In the appendix to his “League of the North and South” (1896) Sir Charles Gavan Duffy republishes part of the reply he made to Mitchel’s strictures on him in the “Jail Journal,” stating that, “I am entitled that the facts of the case which his (Mitchel’s) brilliant book will keep long in memory should be accurately known.” To Duffy’s “Letter to John Mitchel” written (1854) on the first publication of the “Jail Journal,” Mitchel wrote a fierce reply which Duffy reprinted in the Nation and criticised. Those who curious to read in its entirety the controversy between Mitchel and Duffy will find it set out in full in the Nation of April and May, 1854. Two commentaries from Michael Joseph Barry and Terence Bellew MacManus appear in the issues of Mitchel’s Citizen in the later months of the same year. The controversy had a very unfortunate effect on the political fortunes of both men, for Duffy’s charges against Mitchel were eagerly seized upon by the Yankee press, to which Mitchel was at the time in opposition, to deprecate him, whilst Mitchel’s charges against Duffy were utilised by the venal press and party Duffy was then opposing in Ireland to discredit him. In regard to the articles “The Tocsin of Ireland,” and “The Casus Belli,” which Mitchel was led to believe Duffy had written and on his trial evaded responsibility for, Mitchel was partly misled. The article Mitchel had in mind evidently was “Jacta Alea Est,” written by Miss Elgee, afterwards Lady Wilde, in the suppressed issue of the Nation. Miss Elgee wrote both to the counsel and prosecution avowing the authorship, and the counsel for Duffy raised technical objections to the proof of the authorship of the “Tocsin of Ireland,” and to Duffy’s responsibility for articles which appeared while he was in prison.
The principle of calling evidence as to his private character on Duffy’s trial is open to censure, but prior to Duffy’s doing so another Young Ireland leader had acted similarly and no adverse criticism had been excited in Ireland by the fact. It must be remembered that the Government and the Government press had systematically tried to blacken the character of the Young Irelanders in order to excite public feeling against them, that for this purpose an infamous journalist named Birch had been employed and paid several thousand pounds (see the actions of Birch versus Somerville and Birch versus the Freeman’s Journal, 1851; in which the vile transaction was acknowledged by the principals) and that some of the Young Irelanders believed it, therefore, necessary to refute libels which had gained a certain currency in the country. As to the memorial, and Sir Lucius O’Brien, Duffy repudiated O’Brien’s action and denied that any promise was made or implied on his behalf. Duffy did not disown the memorial – a proceeding he justified by the precedent of colleagues in the Leadership of Young Ireland. The justification cannot be sustained. He also emphatically denied the charge that it was through him O’Brien was induced to attempt an insurrection in Tipperary. Finally, justice to Duffy’s memory demands it to be made known what was not known to Mitchel at the time he wrote his comments in the “Jail Journal” that the Government offered to release Duffy if he would formally plead “Guilty” and that Duffy rejected the offer.
This unhappy controversy has echoed down even to our own time, and it would be unjust for any editor of the “Jail Journal” to issue a new edition without setting down the facts. Stung by what Mitchel wrote, Duffy in his “Letter” accused Mitchel of having broken his parole in escaping Van Diemen’s Land. This charge, the most galling which could have been made against a man of Mitchel’s high honour, and which was repudiated at once by all the Young Ireland leaders, many of whom on other points sympathised with Duffy rather than with Mitchel, and approved of the policy of the revived Nation, sundered Mitchel from Duffy for ever – it rendered reconciliation impossible.
The origin of the bitter breach between Mitchel and Duffy was not, however, in this controversy, nor their opposing views on policy in 1848. In the beginning of 1848 Duffy excised from a report in the Nation of one of Mitchel’s speeches at the Confederation several passages which he considered seditious, an action which Mitchel strongly resented, and there seems to have arisen a belief in Mitchel’s mind that Duffy was secretly planning to drive him out of the Confederation. Whether this belief was true or untrue, it is now impossible with certainty to assert. But it is indisputable that the two men in the Young Ireland Leadership in 1848 whom it was most profitable to the British Government of that day to sow animosity between were John Mitchel and Gavan Duffy. To it, the one was the most dangerous man of action, the other the most astute opponent. Apart from honest partisans, there were some few in the groups surrounding the two patriots whose honesty may be reasonably suspected, and that one at least of these men fanned misunderstanding between Mitchel and Duffy is fairly certain.
Frederick Lucas, the one Englishman in the history of Ireland in the nineteenth century who honestly and completely identified himself with the cause of Ireland – a man of cool judgment and penetrating insight into character, and who was the personal friend of both Mitchel and Duffy, has left on record his judgment of both. Mitchel he declared to be the bravest man he ever knew – supremely unselfish, sincere, and modest. Duffy he estimates, next to Mitchel, the ablest man in the movement, of a character not so strong in action, but courageous, steadfast, unselfish, and sincere. His estimate is a true one. To Gavan Duffy, Ireland not only owes the foundation of the Nation, but the revival of some spark of national life in the years immediately following the Famine and the destruction of Young Ireland. To Mitchel modern Ireland owes an inspiration without which her farmers might still be serfs and her nationhood bartered for West-Britonism. His indomitable spirit and haughty manhood raised again out of carcasses and ashes a defiant Irish Nation. No country has a nobler and more gallant figure in its pantheon than John Mitchel; Ireland has had few men who served her more honestly than Duffy. Mitchel will always be first in the love of his countrymen, but the common name of patriot is the meed of both men.