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James Quinn, John Mitchel, Historical Association of Ireland, Life and Times New Series.

James Quinn, John Mitchel, Historical Association of Ireland, Life and Times New Series (Dublin: University College Dublin Press, 2008, 108 pp., 17.00 [euro] paperback)

John Mitchel, with his overblown romantic nationalism, his bitter hatred of Britain, his support for the institution of slavery, his antisemitism and hostility to parliamentary democracy, has become something of an embarrassment for modern Ireland. Nevertheless, the influence of his fiery rhetoric on the founding fathers of Irish independence was profound, Patrick Pearse declaring him to be the St John of the 'four Gospels of Irish nationality'. His attitudes are mirrored in the writings of Arthur Griffith, who called his first newspaper after Mitchel's United Irishman.

This concise and well crafted biography traces Mitchel's life from his early years at Dromalane, near Newry, where he was the eldest surviving child of Presbyterian parents, through a turbulent life in Ireland, Bermuda, Tasmania, the United States and France, to his death and burial back in his home place in 1875.

Proud of his family's links with the United Irishmen, Mitchel became a contributor to The Nation, siding with the Young Irelanders in their dispute with O'Connell. In Mitchel's case the differences were extensive. O'Connell was unusual in a European context in uniting Catholicism with parliamentary liberalism, and became a symbol across Europe of the fact that the two were not necessarily antagonistic. However, Mitchel, despite his Presbyterian radical background, deeply influenced as he was by the writings of Carlyle, Cobbett and Scott, rejected parliamentary democracy, which he claimed was a sham, and called for armed rebellion. Mitchel became assistant editor on The Nation following the death of Thomas Davis, but his increasingly militant tone, which deepened with his outraged response to the Famine, brought about a breach with the Confederation. Mitchel founded his United Ireland, in which he called for national insurrection to match the revolutionary events taking place in France in early 1848. The paper lasted from February to May, ending with Mitchel's sentence to fourteen years' transportation for treason-felony.

After a year in Bermuda, Mitchel was transferred to Tasmania, where he remained until his escape in 1853, whereupon he settled in the United States and established another newspaper, the Citizen, in New York. He rapidly became embroiled in controversy over his support for slavery in the southern states. When confronted by an abolitionist with the opening words of the American Declaration of Independence, he dismissed them with the words 'On the whole, I fear this is jargon.' Moving his family to east Tennessee, he farmed and founded a new paper, the Southern Citizen, so extreme in its proslavery advocacy that many southerners feared it would be counterproductive. He valued the old-fashioned, agrarian society he found in 'Dixie', with its polished manners and slower pace. Like Carlyle and Cobbett he reacted against nineteenth-century industrialisation and urbanisation. Quinn has addressed this subject in more detail in an excellent article in Eire-Ireland on 'John Mitchel's Rejection of the Nineteenth Century'. When the Civil War broke out, Mitchel was firmly on the southern side, and although rejected for service on account of his bad sight, he served on an ambulance committee and as editor of a Confederate newspaper. His three sons fought for the southern side, two of them losing their lives in the carnage.

In the aftermath of the war Mitchel was imprisoned in harsh conditions, his health deteriorating rapidly, until four months later, following the intervention of several Irish nationalists who had taken prominent roles on the Union side, he was released and left for Paris, to take up a post as financial agent for the Fenians. However, he was unimpressed by the Fenian leadership and after a spell as a freelance journalist in Paris he returned to New York, his new paper, Irish Citizen, strongly critical of Fenianism, that 'enormous sack of gas'. Ideologically Mitchel differed from Fenianism, while at the same time remaining scornful of constitutional nationalism. Through John and William Dillon, sons of his former colleague on The Nation, John Blake Dillon, who organised a 2,000 [pounds sterling] testimonial for him, he was drawn back into Irish politics, standing (unsuccessfully) for election as an abstentionist independent nationalist candidate for Cork in 1874 and successfully in February 1875. Declared ineligible as an undischarged felon, he ran again and was once more elected, though he died before the issue was resolved.

James Quinn is the executive editor of the Royal Irish Academy's excellent Dictionary of Irish Biography. He has published widely in Irish history and here does an impressive job in situating Michel in the ideological landscape of his time. It was through his writings, especially his books, that Mitchel influenced later generations of Irish nationalists. We may not like his ideas but one has to recognise their force in shaping Irish political culture.

This biography is part of the UCD Life and Times new series, which continues and revises the Historical Association of Ireland's Life and Times biographies. They provide concise and scholarly studies of key figures in Irish history, accessible to students and general readers. The series presents popular and invaluable resources in an attractive format.

Carla King

St Patrick's College, Drumcondra
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Author:King, Carla
Publication:Irish Economic and Social History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 1, 2010
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