John Mitchel: Irish Nationalist, Southern Secessionist (review)
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Reviewed by
John Mitchel: Irish Nationalist, Southern Secessionist. By Bryan P. McGovern. (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2009. Pp. xviii, 293. $36.00 cloth)

In his biography of John Mitchel, Bryan P. McGovern addresses the seeming contradictions in the character of a prominent Irishman who promoted Irish freedom from British domination on one side of the Atlantic but who was an enthusiastic advocate of slavery on the other. McGovern's book on Mitchel, who has not been the subject of a full-scale biographical treatment since the first half of the twentieth century, is timely, for it adds to the scholarly conversation on the Irish and their conceptions of slavery and race that have been of such interest in recent decades. Although McGovern does not uncover any new primary source material on Mitchel, he successfully places the details of his life in a fresh context with his focus on the reasons for the Irish nationalist's pro-Southern, proslavery sentiments espoused during the years he lived in the United States, which happened to coincide with the American sectional crisis, the Civil War, and Reconstruction.

Although McGovern highlights Mitchel's American years (between 1853 and 1875), his book gives a cradle-to-grave overview of Mitchel's life in order to contextualize his activities and the ideologies he espoused during those years. According to McGovern, Mitchel's sympathy for the slaveholding American South was shaped by the [End Page 246] same ecumenical and romantic nationalism that helped to shape his Irish nationalist sentiment. Mitchel, he argues, saw parallels between Ireland and the American South as rural societies that resisted progress, and he idealized that mindset. Likewise, Mitchel viewed Great Britain and the northern part of the United States as similarly corrupted by rising industrialism and as holding similarly imperialist designs. Thus the Irish nationalist who promoted Irish freedom from British domination yet lifted up the peculiar institution of the American South is not as contradictory as one might assume.

McGovern's narrative of Mitchel's life describes his family background and how that shaped his worldview, recounts his involvement in the movement for Irish independence from Great Britain, discusses his journalistic pursuits in both Ireland and the United States, and explains how the Irish Famine of the late 1840s helped to shape his contempt for Great Britain. McGovern also takes us through Mitchel's exile from Great Britain to Tasmania in 1848 that culminated with his arrival in the United States in 1853. McGovern's coverage of Mitchel's American years recounts his time in both the northern and southern states, describing Mitchel's involvement in debates about American slavery and his brief involvement with the Fenian Brotherhood. McGovern ends with an analysis of Mitchel's legacy for Irish nationalism, discussing the way his ideas influenced lrish nationalists that followed him.

McGovern's thesis about the importance of Mitchel's romanticism in shaping his ideology as both an Irish nationalist and as a southern secessionist is sound, and he is successful in his goal of presenting a more nuanced portrait of the controversial Irish leader. McGovern's book does suffer, however, from a lack of engagement in the most recent scholarship on the Irish, Irish America, and slavery. There are very few sources cited in his study that were written in the past decade. Even so, McGovern's biography of Mitchel is a valuable contribution to that scholarship and is recommended for anyone interested in the Irish experience on either side of the Atlantic during the nineteenth century. [End Page 247]

Angela F. Murphy

Angela F. Murphy teaches history at Texas State University in San Marcos. She is author of American Slavery, Irish Freedom: Abolition, Immigrant Citizenship, and the Transatlantic Movement for Irish Repeal (2010).

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