A journalist and Irish nationalist best known for his critical analysis of British relief policy during the Great Famine, John Mitchel (1815–1875) was born at Camnish, Co. Londonderry, on 3 November 1815. The son of a Presbyterian minister, Mitchel attended Trinity College and practiced as a solicitor in Banbridge, Co. Down, for several years.
In 1843 he enrolled in the Repeal Association and two years later joined the editorial staff of the nationalist newspaper, the Nation. Although he was a leading figure among the Young Irelanders and the Irish Confederation, Mitchel left the Nation after failing to convince moderates in the Confederation to support Fintan Lalor's radical schemes for land reform. In February 1848 Mitchel established another newspaper, the United Irishman, in which he openly preached armed revolution. Arrested in March 1848 and charged with treason-felony for his writings, Mitchel was convicted by a jury packed by the government to ensure a conviction and sentenced to fourteen years' banishment to a penal colony in Tasmania. In 1853 Mitchel escaped to the United States, where he quickly rekindled his career as a controversial journalist. Mitchel also published several books that formed the basis of the nationalist genocide interpretation of the Great Famine, including Jail Journal (1854), The Last Conquest of Ireland (Perhaps) (1858), An Apology for the British Government in Ireland (1860), and his History of Ireland (1868).
With an acid pen Mitchel depicted the famine and resulting mass mortality and emigration as a deliberate policy pursued by officials of the British government to clear poor Irish farmers off the land. A central, although incorrect, element of Mitchel's argument was his contention that imports of maize and other grain into Famine Ireland by relief officials were far outstripped by exports of Irish foodstuffs to British markets. Mitchel also railed against the British government for its inadequate financial contributions and denounced the inequity of forcing a region of the United Kingdom to provide for its own relief. Mitchel's interpretation of the famine is best summarized by his famous maxim, "The Almighty indeed sent the potato blight, but the English created the famine" (Mitchel 1858, p. 219).
Mitchel returned to Ireland in 1875 after he was elected an MP for Tipperary, but Parliament voided the election on the grounds that he was a convicted felon. The voters re-elected Mitchel but he died shortly afterward on 20 March 1875. Mitchel is regarded as one of the founding fathers of Irish revolutionary republicanism and provided the most enduring nationalist interpretation of the famine.
Donnelly, James S., Jr. "The Great Famine, Its Interpreters, Old and New." History Ireland 1, no. 3 (autumn 1993): 27–33.
Mitchel, John. The Last Conquest of Ireland (Perhaps). 1858.
Nowlan, Kevin B. The Politics of Repeal: A Study in the Relations between Great Britain and Ireland, 1841–50. 1965.
Sloan, Robert. William Smith O'Brien and the Young Ireland Rebellion of 1848. 2000.
Michael W. de Nie
J. A. Cannon