In the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent Black Lives Matter movement in the US, much has been written about Derry-born Protestant, Irish nationalist and political journalist John Mitchel.
This is due to Mitchel’s forceful and unabashed support for slavery, which was most vehemently expressed in his writings in mid-19th century America – this after his escape as a convicted felon from the land of Van Diemen in 1853.
There have been calls to rename sports organizations bearing Mitchel’s name, alongside a campaign to remove a statue in his memory from his childhood home in Newry, County Down.
Mitchel’s division where color was the division problem has been well established. However, in a purely Irish context, his role in promoting unity where religion was the issue in question received little attention. This goes completely against the dominant historical portrayal of this man as merely a divisive figure, and even challenges it.
This Irish context is illustrated specifically in Mitchel’s letters to Protestant farmers, laborers and craftsmen in the northern counties of Ireland.
The remarkable series of letters was published in his newspaper United Irishman in April and May 1848. The newspaper, with Mitchel as editor, was published from February 12, 1848 for sixteen weekly editions until May 27 of the same year.
The newspaper was based in Dublin and maintained a readership of over five thousand readers. The series of letters is emblematic of the Ireland imagined by Mitchel where Irish men of all faiths and none would combine in unity to banish from Ireland the destructive influence of the British Empire and, in doing so, bring economic prosperity for all.
Mitchel underlined the common heritage of all Irish people. Writing in the preface to his seminal biography on the life of Aodh O Neill, he argued vehemently: “are not Derry and Enniskillen Ireland and Benburb and the yellow Ford.”
The existence of an ancient, distinct, and noble Irish race in Mitchel’s worldview is crucial to the formation of his seminal racial hierarchy. It is the cornerstone on which his controversial racial views emanate, and at this point in his career his hierarchy was populated by the noble Irish race at the top. The ancient Irish race, with its long illustrious history, was central to the formation of Mitchel’s worldview and he cites this common history in a call for unity.
During his series of letters published in the United Irishman, Mitchel challenged what was for him the root of all evil in Ireland, the British Empire. His anti-imperial agenda is a central tenet of his series of letters, and he calls on Protestant farmers in northern Ireland to unite with southern Catholics to carry it out.
He writes with passion to his compatriots in mid-19th century Ireland.
“I asked you to come and help me abolish the system that gave the food you raised and the cloth you wove to be eaten and carried by strangers.”
Mitchel believed that the greatest threat to Protestant farmers in the north came from the British system of government in Ireland, which allowed Irish produce to be sold elsewhere to sustain the empire economically. He asked the question: “Since Ireland produces one year with another twice as much as would feed and clothe all her people.” What becomes of it?
Writing to Protestant farmers, laborers, and craftsmen in the north, Mitchel, in the midst of famine, eloquently declared, “I know hunger is at most your doorsteps.”
John Mitchel sought to persuade Protestant farmers in the north that sectarian divisions were a tool of conquest encouraged by Britain to encourage division as an obstacle to Irish unity. He encouraged his fellow Ulsterians to reject such bigotry and focus instead on their real enemy, the British system of government in Ireland which had left them in a perilous state.
He writes succinctly “the pope we know is the man of sin and antichrist and also, if you will, the mystery of iniquity and all that, but he brings no expulsion in Ireland”.
He continued further in the same vein by stating, “The seven sacraments are certainly very dangerous, but the quarter-acre clause hits you closer.”
The influence of the United Irishmen of 1798 and the Young Ireland movement under Thomas Davis is prominent in inspiring Mitchel’s quest for Irish unity.
His efforts in the pursuit of unity are characteristic of the ideals and tradition of the United Irishmen of 1798, even allowing for the fact that the origins of Mitchel’s republicanism were quite different and much more classical in nature.
In the pages of his journal he championed the relevance of the United Irishmen most evidently in the name of his publication, and further with the Republican ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity proudly displayed at the masthead. .
The seminal impact of Thomas Davis and the Young Ireland movement is evident in Mitchel’s attempts to educate the Protestant farmers of Ulster regarding the glorious deeds of their ancestors in his series of letters. By alluding to the noble deeds and glorious past of Irish people of all creeds and none, Mitchel further develops young Ireland’s vision of a distinctly Irish and shared history.
Mitchel’s efforts to promote Irish unity challenge his dominant historical portrayal as a purely confrontational figure. His negative portrayal by the British authorities in Ireland was to be expected given his attempts, through his writings, to rid Ireland of the British Empire.
“They’ll tell you I’m a Jacobin and an anarchist and a revolutionary,” Mitchel shot back
To his fellow Protestants, in an attempt to sway them, he said, “I may be a revolutionary, but you weave and dig for half pay. I am a Jacobin, but you are rapidly becoming poor.”
By analyzing the complexities of the situation in Ireland and seeking to bring Irish people of all faiths and no faith together for the common good of all, Mitchel demonstrates a maturity that goes against his negative and divisive by the British authorities of his time and generations. historians since.
In making his calls for Irish unity, Mitchel demonstrated a prophetic pragmatism that is critically important in the context of Ireland’s perilous position in the current Brexit debate.
He argued forcefully over one hundred and seventy years ago in his series of letters that Irish unity will help improve economic conditions for all on the island of Ireland.
A similar argument is being made today to protect Irish people from the potentially negative impact of Brexit.
Other striking comparisons are evident between Mitchel’s series of letters and contemporary Ireland. Mitchel raged in 1848 about the province of Ulster: “there is not in the nine counties a single small farmer of law who can say with certainty that his house is his.”
Cannot this statement apply to young Irish people today who, due to economic hardship and outside interests such as vulture funds, are unable to claim property.
Moreover, the current resounding calls for a pan-island approach to combating the Covid-19 pandemic have been striking.
Mitchel’s argument for Irish unity will receive little recognition in today’s Ireland as his name remains shrouded in controversy due to his indefensible position in favor of slavery.
The Ireland of today was not the Ireland imagined by John Mitchel. The capitalist and commercial society in which we live has been demonized by Mitchel as a branch of the empire which he claims was instrumental in bringing about the Famine. J
It is telling that many of the issues he raised over one hundred and seventy years ago remain both relevant and unresolved in Ireland today.
David Collopy is a final year PhD student in history based in Limerick. Her research focuses on the life of John Mitchel and her work has been published in the Irish Times and the Irish Post in London. He also delivered the 2021 John Mitchel Lecture Series for Newry and Morne District Council.