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Henry Collins

John Mitchel: Irish Patriot

(November 1960)

From Socialist Review, November 1960.
Republished in A Socialist Review, London 1965, pp. 267–70.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

On November 3, 1815, John Mitchel, one of the greatest Irish nationalists of the nineteenth century, was born. Ireland was England’s first colony and all the main features which we have come to associate with colonial exploitation appeared there in a peculiarly repulsive and brutal form.

In 1798, during the war which followed the French Revolution, the United Irishmen had led a desperate and forlorn revolt in the hope of being reinforced by French troops. Napoleon, already beginning to succumb to delusions of grandeur, was more interested in the conquest of Egypt and when French help eventually reached Ireland it was too little and too late. The rising was crushed with unusual savagery and three years later the Act of Union abolished the Irish Parliament, linking the two countries under a single rule.

Rent to the landlords, tithes to the priests and taxes to the government almost crushed body and soul out of the Irish peasants. An underground resistance movement, largely spontaneous but sporadically organised, sprang up, under the leadership of the Whiteboys and the Ribbonmen. As Mitchel was born the war with France was ending but the English found themselves with a peasant war in Ireland on their hands. Tithes were collected at gun point.

The leaders of Irish Catholicism were in a dilemma. They could hardly approve the English establishment and its alien, heretical Church. But neither could they view, without misgiving, the spread of a land war which might end in the destruction of private property, in the critical decade following the end of the war, Daniel O’Connell found the answer.

O’Connell is one of Ireland’s national heroes. His statue stands at the head of the main street in Dublin, which is named after him. Yet John Mitchel said of him that “next to the British Government he was the greatest enemy Ireland ever had.” And unfortunately, Mitchel was right.

O’Connell organised the peasant movement and then re-directed it. The agrarian revolt was damped down and the Catholic Association, which O’Connell set up in 1823, concentrated its efforts on securing Catholic emancipation. The priests were happy and the “Catholic Rent” to the Association was collected at chapel doors. In 1829 the English Tory Government thought it expedient to yield and an Act was passed permitting Catholics to sit in Parliament, hold commissions in the forces and be called to the Bar.

Failure of Potato Crop

Catholic Emancipation proved a mixed blessing. It split English Tories, paving the way for a Whig Government in 1830 and the Reform Act of 1832. For Ireland it was practically unredeemed disaster. The Act emancipating the Catholics was accompanied by another, disfranchising the Irish smallholders. Now there was to be no political barrier to eviction, and eviction, on a stupendous scale, was what followed.

The Act of Union of 1801 had subjected Ireland’s native manufacturing industry to the full blast of English competition. It was almost totally destroyed and with a rapidly growing population pressing on a limited supply of land, rents were raised and evictions were frequent. By the middle of the eighteen forties Ireland was ready for the “famine.”

It was “famine” of a very special kind. The potato crop failed through blight. Nothing happened to the corn or cattle. But the Irish were too poor to buy either. There was no reduction in rents, and the food which the peasants could afford was sent out at the ports under military escort. Deaths followed from hunger, typhus and cholera on a scale that has never been accurately assessed. Not for the first or last time in their tragic history the Irish grew desperate.

After emancipation

In this supreme crisis of their nation, the national hero collapsed. After achieving Emancipation, O’Connell had turned his attention to campaigning for the repeal of the Act of Union. But he always insisted that the movement should restrict itself to constitutional channels The English Whigs, in his view, were Ireland’s natural allies. Independent mass action by the Irish peasants was to be deplored. In 1847 he died in Genoa, sick, senile and despondent, on his way to receive a Papal benediction. His place was taken by others of a different mould.

In October 1842, three years before the onset of the “famine”, a weekly journal, the Nation, had been established to serve as political and cultural inspiration of renascent Irish nationalism. On the analogy of Mazzini’s “Young Italy” movement, the group around the Nation soon came to be known, collectively, as “Young Ireland.”

John Mitchel, son of a Unitarian Minister who had been active in support of the United Irishmen, became one of the Nation’s leading contributors. For him, as for his colleague, James Fintan Lalor, the path to freedom lay through the forcible seizure of the land by the peasants and the mass refusal to pay rent and tithes. For them, the natural allies of Ireland were not the English Whigs but the English Chartists. And, indeed, the Chartists, since the inception of their movement, had shown generous appreciation of Irish needs.

“An immense portion of the agricultural wealth of Ireland,” wrote Bronterre O’Brien, the great Chartist leader in 1838, “is annually drained into this country to enrich bands of absentee landlords, fund lords, and usurers of every description who give the agriculturists of Ireland not one shilling’s worth of value in return. Again, an immense portion of the manufactured wealth of England and Scotland is, in like manner, annually drained into Ireland to enrich the squirearchy, shopocracy, law, church, Government agents, military and constabulary officers, and, above all the hordes of corn factors, butter merchants, cattle dealers, jobbers, and contractors of all sorts that overspread that country, and who yield to operatives of England and Ireland not one shilling’s worth of value in return for the manufactured produce absorbed by them.”

In view of all this, it seemed to him that the natural outcome must be “a grand alliance between the oppressed or unrepresented classes of Ireland, with the oppressed or unrepresented classes of Great Britain.”

By 1847 starvation was rampant in Ireland, while food to the value of £17,000,000 was being exported. Irish resistance grew and the Whig Government in London introduced a coercion Act. Charles Gaven Duffy, proprietor of the Nation, saw the way forward through parliamentary action. By the end of the year Mitchel had broken with the Nation. He had come to the conclusion, he explained,

“that the whole system ought to be met with resistance at every point, and the means for this would be extremely simple: namely a combination among the people to obstruct and render impossible the transport and shipment of Irish provisions; to refuse all aid in its removal; to destroy the highways; to prevent everyone by intimidation from daring to bid for grain or cattle if brought to action under distress; in short, to offer a passive resistance universally, but occasionally when opportunity served, to try the steel.”

1848 was the year of European revolution. Its outbreak in France, in February, sparked off a revival of Chartism in England, while the Irish, led by Mitchel and Lalor, planned an armed uprising. The Government prepared to strike back. On April 10 the Chartist demonstration at Kennington Common was overawed by a colossal concentration of troops and special constables. On May 25, Mitchel was sentenced, on a charge of “treason-felony,” to transportation for fourteen years. There followed the arrest of Lalor and the leadership of the rising passed into the hands of the landlord, Smith O’Brien. His support for insurrection, was half-hearted and he wanted no infringement of property rights. The rising went off at half cock and was easily quelled.

Mitchel spent his last years in the United States, during the stirring period of Civil War and slave emancipation But his great days were over. Like a number of other misguided radicals he sided with the slave-owners, on the grounds that, like the Irish, they were fighting for the right of secession against grasping traders and capitalists. The struggle for Irish freedom was to go through many strange phases in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In an important sense it is still going on.

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