- “Somewhere in Infinite Space”:John Mitchel’s Jail Journal and Oceanic Literature
The mid-nineteenth century spawned a remarkable series of texts in Irish literature: epic maritime narratives, accounts of actual and vast sea journeys that had no literary precedent since the twelfth-century accounts of St. Brendan and that have had no true geographic parallel since. The aftermaths of the Young Ireland rebellion of 1848 and the Fenian Rising of 1867 produced a series of detailed transoceanic journals written by prisoners who had been convicted of treason and condemned to transportation to the Antipodes.
The Fenian revolt led to sixty-two prisoners being shipped “down under” in 1867 aboard the four-masted frigate, the Hougoumont. The journey of 14,000 miles took eighty-nine days. John Casey and Denis Cashman, both members of the rebel cargo, kept diaries of this navigation around the globe. A third, John Flood, kept a notebook that contains poems, personal musings, and lessons in stenography (presumably to teach others and to help pass the time). Written solely at sea, Casey’s Journal of a Voyage from Portland to Fremantle on Board the Convict Ship Hougoumont and Cashman’s untitled chronicle recount their personal moods and reflections. Cashman, for instance, speaks of “the eternal melancholy” he feels at sea.1 Similarly, Casey remarks on “the everlasting monotony of our days.”2 In addition, their narratives also engage the ecological and sociological environments in which they find themselves. Cashman details, for example, the harsh treatment, from court-martials to floggings, doled out to the nonpolitical criminals. Both Cashman and Casey describe schools of porpoises and dolphins, the wingspan of albatrosses, the majesty of whales following the ship, and the cutting up of a large shark that the prisoners caught and hauled aboard. In these strange events Cashman finds curiosity, beauty, and even a sense of adventure, as when he records, “Then the huge monster opens his terrible jaws [End Page 19] . . . and the sport commences.”3 These moments often contrast with the stale and outworn imagery with which he describes Ireland and its loss, for example, “the green hills, the shady groves and pleasant valleys of that beautiful land far away.”4
These oceanic texts, symptomatic of postfamine Ireland and of rebellion and exile, are unique historical documents, providing us with personal accounts of deportation by prominent figures in the emerging global diaspora. But they are also unique literary documents, equal parts epic and existential lament.
The Fenian Rising led to three separate accounts of the Hougoumont, but the government’s punitive reaction to the Young Ireland movement some twenty years earlier produced an even greater oceanic text: John Mitchel’s Jail Journal (1854). Initially a follower of Thomas Davis, Mitchel wrote for the Nation before proceeding to advocate for a more militant and republican form of Irish nationalism in a newspaper that he founded, the United Irishman. Charged in April 1848 for spreading seditious speeches and articles under the new and hastily drafted Treason-Felony Act (a law designed specifically to arrest him), Mitchel was sentenced to deportation “beyond the seas for the term of fourteen years.”5 Jail Journal records his transportation from Dublin to Van Diemen’s Land. His log opens with the verdict and his immediate delivery to the government steamer Shearwater: “May 27, 1848.—On this day, about four o’clock in the afternoon, I, John Mitchel, was kidnapped, and carried off from Dublin, in chains, as a convicted ‘felon.’”6 What follows is a sweeping epic.
Mitchel opens his maritime saga on the day he is removed from Dublin’s Newgate prison to the steam frigate Shearwater, moored at the city’s North Wall. Sentenced to “fourteen years in transportation” (JJ 1), he has no idea as to his final destination. He speculates that it may be Gibraltar, or Bermuda, or perhaps Norfolk Island. After a short journey down the eastern coast of Ireland, he is imprisoned on Spike Island, in Cork Harbor, for four nights. Visited by a friendly doctor, he is excused, due to his bad asthma, from “being set to work” (JJ 14) on the impending journey. Mitchel is transferred in Cork to the man...