Mitchel, Jenny (1820–1899)
Mitchel, Jenny (1820–1899)
Irish nationalist who joined her husband John Mitchel in exile. Name variations: Jane Mitchel. Born Jane Verner in County Armagh, Ireland, in 1820 (month and day unknown); died in Brooklyn, New York, on December 31, 1899; only daughter of James Verner and Mary Ward; educated at Miss Bryden's School, Newry, County Down, Ireland; married John Mitchel (a lawyer and Irish nationalist), on December 12, 1836; children: three daughters, Isabel, Henrietta (d. 1863), and Minnie; three sons, James, John (d. 1864), and Willie (d. 1863).
Although much of her adventurous life after her marriage to John Mitchel attracted considerable publicity, Jenny Mitchel's early life is shrouded in mystery. Born in 1820 in County Armagh, Ireland, she lived with her brother Richard and mother Mary Ward under the protection of Captain James Verner, whose last name was taken by both Jenny and Richard. There is no evidence that Mary and James married, and after James Verner's death in 1847 his family, who were prosperous landowners, would deny that Jenny and Richard were his children. The siblings had a comfortable upbringing, and Jenny received a good education at Miss Bryden's School for Young Ladies in Newry, County Down.
She was 15 when she met 21-year-old John Mitchel, who was studying law. They married secretly in 1836 and eloped to England. An irate James Verner followed, and John was brought back to Ireland and arrested on charges of abduction. These were dropped, however, and the couple went to live at Dromalane in County Down with John's family, to whom Jenny became very close. John Mitchel practiced as a lawyer and also farmed, but he became increasingly involved in radical nationalist politics. He began to write for The Nation, the journal of the Young Ireland movement, and in 1845 was invited to move to Dublin to become the chief editorial writer for the paper. By this time, he and Jenny had four children. In old age, Jenny would say that the momentous years 1845–49 were a blur. She and John were part of the brilliant circle of writers and poets who worked for The Nation, and her hospitality became famous, being praised by Thomas Carlyle who spent an evening at their house. Their fifth child Mary (Minnie) was born in Dublin.
By the beginning of 1848, plans for a rebellion were being hatched but before they came to fruition John Mitchel was arrested that May on charges of treason-felony. If he were found guilty, the sentence would be transportation to a penal colony. Jenny told the press: "I have not hitherto allowed any fears I might feel for my children's safety, or my own, to interfere with that line of policy which my husband thought it his duty to pursue, and I do not intend to do so now." After John was found guilty and sentenced to 14 years' transportation, Jenny believed that an attempt to rescue her husband should have been made, and never forgave some of his associates who did not agree. In the wake of the trial, the contents of her home were confiscated and sold. She and her children moved back to Newry, and a fund of several thousand pounds was raised to help them which Jenny intended to use to rejoin her husband.
John Mitchel was originally sent to Bermuda but his health declined there, and a year later the British authorities decided to move him on to Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania). With her children, Jenny finally set out to join him in January 1851; the Mitchels settled in the village of Bothwell and took up farming. In September 1852, their last child Isabel was born. Although the family had a pleasant life in Bothwell, John became increasingly restless, and in 1853 he decided to escape to America. Jenny supported the decision, believing that the educational opportunities in the U.S. would be better for the children. She and John met up in Tahiti, and they reached San Francisco in August 1853. But Irish-American activities were based in New York and, though she wished to stay in California, the family embarked on another epic journey to the East coast by way of Nicaragua and Cuba. "Poor Jenny," John wrote. "She might as well have married a homeless Bedouin or wandering Tartar."
The Mitchels settled in Brooklyn, in what became Jenny's favorite residence, and John started a newspaper called The Citizen. However, his pro-slavery views soon brought him into conflict with other Irish exiles who, apart from their dislike of slavery, disapproved of John involving himself in issues that had nothing to do with Irish independence. Within a short time, his persistent restlessness again manifested itself, and in 1855, despite Jenny's deep reluctance, he moved the family to a farm in the Tennessee backwoods. Jenny's biographer Rebecca O'Conner has called the time in Tennessee a "wasteland." They had few acquaintances and the local library was for men only. Firsthand encounters with slavery also spurred Jenny's determination never to own a slave. The farm was unsuccessful, and the Mitchels moved to Knoxville and then to Washington.
In 1859 the family, minus the two elder sons James and Johnnie, went to Paris; they were still there when the American Civil War broke out. James and Johnnie joined the Confederate forces and shortly afterwards their younger brother Willie, Jenny's favorite child, also joined up when he and John returned secretly to the United States. Jenny was left in Paris, where in May 1863 her eldest daughter Henrietta died. In July, Willie was killed at Gettysburg, although confirmation of his death was slow in coming. Jenny and her two surviving daughters returned to America in December 1863; during the journey, their ship was attacked by Union forces off the Delaware coast and they lost all their belongings. They made their way from Wilmington to the Confederate capital of Richmond, but by spring 1864 Union forces were moving towards Richmond. In July 1864, Johnnie was killed at Fort Sumter. Over the following winter, the family suffered from poor health as food shortages increased. When the war ended John Mitchel was interned at Fort Monroe in Virginia during which time the family was helped with money from Irish friends in Washington and New York. On his release in October 1865, he returned to Paris where he acted as an agent for the Irish revolutionary group the Fenian Brotherhood. He was given permission to return to the States at the end of 1866, and to her delight Jenny moved back to Brooklyn where she renewed old Irish friendships.
In 1874, her lack of enthusiasm was obvious when John was invited to return to Ireland and stand for Parliament. She did not go with him, and he was accompanied by two of their children. John was elected in March 1875 but died suddenly a few days later and was buried near the family home at Dromalane, at Jenny's express wish. She remained in Brooklyn because it would have taken her weeks to travel to Ireland. A Mitchel Memorial Fund was set up which raised $30,000 and ensured her a comfortable old age. Family tragedy still awaited her with the death of her youngest daughter Isabel in childbirth, but Jenny built a house for herself and her surviving daughter Minnie; her surviving son James also lived in New York. After her death on December 31, 1899, an obituary noted the "high qualities of mind and heart which made her to the last day of her life loyal to the ideal she had chosen in her girlhood."
O'Conner, Rebecca. Jenny Mitchel: Young Irelander. Dublin and Tucson: O'Conner Trust Publishers, 1988.
Deirdre McMahon , lecturer in history at Mary Immaculate College, University of Limerick, Limerick, Ireland