JOHN MITCHEL, an Ulster Protestant, wrote these letters to the Ulster Protestant democracy in April and May of 1848. The disgraceful Treason-Felony Act had just been enacted, enabling the Government to treat Irish political offences on a level with the vilest crimes.
Ireland had just passed through three years of famine and famine-fever, the unchecked consequences of her ruthless Government, and had paid the toll of a million Irish lives; and to remedy her condition the Imperial Parliament enacted the Treason-Felony Act. An indictment for the newly invented crime was awaiting Mitchel, to his knowledge, at the time when he wrote these letters.
A recent French critic, having studied Mitchel’s “Jail Journal,” has done the entente cordiale the service of exposing Mitchel as a futile raider with no positive or constructive ideas and with no better basis for his Nationalism than bitter unreasoning rancour against England.
I am sorry to say that the criticism has been adopted by some Irish writers. If after ’47 no thought had remained in an Irishman’s mind but the one, – “delenda est Carthago” – will anyone who dares to face the facts of that time pretend to be surprised? What surprises me in these letters is the extraordinary coolness and patience of the man who, loving his own country, had seen her suffer the horrors of the Famine Years.
Nor was Mitchel’s attitude purely negative and non-constructive. He laid down clearly the policy that Parnell afterwards took up, the policy which Gladstone declared to be “marching through rapine to the dismemberment of the Empire” – “to lay the axe to the root of this rotten and hideous Irish landlordism, that we might see how much would come along with it.”
He saw that the enemy of Ireland was “British oligarchy”, then in strict alliance, offensive and defensive, with Irish landlordism and Irish officialism. He warned his readers against expecting any good thing from the English Parliament or the English Government, and told them to trust themselves and make ready to defend themselves and their right to live and prosper in this land.
Seventy years ago, this Ulster Protestant poured scorn on the No-Popery campaign of the Ulster landlords. He showed how the English Whig, Lord Clarendon, was playing upon Ulster Protestant “loyalty.” The No-Popery campaign is still the main reliance of the British Oligarchy in Ireland, and only two years ago the English Liberal, Chief Secretary Birrell, was still exploiting the “loyalty” of those who (shall we say to his bitter grief?) were threatening armed resistance to his inoffensive Home Rule Act. “The government of Ireland is a continuity.” With the “Man of the Sin” held at bay and “loyalty” in full play, let us see how the people of Ulster have fared during seventy years:
Ulster had in 1841 a population of 2,386,373
It will take a great deal of shouting to drown the noise of these figures. Even Sir Edward Carson, in his new and lucrative office of Truth Controller, will not be able to keep it up. “Extermination,” wrote Mitchel, “is creeping northward.”
Mitchel, the Ulster Protestant, spoke nothing but the truth and suffered for it. The day will come, in spite of all the machinery for controlling the truth, when Mitchel’s truth will prevail among the Protestants of Ulster, and when they will sing again:
Belfast, you may remember
When tyrants were in splendour.
EOIN MAC NEILL