November 11, 1899.
‘Promise for me, Mitchel, promise for me,’ such was the shout that bursting like a thunderclap upon the thronged courthouse in Green-street on the 27th May, 1848, startled the judge, jury, and entire paraphernalia of British justice in Ireland. The shout came from all parts of the court, and so spontaneous, so vehement and determined was the cry that at first it seemed to be a prepared signal for revolt.
What was it that had taken place to create that outburst? Simply this, John Mitchel had been convicted as an Irish Felon, and in expiation of such a crime was sentenced to fourteen years’ transportation across the seas. Sentence had been pronounced, and Mitchel addressing himself to the court, said: ‘I knew I was setting my life on the cast. The course I have opened is only commenced. The Roman who saw his hand burning to ashes before the tyrant promised that three hundred should follow on his enterprise. Can I not promise for one, for two, for three, aye for hundreds?’ So saying Mitchel pointed rapidly to his friends in court one by one, and the words, ‘Promise for me, Mitchel, promise for me,’ was the fierce response to his appeal. Alas, it was but a shout, and the newly-created Irish Felon was hurried from the dark and sent into exile without so much as a hand being raised or a shot fired in his defence. Thus, before it had well begun, perished the revolutionary movement of 1848.
Mitchel was an Ulster Presbyterian, and the first who, since the days of Wolfe Tone, had the courage and the manliness to preach, not only the doctrines of true nationality, but also how to carry them into effect; in short, he was an Irish separatist, and preached revolution.
In his own time, Mitchel was regarded by many as a fool and a madman. In our time, he is looked up to as an honest Irishman who, unfortunately, had dangerous and impractical ideas. To my mind he was neither; he but acted as all Irishmen should act—not should be prepared to act, for ever since the cursed day when Saxon fetters bound our country we are having men—Irishmen—prepared when the time comes to do this and to do that which is never done, but the spouting about which brings popularity and fame. Mitchel pursued the only course open to any man who studies the narrative of his country’s wrongs; he did so with his eyes open and with the knowledge that even should he fail it did not mean permanent defeat.
In the preface to his ‘Jail Journal,’ Mitchel gives a succinct history of Ireland. And why? The concluding paragraphs contain the answer. ‘The general history of a nation,’ he writes, ‘may fitly preface the personal memoranda of a solitary captive; for it was strictly and logically a consequence of the dreary story here epitomised that I came to be a prisoner and to sit writing and musing so many months in a lonely cell. “The history of Ireland,” said Meagher to his unjust judges at Clonmel, “explains my crime and justifies it.” No man proudly mounts the scaffold, or coolly faces a felon’s death, or walks with his head high and defiance on his tongue into the cell of a convict hulk for nothing. No man, let him be as “young” and as “vain” as you will, can do this in the wantonness of youth or the intoxication of vanity. My preface, then,’ he continues, ‘will explain to some readers what was that motive spirit and passion which impelled a few Irishmen to brave such risks and incur so dreadful penalties for the sake of one chance of rousing their oppressed and degraded countrymen to an effort of manful resistance against their cruel and cunning enemy.’ The lesson, therefore, to be drawn from Mitchel’s life is that the history of one’s country is the great fountain from which springs national sentiment and patriotic ambition.
In his ‘Jail Journal’ Mitchel soliliquises on what he had gained by his struggle with the English Government. He sets down the results of his thoughts under three heads.
1st. He had compelled the enlightened English Government to publicly and notoriously pack a jury in order to crush one man, thereby proving that there was no Constitution in Ireland. That the Government is not under, but above law, that trial by jury is a fraud, and that all Whig professions about conciliatory and impartial Government in Ireland were as false as the father of Whiggery himself.
2nd. By demonstrating that there was no Law and or Constitution for him and his companions, he put an end once for all to Constitutional agitation. So that delusion being out of the way, there was a chance of his fellow-countrymen seeing what is solemn truth, that for Ireland’s grievances there is but one all-sufficient remedy, the edge of the sword.
3rd. He had shown the Catholics of Ireland that they were not yet emancipated; that they are deliberately, ostentatiously debarred from executing the common civic office of jurors in any case of public concernment—that is to say, they are slaves. They are ruled now as ever by the sword, and if they go on quietly obeying this kind of rule, let them obey and be damned.
To those who declare that Mitchel was but a hot-headed firebrand guided only in his policy by his hatred of England, the programme he had laid out for himself is a complete answer. To those who have also appeared as apologists for Mitchel’s career by pointing out that it was force of circumstances at home, and the effects of the contemporary movements in other countries that obliged him to pursue the course he did adopt, the annotation to the conclusions quoted above and written some twenty years later is a sufficient confutation. The annotation is to the effect that, although subsequent events had not developed as he had anticipated, yet his opinions were unchanged, and he still adhered to the theories advanced in ’48 and believed in their ultimate success.
It is very strange how at all times men are springing up apologising and explaining away the deeds of their predecessors forgetful of the fact that by doing so they insult their memories and trifle with their policies. So it has been with Mitchel. Apologists have appeared from all sides. I do not intend to pose as such. Mitchel never wanted an apologist. What he wanted was disciples and adherents, men who believed as he believed, who would act as he acted, and who would measure their love for their country by the oppression of its rulers. To gain those he made many sacrifices. With education as an exposer of our actual misfortunes and neglected opportunities, and with Mitchel as a guiding star to lead us in the right path, we will experience the realisation of his hopes and the justification of his efforts.
[The writer of the above article is now serving in the ranks of the Transvaal Irish Brigade.—ED.]