John Mitchel, Young Ireland revolutionary and author of “Jail Journal,” is often memorialized as a hero in both the US and Ireland, but it is time Irish and Irish Americans disavow the rabid pro-slavery advocate who was virulently anti-Jewish as well.
Already there is a move in Newry, County Down to change the name of Mitchel Place and remove a statute of Mitchel. A petition to rename John Mitchel Place in the city reached over 1,000 names.
With the chants of “Black Lives Matter” ringing out all over the world should Ireland and Irish America still be honoring a man who said the following about slaves?
Mitchel called blacks "an innately inferior people" and stated, “We deny that it is a crime, or a wrong, or even a peccadillo to hold slaves, to buy slaves, to keep slaves to their work by flogging or other needful correction. We wish we had a good plantation well-stocked with healthy negroes in Alabama.”
#georgesfloyd controversy once again focuses attention on this statue in Newry County Down to Irish Patriot John Mitchel, later a leading Confederate propagandist in the USA and pro-slavery advocate. As a fellow Newryman not proud of him. #BlackLivesMatter pic.twitter.com/euvZ4YkPoW— John McCavitt (@john_mccavitt) June 4, 2020
In letters, he stated that he wanted to make the people of the US "proud and fond of [slavery] as a national institution, and advocate its extension by re-opening the trade in Negroes." He claimed that slavery was inherently moral and "good in itself" and stated that he "promotes it for its own sake."
In 1857 in Knoxville, Tennessee he founded a new paper, the Southern Citizen, to promote "the value and virtue of slavery, both for negroes and white men."
He called for the reopening of the African slave trade and encouraged the spread of slavery into the American West.
Yet there are throughout Ireland, streets, squares, statues and football clubs dedicated to the Irish revolutionary of the mid-19th Century famous for his newspaper “The United Irishman” and his book “Jail Journal” about his love for Irish freedom and his insistence on the common bond between all Irish, Catholic, Protestant, and Dissenter.
Mitchel, a Presbyterian, was a giant of the Young Ireland movement and a close confidant of Thomas Francis Meagher, the Irish American hero.
The British feared Mitchel’s pen and in a show, trial convicted him of sedition and treason. Transported to Tasmania, he escaped from the penal colony in 1853 and eventually found his way to America. He settled in New York and later moved to Knoxville, Tennessee.
He has been revered as a leading revolutionary in Ireland, a man whose defiance of British rule, especially during the Famine era, has rightly been held up as an example of patriotism and commitment to equality and justice.
To this day he survives among the greats in the pantheon of Irish Americans and Irish heroes. His name is all over Ireland.
Yet he was deeply racist even by the standards of the time.
Fellow Young Irelander Charles Gavan Duffy refused to print articles from Mitchell in the Nation newspaper because Duffy found Mitchel’s pro-slavery beliefs to be repellent. Duffy recounted why he refused to publish some of Mitchel’s writings.
Mitchell “…attempted to employ the journal which was recognized throughout the world as the mouthpiece of Irish rights in the monstrous task of applauding negro slavery and denouncing the emancipation of the Jews. I would not permit him to make me responsible for these opinions at that time, nor would I permit any man in the world to do so today.”
Yet, a significant number of Gaelic Athletic Association clubs are named in his honor, including Newry Mitchel’s football club in his home town, John Mitchel's Claudy, Castlebar Mitchel’s GAA, John Mitchel's Glenullin, John Mitchel's Liverpool, and others both north and south of the border, as well as several in England and Australia.
One of the biggest GAA clubs in Kerry is named in honour of John Mitchel, the rabidly pro-slavery and racist Irish nationalist who said black people were "innately inferior" and wanted Americans to be "proud and fond of [slavery] as a national institution". pic.twitter.com/R7gY6CB8cp— Ciara | Ciaraíoch 🎨 (@Ciaraioch) June 7, 2020
A statue to Mitchel was also erected by the people of Newry and is located at John Mitchel Place, an extension of Newry's main street, Hill Street.
Mitchel Park in Dungiven, Northern Ireland is named after him as is Mitchel County, Iowa, in the United States.
Fort Mitchell on Spike Island in Cork Harbour is also named in his honor. There are Mitchel Streets throughout Ireland.
Yet, as journalist Patsy McGarry cogently argued in The Irish Times all the monuments and football clubs and streets are commemorating one of the most extreme pro-slavery advocates of the American Civil War. Simply put he had an unforgivable passion for slavery
Mitchel feuded with Jefferson Davis, whom he regarded as too moderate. He described Abraham Lincoln as "... an ignoramus and a boor; not an apostle at all; no grand reformer, not so much as an abolitionist, except by accident – a man of very small account in every way.” He lost two sons fighting for the confederacy. When it came to supporting slavery he was all in.
As the excellent McGarry article points out, in Mitchell’s view the “peculiar gentleness of demeanor and quiet courtesy” of the south in the US could be attributed to slavery, while he felt the southern custom of speaking gently to servants and slaves created “a softness of manner and tone which, in educated people, being united with dignity, and self-possession, gives me the ideal of a well-bred person.”
His Young Ireland colleagues such as Meagher violently disagreed with him. The plain fact is that one of Ireland’s most revered freedom fighters was rabidly pro-slavery.
McGarry poses the question: are we right to honor Michel? The answer seems clear, a resounding "No". It is time he was held accountable for his advocacy of slavery. Time to strike him from the list of Irish American heroes. Time to rename the streets, take down the statues. What good John Mitchel did was surely overshadowed by his desire to keep and expand slavery and keep fellow human beings in bondage. Even by Civil War standards, his vicious advocacy of slavery stands out.
Read more: Why is Derry also called Londonderry?