The following letters are taken from The Life of John Mitchel by William Dillon published 1888. The notes and historical context are taken from abridged extracts of Dillon’s book. Some footnotes have been added by the editor. The first volume of letters, from 1834 to 1845, relate to Mitchel’s early life, his professional career as a barrister, his friendship with John Martin, and his increasing engagement with Irish politics.

1834-1837: Early Marriage

In the letter above quoted, he refers to the fact that Miss M—[1] was about to go to Newry. And in fact, while he was attending to his duties at the bank in Derry, she was on a visit to her relatives at Newry. This, of course, did not tend to mend matters or to reconcile him to his enforced absence from home. He had frequent letters from members of his family (who had not the least suspicion of the state of his thoughts), dwelling on the merits and attractions of the young lady. At length matters reached a crisis. Some few weeks after his arrival in Derry he writes to his father: –

I have heard through Mr. H—that you are not to leave home for the synod. I was waiting for your arrival in Derry for the decision of the bank question. But now that I am not to see you, I may as well write all I think on the subject. I have been making inquiries and observations since I entered the office, concerning the actual duties and circumstances of the situation, and I have come to the conclusion that the thing is really not fit for me, nor I for it. I know this must look like caprice and levity on my part both towards you and my uncle. But if we had known all that I now know before I left home, I think we would never have thought of it. I had no idea that the clerks were to be employed in the business of the office except during the public hours. I find, however, that they cannot call a single minute of any day their own. In winter, which is their busiest season, they are usually obliged to attend at six in the morning, and work without intermission, except while they take their meals, till twelve at night. This would not only require an utter sacrifice of all my habits and inclinations, but would preclude all sorts of reading, even, I think, for college. And even if my health would support, I really cannot consent to inter myself so for life. To have a certain moderate portion of the day set apart for some business would be very well, provided I had the rest to myself; but such unintermitting slavery is intolerable. And what, then, you will say, am I to do with myself? That I really cannot tell; but I would make any effort rather than be a clerk in a bank.

1837-1845: First Years Of Married Life – Newry – Banbridge

The earliest letter of Mitchel’s to John Martin which has come to my hands tells of the effect produced on him by Carlyle’s “French Revolution.” The letter is dated November 29, 1838, and is written from Newry: –

I have your school requisites here since Sunday, when I came down from Dublin. I would have written to you before, but thought you would be coming into town.

I spent two hours and a half regularly every morning in the college library reading Carlyle. The two remaining volumes are, as I anticipated, even superior to the first. It is the profoundest book, and the most eloquent and fascinating history, that English literature ever produced. The only thing that comes near it in importance (not in philosophy, nor in wisdom, nor in fancy, nor in liberality, nor in magnificence of language – what a long parenthesis) is the “Decline and Fall.” Such men as Carlyle are the salt of the earth.

His admiration for Carlyle became much less enthusiastic and more qualified in later years; but he never ceased to regard Carlyle as a man of true genius, and to admire him accordingly.

In September 1840, a few months after the removal to Banbridge, Mitchel writes to Martin: –


I thought that I would have been the first (after your own family) to welcome you home; but when the news reached me, I was just crawling out of bed, after ten days’ confinement to it. And even yet, I have never gone out of the door, except once for a few minutes in the middle of a bright day; creeping out into the sun like some summer insect, and retiring to my cover when a cloud came.

Nevertheless, I have put off even writing to you from day to day, in the hope that each morning might be fine enough to induce me to drive to Loughorne. I have now given it up; at least, for some days.

Come you and see me, if that is not unreasonable to ask so soon. It is only six miles and a half, and I am longing greatly to have some talk with you.

Since you and I parted that morning in Kilmorey Street, some events have occurred, both public and private, that have changed the face of events a good deal. Besides, you must have brought a parcel of new ideas, or “notions,” with you from that Loco-foco country, and, in short, I have not lost my propensity to communicate with you about things in general. Do come and see me.

A year subsequent to this, in October, 1841, he writes again (I select one here and there from the letters, which are quite numerous): –


Partly the storminess of the weather, and partly the inability of the horse to travel, prevented our going to Loughorne to-day; though, perhaps, neither of those causes by itself would have had that effect. I hope Miss Martin and you will excuse us, and not only that, but that you will come over here to-morrow or next day yourselves, or, if Miss Martin be too busy, or otherwise engaged, or for any reason indisposed, then you by yourself. I have not seen Mr. Davis this long time, and will keep an evening for that purpose in your favour, until I hear of your having sailed for a foreign shore.

We remained in Newry till Monday. But I came down to Dromore on Saturday, and back to Newry again the same day, where I worked in the office all day on Sunday. If you should go away before I see you, which I think you won’t, indite me a long letter from some point of your tour, and indicate to me where I should address one in reply. You will tell me your adventures, and I will let you know how we get on at home under Sir Robert Peel’s government and the spirit of the British Constitution.

The Mr. Davis here mentioned is not Thomas Davis, but the Rev. Mr. Davis above referred to. The reader will note here the same longing to see and talk with his friend as in the former letter.

In May, 1842, he writes to Martin, saying that he was just recovering from a severe attack of asthma. The previous day he had left his bed to go to Dromore for sessions. He describes in somewhat high-flown language the effects of the sights and sounds of spring upon his sick mind and body. Then he abruptly breaks off: –

But I am beginning to blather. Only this I may say, that when I cease to feel rapturously this “vernal delight and joy able to drive all sadness but despair;” when I see the first violet of any spring without a passionate yearning, without a fulness of the throat that makes me think the fountain of sweet tears is hardly yet hermetically sealed in me; when the singing of the birds is to me only a tuneless whistle, and that brave overhanging firmament nothing but a pestilent congregation of vapours, – then let my grave be dug, the sooner and the deeper the better.

In October, 1842, he writes: –


I send you by this post the second number of the Nation, which I never received myself till Sunday, although I thought it would have come on Saturday. But it seems they keep the country papers for a later edition, which does not issue till Saturday afternoon. I think the Nation will do very well.

Since I saw you, I have been in perfect health. So that I do not think that cottage (as Kate Nickleby did in Mrs. Winterley’s case) disagreed with my constitution. You, I hope, can give an equally good account of yourself since I saw you.

We are all well here, and expect my mother in Banbridge about Wednesday. It is wild weather here, and there is no Banbridge news. Oats firm, and dead pigs dull. But for public news, what pleases me best is the arrangement that expediency has compelled Sir Charles Bagot to make in Canada.

Again, in October, 1843, there is a letter which gives hint of the political creed he afterwards came to hold so passionately: –

One thing pleases me well – that the twenty thousand Hanoverian troops who are coming over to us are “all Protestants.” But yet a subject of alarm occurs; for what if they should be Puseyites? At the very least, they are Lutherans, and hold the real presence.

How do you think the country will take all this? I think I know how it ought to take it; but if I put it on paper, you might inform the Attorney-General, and get me arrested. Indeed, I am tired of loud agitation; loud seditious rhetoric on the one side, and stern, contemptuous denial and fixed bayonets on the other. The matter is surely sufficiently at issue. The pleadings are closed; the speeches are made; no conceivable amount of objurgation will bring us one whit nearer to repeal. Repeal now lies between the two parties, like the dead body of Sarpedon over which Aenas and Meriones stood a-scolding; but I begin to be of opinion with Menaetiades –

I begin to be of opinion, with Jack Lawless, when the Catholic Relief Bill was thrown out in the House of Lords, “Now pikes on our shoulders, and wigs on the green.” If Ireland be not ready to achieve the repeal with a strong hand, she ought to make herself ready without delay; and if she be worthy of the place she seeks among the nations, she will do that.

In the month of December, in the same year (1843), he again writes in a strain which shows how strongly his thoughts are still running on politics: –


It is a good while since I saw or heard from you. Have you been quite well? Is Simpson at Loughorne? Are you preparing to register your arms at Newry Sessions? Have you provided witnesses to satisfy the justices of your loyalty? Do you stand well with the police? And, finally, have you any personal enemy amongst the magistrates?

Again. As to Spanish affairs, are you a partisan of Olozaga or of Gonzales Bravo? A Progresista or a Moderado?

But, seriously, Mr Martin, what do you think of Lord Devon’s Commission?[2] I have made up my mind upon it; and, as usual, I think O’Connell altogether right. It is a humbug, a hoax, a “cod.” Some things there are that may be prejudged, that require to be prejudged, lest (before they be proved by their results to be humbugs) they cause mischief in the mean time. This commission is one of those. It is intended to operate a diversion from the movement you wot of; intended (as the Ecclesiastical Commission was, and as all such commissions are) to put by the pressure of the moment; to weaken, by dividing, the popular feeling; and then, then – ah, these statesmen are liars, and will go to hell! – then to put the people off with a sham of relief, with the minimum of justice (which is the maximum of statesmanship). But if I run on any longer, I shall get intemperate in my language. The most amusing article I have seen for a long time in that funny paper, the Times, is their commentary on O’Driscoll’s prosecution of his refractory tenants who rescued the distress. They say his conduct was certainly naughty, but still “wish to speak of him with respect.” They do not call him a grinder of the faces of the poor, a plunderer, a tyrant, a murderer – no, no; their worst language in rebuking is conduct is – fie, fie! But, indeed, I think even their language is too severe. I regard Mr. O’Driscoll as an instrument specially raised up by Providence at this exact time for wisest purposes. He stands forth a conspicuous example of brazen squiredom; he is a type shoneen, and, as a divine missionary, he ought to be treated with reverence. Like the “youngest gentleman,” he has a mission, and will execute it. I most heartily wish him success.

If I had not arrived at the end of my paper, I believe I should communicate further instruction, being in the humour. As it is, I must finish by modestly requesting you to ride over here some of these fine days and see how we get on. The child’s leg, I think, and the doctors think, is getting better. All the rest well.

Regarding the Devon Commission, the result fully justified his view. As is well known, nothing was done for the Irish tenants for more a quarter of century after the commission reported; and when at last something was done, it certainly could hardly be said to be the result of the Devon Commission.

In 1844, the letters to Martin were more frequent than in the preceding years. They still evidence an increasing interest in politics, though it is plain, from occasional reference to business matters, that his time was mainly taken up with the practice of his profession. In February, 1844, he writes: –


I thought you would have been at Banbridge before this. I am very busy preparing for the assizes, and don’t expect to be away from this for a fortnight. I send you the Post, with speeches of O’Connell and Sir Robert. Nothing struck me in the debate more forcibly than the very clear and intelligible case Sir Robert makes for the Irish Church. Call it an anomaly after that speech? I observe also that that portion of his speech pleases the Telegraph, which confirms me in my opinion, and emboldens me to express it.

However, the debate of debates is over, and the division is triumphant for ministers. Surely this pother about Ireland is over at last. Surely matters will go on smooth now.

In the following month, March, 1844, he writes: –


I returned only yesterday from Down assizes, and found the Nation had not been sent to you. I send it along with this. Simpson, I hear, is at Loughorne. If I knew when you would all be at home, I think I would go over some day, before he goes away.

A part of last Sunday I spent in an examination of the old ruin at Inch, which is very fine. I was detained three days longer than I expected at Down, and our Ballynarly affair detained one of the judges there a day after the assizes opened at Carrickfergus. Yet we did not get all done, and twenty-four rioters, all Orangemen, stand over for summer assizes.

During the close of 1843 and beginning of 1844, Mitchel was much interested in the State prosecutions then going on in Dublin. His business frequently took him to Dublin, and he was several times present in the Court of Queen’s Bench during the trial of O’Connell and his fellow-conspirators. In a letter written to Martin from Dublin in the month of April, 1844, I find the following: –

They are very busy in the Court of Queen’s Bench doing nothing; and all thinking Protestants grow monstrously impatient for the end. What good, I ask, is our conviction doing us?

And again, on May 7, 1844: –

You know what the “Kilkenny case” is by this time, I suppose. It is the instructions given by the ermined pettifogger, who is called Chief Justice of Ireland, to defraud the court and rob the public in a record tried some years ago between the corporation of Kilkenny and the people. It was an Orange corporation then; but these papers have now got into the hands of Philistines, who are not careful to conceal the delinquencies of the gentleman on the other side. They say in Dublin now that these trials are killing the old man. I hope that will be realized; and when he is gone, “may the Lord have mercy upon his miserable soul!” – a form of words used by him and the like of him when they have sentenced a man to be hanged.

You will consider this very acrimonious, I fear; but such language is good for me occasionally, and I feel quite amiable and placid after it. I met one day at dinner, Mr. Sheridan Knowles, Mr. Duffy, Mr. O’Donoghue (the “Irish barrister” wots keeps a note-book, and prints the same in the New Monthly and elsewhere), and other literati. Had also another literary day at Duffy’s, and met many spirits of the Nation – a symposiac, in short; but one would tire of literary fellows. I would wish to have a change of “medical fellows,” as Bob Sawyer calls them, or rather a mixture of divers sorts of fellows, including even farmers.

The next letter I shall give is interesting as showing how, amid all the cares of his profession and the excitements of politics, his soul yearned for the mountains and the mountain streams. It also gives us some glimpses into his views of professional duty, and into the state of his feelings generally as regards his profession. On June 21, 1844, he writes: –


When I got your note about the notice of registry, it was just two days too late to send one in time for Newry sessions. But, as you are a fifty pound freeholder, and therefore respectable, and as the law gives every facility and advantage to such, you can register without a notice by merely coming up before the judge of assize at Downpatrick next month. The cavilling and haggling, the production of title-deeds, cross-examination, and brow-beating which occur with inferior voters coming up to register their franchises, have no place with such respectable men as you. Besides, you have never seen Themis in her ermine, adjusting her scales as only she knows how, loading her dice, poisoning her sword, setting out her table of thimble-rig, – a truly imposing sight, which you might as well take that opportunity of seeing, especially as I will be at Newcastle at that period, and will drive to Downpatrick every day from thence. And I see a vision of certain wanderings we may have through silent glens that lie in the shadow of Slieve Donard, and send, every one, its own rill of crystal water murmuring to the sea. Ah, no hart panteth for the water brooks as my soul longs for those “times of refreshing!” It is not that the place has virtue in itself, nor any place inland or coastward; for the sun shines everywhere, and even here in Banbridge are summer airs whispering among the trees, and waters gleaming in the sunlight, and on the blessed earth her glorious robe of green. But to rid myself a little while of the fret and noise of vexatious litigants, to forget their cursed business, and to fly where no client’s eye may see me, that is the luxury, John, that I want and lust after. Idle, dreaming days those will be, dies non in the professional point of view; but that will it profit a man though he gain the whole world, and damn his own soul? You will think all this extravagant, because your ordinary employments are not of the tormenting character that mine are. But if you want to understand me quite well, spend seven years quarrelling for other people about matters that you would see at the devil rather than quarrel about on your own account, guarding and fencing your client against all injury and loss more anxiously than you would guard your eldest son, arguing eternally with “shrill attorney logic” about less than nothing, and pocketing your fees for the same. Do that, and you will know what it is to have a week or two of idleness in the long vacation.

The study of the law is a very fine thing in the abstract; but to most men, the practical work of the profession is more or less irksome. It must have been so in an especial degree to a nature such as Mitchel’s. Yet he was not much given to complaining about it. The above outburst is the only one of the kind that occurs in his letters to Martin. Allusions to professional matters rarely occur in these letters.

On the 23rd of the same month, two days later, he writes again: –


I send you the Nation in which you will see, amongst the list of those who have paid their repeal subscription for this year, the name of John Martin, Esq., of Loughorne. It is probable that (as I expected) Mr. Davis was not at the meeting at all, and has sent your money and address to the secretary.

We had a great meting at Tullylish[3] last Sunday evening (the only repeal meeting I ever took part in) of the three parishes of Tullylish, Seapatrick, and Clare, and the chair was taken by James Fivey, of Woodbank, near Gilford, a new convert, and a very good one. A deputation goes this night to Dublin with address and rent, of which deputation I was named one, but totally refused to go, as I could not leave my business. The Vindicator and Newry Examiner of yesterday are full of our proceedings, and the Examiner, in particular, puffs us immoderately. So that I think that powerful organ of public opinion, the Telegraph, cannot get over showing us up in our true colours (beg pardon, colors) in Tuesday’s publication.

Seriously, I am very much pleased at Fivey’s coming out. He is, like yourself, simply a farmer; but also a graduate of T.C.D, and the intimate friend and college chum of Whiteside, the lawyer. The Protestant public hereabouts, I assure you, look on with alarm at these doings. The police of Banbridge and Gilford were concentrated upon us at the meeting, and occupied a strong position, to blow us up in case of our commencing, then and there, a rebellion. The best of it all was that, although Tullylish is the very stronghold of Orangeism in this neighbourhood, there was not the slightest manifestation of ill-will towards those who attended the meeting, either in going to it or returning. I think I see a growing interest about repeal amongst Protestants; and when they once join it, or any considerable number of them – But I had better stop my politics.

Then follows some half a page or so of abuse of Sir James Graham, the then Postmaster-General. There are frequent references to Sir James Graham in the letters at this time, and Mitchel seems to have been exceedingly indignant at the practice of “Grahamizing” letters, then under inquiry in Parliament. Early in 1844, it was discovered that certain correspondence of Mazzini’s had been opened and inspected, by order of Sir James Graham, in the Post Office. The matter gave rise to much discussion in Parliament, but nothing particular was done.

We have it recorded in the letter last quoted that was in the month of June, 1844, that Mitchel for the first time attended a public meeting. Such occasions were destined to become familiar to him afterwards.

In October, 1844, he writes: –


I was not much surprised to hear you are still in Ireland. But you are letting the last remains of the summer slip away. And if I were going to merry England, I would like to see her in her summer fashions. But I won’t get away at all. The office is full of business, and my going away now would be just as if you chose the seed-time to make a tour. Talking of Manchester, have you seen by the papers how Young England has been revealing itself there, at the Athenaeum? A hell of a fellow is Young England, and has handsome language at command, as also very gentlemanly clothes, and most respectable hats.

I am reading a very interesting book, Dr. Mant’s “History of the Church of Ireland,” meaning the Church of England established here, with a “preliminary survey from the Papal usurpation in the twelfth century till its legal abolition in the sixteenth.” A curious book, and a good book, and possibly an honest book. But this religious public is the devil.

I think I will see you before Saturday week; and if I can manage to go away a few days, I will.

A letter written towards the end of the following month (November, 1844,), informs us that he spent some part of the month in Dublin. He had been to dine at Duffy’s, and had there met the “Nation people.” He went also to Conciliation Hall and heard O’Connell speak for two hours. O’Connell, he tells us, was “wearing his Mullaghmast cap, and speaking words as ‘high and haughty’ as ever. Long life to him, and may his shadow never be less.”

During the first six months of 1845, his time was much occupied with professional business, and the letters to Martin are not so frequent as in 1844. I do not find any reference worth noticing to public affairs in the 1845 letters until the 6th of July, under which date he writes: –


Jenny and I will have great pleasure in dining with you to-morrow; but you have mentioned no hour. I suppose we may take chance of five?

I have been very ill for three days, and had to sit up last night and the night before; but am a good deal better to-day. Since I saw you I have been monstrously busy, spent nearly a week at Hillsborough doing sessions work, and expect little leisure for some time to come. Ministers (long life to them!) are carrying things with a high hand. Indeed, I sincerely trust they will force Lord Stanley’s Bill through this session; and I think they will. Sir Robert is a great fellow, of the kind; and as for Sir James, I begin to love him.

What pleases me in the Cavan business is that the Catholics have made it apparent that they will not be wretched with impunity. That, and the speeches at the Cavan meeting, and the cries about rent, are all pleasant to my mind. Indeed, I agree with you that Orangedom will come around; that is, the “lower orders” of it. After which, the better classes may go to blazes, unless they repent and do penance.

[1] Mitchel’s first love interest before meeting Jenny Verner. Is not referred to by name. Miss M.– was known to have never married.

[2] Commission on Occupation of Land appointed by Sir Robert Peel, formed November 1843 and released its report February 1845.

[3] A small village situated on the banks of the Bann, between Banbridge and Portadown.