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  • The Forgotten Nationalist:John Mitchel, Race, and Irish American Identity
  • David T. Gleeson (bio)
Bryan P. McGovern . John Mitchel: Irish Nationalist, Southern Secessionist. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2009. xviii + 293 pp. Appendix, notes, bibliography, and index. $36.00.

Bryan McGovern has provided a long-overdue modern biography of the Irish nationalist John Mitchel. Mitchel, the son of a Unitarian minister from County Derry, became the premier propagandist of Irish nationalism in the mid-nineteenth century. His life and his polemic influenced both the Irish in Ireland and in the United States. In the U.S., he, in a sense, set the tone of Irish American nationalism for generations. Long after his death, Mitchel was feted in Irish nationalist circles for his virulent anti-British propaganda. Admirers wrote a number of biographies and kept his books in print on both sides of the Atlantic. Yet, after the creation of the Irish Free State in 1922, Mitchel the man, if not his rhetoric, fell into disfavor. One can put this disconnect between Mitchel and his work down to his strong support for the Confederate States of America during the Civil War and for its "cornerstone," slavery. He thus became something of an embarrassment to more progressive revolutionary nationalists of the later twentieth century even as they continued to use his propaganda in their anti-British campaigns during the latter-day "Troubles" in Northern Ireland.

McGovern's scholarly effort here is to be welcomed—especially as there is no major collection of John Mitchel papers, only some scattered letters. As his subtitle suggests, McGovern pays a lot of attention to the most neglected aspect of Mitchel's life, the time he spent in America, particularly in the South. He begins, however, with good coverage of Mitchel's early life in Ireland and his rise to prominence there. The first issue dealt with ably is how the Protestant Mitchel could have such interest in and appeal to Irish Catholics when sectarianism in Ireland was on the rise. Mitchel's father, fitting his embrace of Unitarianism within the Ulster Presbyterian tradition, had a very liberal attitude toward Catholics. The young Mitchel was imbued with this tolerance and would retain it throughout his life, even to the point of accepting the [End Page 658] conversion of his daughters to the Roman Catholic faith and of one of them entering the Catholic sisterhood. McGovern believes that Mitchel always held an ecumenical dream that Irish people would bury their denominational differences and focus more on national unity.

The other big influence on Mitchel's early life was Thomas Davis, a fellow Protestant and the spiritual father of Irish cultural nationalism in the 1840s. Mitchel supported Davis' view that a "Young Ireland" could resurrect a dormant Celtic and Irish national identity. After Davis' death in 1845, Mitchel became more radical in his nationalism. Part of his radicalism, somewhat ironically, came from his admiration for the Scottish conservative writer and scourge of the liberal industrial age, Thomas Carlyle. Mitchel overcame Carlyle's anti-Irish writings to endorse his critique of the modern era (Carlyle came to admire Mitchel, too, despite the younger man's strong Irish nationalism). McGovern pays good attention to this relationship but also recognizes that Mitchel moved beyond Carlyle's mere reactionism. Mitchel came to recognize that the whole system of landholding in Ireland (where a tiny Anglican elite owned the vast majority of land) needed to be overthrown and that violent rebellion against British rule in Ireland was the only way to achieve this. The massive death and dislocation of the Great Famine, which began in 1845, pushed Mitchel in this direction. He began to see even his former colleagues in Young Ireland, who did not disavow violence but did not advocate it either, as hopelessly misguided moderates. He split from them in early 1848 and founded his own weekly newspaper, The United Irishman, named for the purveyors of the last major rebellion against British rule back in 1798 (The Society of United Irishmen). Inspired by the February revolution in Paris, Mitchel called publically for armed rebellion. The authorities moved quickly and preemptively arrested him, charged him with treason, and sentenced him to death. This...