It is the lot of few men to influence the times in which they live; of still fewer to survive by their teachings through successive generations. Of those who in the past have helped to guide the destinies of the Irish people, and from whose writings inspiration is still drawn, few can be adjudged more potent than John Mitchel. It would be of interest, therefore, to direct attention to the attitude which that great writer would in all probability have adopted had he survived till the great European cataclysm of today. We are fortunately able to do this. For John Mitchel has left us in his own clear and terse language a record not merely of momentary passion, but of principles and moral force which, unchanged and unchangeable, last all time. “I do not know,” he said, “who has a better right to speak for France than an Irishman.” It was not altogether for the efforts, though, that France had made on behalf of Ireland, nor for the sacrifices of Irishmen in behalf of France, that he was so enthusiastic for her; it was because she was the foremost champion of human right as against a pretended “Divine right.”
“It is because France is standing up as the great champion of human freedom and the right of the population to dispose of their own destinies and to order their own government, that we sympathise with her.”
Such was the dominant note that Mitchel struck in his speeches and writings during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71.
Mitchel had resided for some years in France, where he had made many friendships, and the ties which he had formed there were strengthened by a close and intimate knowledge of her people.
He visited Paris three times between 1859 and 1866. He first arrived there from New York in August, 1859, remaining for about five months. He came next in August, 1860, accompanied by his wife and children. Their residence lasted for more than two years and was only terminated owing to the Civil War in America which determined him to leave for New York with the object of getting through the lines into the Confederate States. He left Havre, in September, 1862, accompanied by his youngest son, William, who fell mortally wounded a year afterward on the battle of Gettysburg. He sailed once more from New York in November, 1865 – soon after his release from Fortress Munroe – and resided in Paris until October, 1866, when he bade a last farewell to France.
“I looked back,” he wrote after leaving Brest, “until the blue lines of the French coast faded into the evening mist. Perhaps it is the last time I shall ever see that fair and pleasant land. Yet who knows? … Anyhow, Vive la France!”
Thus ended his last visit to France.
From Paris he had written, as Paris Correspondent, those letters to The Irishman, Charleston Standard, and Irish-American, chronicling European events and breathing his affection for France. They contained more “original” matter every week, as he said, than ever he had written for his papers in America.
From Paris, too, he had set out for a tour on foot through Normandy – an interesting account of which he wrote in his Journal (Continuation) – and later in the year 1862 for that “most delightful tour” through the south and east of France described by him in detail in An Exile in France.
Those tours gave him opportunities of becoming acquainted with many parts of France, and it is certain that he retained the impressions of the great, gifted people who had enlisted those warm sympathies so clearly reflected in his writings.
But we have said enough to show that there were many and strong ties attaching John Mitchel to France. It would have been strange – impossible, indeed, for him – if, on the declaration of war between France and Prussia in 1870, his sympathy and enthusiasm had not been aroused for France and her cause. His words at the very outbreak of the war were clear and decisive: –
“We take part instantly, frankly and zealously – for France.”
So he spoke then, and his sympathies and devotion remained unchanged to the end.
A selection is given in the following pages from his speeches and writings – in America and France – during and previous to the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71; including a striking article written after the decisive battle of Sadowa and only a few days before he left France for the last time.
More than forty-five years have passed since Mitchel spoke, yet his words are as appropriate now as they were then. France was at that time in the throes of another war, undertaken for the same cause which, since Charles Martel broke the power of the Saracens, and saved Europe, has inspired her. To Mitchel she was the representative champion of freedom who had taught the world its blessings, and his countrymen can recall with pride that he realised the menace which the march of Hohenzollern Imperialism constituted for Europe. Nor can it be forgotten that he manifested his fervid sympathies for France, who, struggling in defence of her liberty and to check the strides of Prussian aggrandisement, was yet to achieve her destiny through the heroism and self-sacrifice of her sons.
J. de. L. S.