all � for by the wondrous powers of imagination, informed by strong love, I do indeed live more truly in Ireland than on these unblessed rocks.�

This constant longing for Ireland breaks out again and again throughout Mitchel�s writings in exile, �An exile in my circumstances is a branch cut from its tree, it is dead and has an affectation of life. Ever since that banishment from my own country and the sudden severing of all the roots that bound me to the soil, cutting off all the moorings that held me to the firm shore, I am conscious of a certain vagabond or even half savage propensity.�
�I wish I were at Tullcairne and could stroll down to the Lagan and wade a little.�

�Paris is a hateful place�after all you know Dublin is my real place of abode. All the world can�t alter that.�

Founder of Sinn Fein, Arthur Griffith, held that Mitchel�s �hatred of England was the legitimate child of the love of Ireland that glowed in the heart of the man who spent his leisure scaling her hills, tramping her ways and communing with her kindly peasantry. Out of the love he bore to all things animate and inanimate in that Ireland was born the fierce hatred of the insolent oppression that struck in his time its deadliest blow against her life.� Perhaps a more justifiable and balanced assessment of Mitchel�s motivation and contribution would be to paraphrase Duffy, �Davis struggled for, whereas Mitchel struggled against.�

A possible explanation for the hatred which is explicit in Mitchel�s writings is the notion of manhood. Mitchel felt acutely that Ireland had been robbed of its manhood through exploitation at the hands of the British Imperial system. He noted more aggressively with the passage of time that Ireland�s manhood had suffered most insidiously by the preaching of the power of moral force as practiced by O�Connell. Mitchel�s analysis of history provided him with countless examples of national emasculation and his famine experiences provided him with living, or more appropriately dying, evidence that the manhood and self respect of the nation could only be regained at the point of a pike. Mitchel�s logic was to lead him from shame through hatred to avowed revolution as the only redemptive option left to a desperate nation. For Mitchel violence had become an act of self respect, demeaned by over whelming power almost suicidal rebellion was a dire but redemptive act. Griffith acknowledged when he wrote of Mitchel, �the manliest man who summoned her (Ireland) to action in generations.� Perhaps an analysis of the psyche of young Palestinians in the face of Israeli might could throw up similar themes.

Mitchel made little sustained contribution to the political philosophy of Young Ireland for a post independence scenario. �On s�engage et puffs on voit (you make your move and see what happens)� was to a large degree Mitchel�s and Young Ireland�s philosophy. Duffy merely wanted the middle and upper classes to be in control so that they might not �meet on a Jacobin scaffold, ordered for execution as enemies of some new Marat or Robespierre, Mr James Lalor or Mr Somebody else.� (i.e. Mitchel) Such was the fire in Mitchel�s pen that it is unsurprising to read such fear in the ink of one of Mitchel�s own colleagues!

Mitchel looked to America in 1776 and France in 1789 and 1848 as shining examples of the assertion of national manhood. His admiration was more of the rhetoric of revolution than the socio-economic systems they aimed to put in place. Painted on the background of the Famine, the Poor Law, Coercion Bill, Disarming Act and Mitchel�s own fateful famine journey to Galway served as a catalyst convincing him that the only way to restore national manhood and erase its shame was through revolution. It is instructive to note that on two occasions Mitchel admits to an almost mental unhingment. Firstly, during his fateful famine journey to Galway and secondly while in exile. Indeed Mitchel even spoke of a personal humiliation at being born in a country that was oppressed by England. For Mitchel, certain death through rebellion as men was a lesser evil than life through degradation as slaves,�Peace indeed is sometimes beautiful but is often ignoble, corrupt, and ignominious. Not peace but war has called forth the grandest, finest, tenderest, most generous qualities of manhood and womanhood.� In Mitchel�s opinion, �ignoble, corrupt, and ignominious� peace was all that O�Connell had to offer and this was fatally illustrated at Clontarf and by the directionless, floundering of the Repeal Association in the face of the Famine and the pathetic, endgame begging of a once thundering, spectacular but ailing O�Connell in his last speech in the House of Commons. Mitchel noted that Ireland was won at Clontarf and was now being lost at Clontarf. And not only was it O�Connell who stood accused of emasculating Ireland but Mitchel spoke against O�Connell�s political and spiritual ally the Catholic clergy whom he considered to teach patience and perseverance even through the depths of the Famine, �die, die in your patience and perseverance, but be well assured of this that the priest who bids you to perish patiently amidst your own golden harvests preaches the gospel of England, insults manhood and commonsense, bears false witness against religion and blasphemes the Providence of God. Oh my countrymen look up, look up! Liberty, Fraternity, Equality.� A close examination of Mitchel reveals certain anomalies. Mitchel looked to the dates of 1776, 1789 and 1848 as examples as he saw it of a people struggling and he wanted the same for Ireland. However his post revolution prescription for rebuilding a society of �liberty, fraternity and equality� does not sit easy with his revolutionary rhetoric. Mitchel would later advocate slavery in the USA which I feel reflects more his innate social conservatism. Mitchel�s experience, as he saw it, of the rapacious British imperial system coloured any socio-economic policies he had. The gospel of this empire being capitalism was of equally little value which merely enslaved free people and filled poor houses, capitalism was �a machine for exploiting nations; an unmixed and unredeemed mischief whose fruits are torture in India, opium in China, famine in Ireland, pauperism in England, disturbance and disorder in Europe and robbery everywhere.� However, Mitchel�s hatred of capitalism did not throw him into the arms of socialism which he also detested, �Socialists are something worse than wild beasts.� He explicitly denied preaching �Socialism or Communism… or any system approaching them.� Instead, Mitchel�s prescriptions were of a most conservative nature, he advocated a system of national self sufficiency which he saw would remove any desire for conquest. He advocated independent artisans in towns and strong yeoman farmers in the country, regulated economic activity and looked with favour on the Catholic guild system of the middle-ages. Indeed Mitchel�s political philosophy was a loathing of both rampant capitalism, beastly socialists combined with a hatred of 19th century liberalism and modernism, not too far one would think from Rome�s position as expressed by Gregory XVI and Pius IX on each of these issues. Such contradictions in language and substance in Mitchel�s writings is not altogether surprising.

Mitchel�s account of government policy is damning and it is hard to avoid the conclusion that this famine would not have occurred in any part of England and should never have taken place a hundred odd miles from the richest country in the world. Mitchel proposed that just as the British Imperial system had the ideological certainties of providential Protestantism (this was God�s will) and classical political economy (laissez faire) the Irish peasantry had their own ideological certainties of divine and social justice. Mitchel�s argument is devastatingly logical. Given a choice between economic efficiency and Irish lives, the British government chose economic efficiency. Given a choice between doing God�s will by moralising the Irish poor and, on the other hand, simply keeping the immoral poor alive, the British government chose morality and mortality. Mitchel�s view of the Union as shambolic in the face of naked facts on the issue of the Famine has retained a good degree of historiographic validity. Any society to Mitchel which needed sustaining by force must in justice yield before more basic needs and wishes i.e. survival. To farmers during the Famine, he proclaimed �if it needs allyour crops to keep you alive, you will be justified in refusing and resisting payment of any rent, tribute, rates, or taxes.� Mitchel�s temperament naturally attracted him to the raging Jesus in the temple and he sought to convince the Irish peasantry that their anger in the face of genocide was justified.
Mitchel had great respect for the great Catholic champion Hugh O�Neill. His �Life of Aodh O Neill� appeared after the death of Davis and he dedicated it to him, acknowledging him as the source of his inspiration. The preface contains remarks in which he outlined his vision of Orange and Green blending into a unified nation, �when Irishmen consent to let the past become indeed history, not party politics and begin to learn from it the lessons of mutual respect and tolerance instead of endless bitterness ad enmity, then at last, this distracted land shall see the dawn of hope and peace and begin to renew her youth and rear her head amongst the proudest of nations.�

Mitchel�s individuality and irascibility did not make for a good leader and his self righteousness did not make for political compromise. His temperament allied to apoplectic anger at the death all around him led him to adopt the most revolutionary of language. However closer analysis reveals a different conservative Mitchel. He acknowledged that the Catholic guild system was the ideal socio-economic model and admired the Church�s position on Liberalism and Modernism. Within this body of work there were variations in the quality of analysis with much intemperate language for which he remained unapologetic and he was indeed heavily influenced by among others Shakespeare, Carlyle, Davis and Lalor however the impact of his writing style was always consistently high. Pearse was unambiguous when he wrote of the literary elite in the Nation in �The Spiritual Nation� 1916, �It was not Davis but Mitchel who was Young Ireland�s most powerful prose writer.� Mitchel was only a major political figure in Ireland for three years but in that short space of time he created a body of work which reflected a genuine, honest, fiery and Irish heart.


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