Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Mitchel, John (1815–1875)

by G. Rudé

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

John Mitchel (1815-1875), Irish nationalist, was born on 3 November 1815 at Camnish, near Dungiven, County Derry, Ireland, the third son of Rev. John Mitchel, a Presbyterian minister, and his wife Mary, née Haslett. He was educated at Dr Henderson's school at Newry, where he began a lifelong friendship with John Martin, and at Trinity College, Dublin. He later described himself as a Unitarian Presbyterian. In 1837 he married Jane Verner of Newry, by whom he had three sons and two daughters. He was admitted a solicitor in 1840 and practised at Banbridge, near Newry, until the autumn of 1845 when, having been won for active support of the nationalist cause, he gave up his practice, moved to Dublin and became assistant editor of the Nation under Charles Gavan Duffy. Meanwhile he had joined the Repeal Association which, inspired by Daniel O'Connell, campaigned for the peaceable dissolution of the union with England; but he also became associated with the emerging Young Ireland movement, whose militancy and advocacy of physical force were leading to a collision between the older and younger leaders. The first open breach came in 1846 when Mitchel, William Smith O'Brien, Thomas Meagher and others left the Repeal Association; but it was not complete until O'Connell's death a year later.

In December 1847 Mitchel broke with Duffy and the Nation and in February 1848 launched the United Irishman, a weekly newspaper that soon became the most influential of the organs propagating the militant views of the Young Ireland Movement. As conflict in Ireland sharpened, the authorities decided to take drastic action: habeas corpus was suspended and a new Treason Felony Act received the royal assent; under this new legislation Mitchel, having first been charged with sedition, was sentenced to fourteen years transportation for treason. Soon afterwards the other Young Ireland leaders, O'Brien, Meagher, Patrick O'Donohoe, John Martin, Terence McManus and Kevin Izod O'Doherty, were tried and sentenced for high treason at Clonmel and Dublin, and transported to Van Diemen's Land. Mitchel was first committed to the hulks in Bermuda, and later sent to the Cape of Good Hope in the Neptune. The colonists refused to allow the ship to berth and, having lain at anchor for five months in Simon's Bay, she sailed to Van Diemen's Land and docked at Hobart Town in April 1850.

Mitchel, though the first to be sentenced, was thus the last of the Young Ireland leaders to reach Van Diemen's Land. He was granted a ticket-of-leave on parole and allowed to share a cottage near Bothwell with John Martin. He was also able to meet O'Doherty and Meagher at Lake Sorell on the borders of their police districts. In May 1851 he went to meet his wife who was believed to be arriving at Launceston. For leaving the district without a pass he was arrested, but soon discharged. His wife Jane and children did not arrive in the brig Union until June, when they joined him at Bothwell. Two years later Mitchel successfully planned and carried through his escape from the island with the help of P. J. Smyth, who had come from New York as correspondent of the New York Tribune for the purpose. Having previously surrendered his parole and ticket-of-leave at Bothwell police station, he made his way to Hobart in June 1853, sailed for Sydney, and thence to Batavia, San Francisco and New York, where he received a hero's welcome in November.

In the United States Mitchel successively edited the Citizen and the Southern Citizen. His journalism won him many enemies: among Roman Catholics for his attacks on the temporal power of the Pope, and among abolitionists for his championship of the rights of Southern slave-owners. In 1860 he sailed to France, where he became the Paris correspondent of a number of American newspapers. Late in 1862 he returned to New York, made his way to Virginia and espoused the Southern cause in the civil war. Three of his sons fought on the Confederate side, two of them being killed in action. He quarrelled with Jefferson Davis, went to New York as the editor of the democratic Daily News, and spent five months in a fortress for criticizing the government. In 1868 he published My Jail Journal, or Five Years in British Prisons. In 1872 and 1874 he paid brief visits to Ireland, where he died on 20 March 1875, leaving a widow, a son and three daughters.

Select Bibliography

  • J. H. Cullen, Young Ireland in Exile (Dublin, 1928)
  • D. R. Gwynn, Young Ireland and 1848 (Cork, 1949)
  • T. J. Kiernan, The Irish Exiles in Australia (Melb, 1954)
  • Ac no 2/364 (Archives Office of Tasmania).

Citation details

G. Rudé, 'Mitchel, John (1815–1875)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mitchel-john-2461/text3293, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 1 September 2016.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 2, (MUP), 1967

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