BETWEEN TWO FLAGS – JOHN MITCHEL AND JENNY VERNER
By Anthony G Russell
‘I feel better this morning’, remarked John Mitchel to his brother. ‘I think I will soon rise.’ But those were, in fact, the last words the veteran Republican passed away, peacefully, in the bedroom of his childhood home in Newry, Co. Down, on 20 March 1875. For the previous thirty years, this most outspoken of Irish nationalists had lived an extraordinarily colourful life that took him from the Young Ireland rebellion of 1848 to Van Diemen’s Land and, later, from the US Civil War to the early days of the Irish Land Wars.
To the Irish, Mitchel was a die-hard physical force Republican icon but his story took on darker connotations in the USA where his support for slavery would earn him a long stretch in gaol. He was a natural born rebel who took swipes at everyone from his kindly father and dearest friends to Irish icons such as Daniel O’Connell and his own colleagues in Young Ireland and The Nation, as well as the British, the Fenians, the Australian authorities and the Confederates.
The story of this deeply controversial figure is told with tremendous vigour in ‘Between Two Flags – John Mitchel and Jenny Verner’ (Merrion Press, 2015), an impressively researched and eminently readable new biography by Anthony G. Russell, its author, is academic advisor to the Thomas D’Arcy McGee Summer School.
John Mitchel was born in Cammish, County Derry, on 3 November 1815. He was one of eight children, five of whom survived childhood. His mother Mary Haslett, ‘full of intelligence, wit and fire’, was the scion of a merchant banking family of English origin. On his paternal side, Mitchel’s grandfather was a tenant farmer from Claudy, Co. Derry, while his father, the Rev. John Mitchel, was a Presbyterian minister who was elected Moderator of the Presbyterian Church in Newry when the younger John was eight years old. Raised in Derry and educated in Glasgow, the Rev. John Mitchel was on the ‘liberal edge’ of Presbyterianism, operating amid the rural, rolling drumlins and far away from industrial Belfast. He had grown up in an age when Presbyterians were subject to the same Penal Laws that Catholics suffered and he came from an austere Calvinist tradition in which democracy was part of the psyche; in a Presbyterian church, all heads of families shad an equal vote. He also had an inherited sense of resentment shared by many Presbyterians given the way in which they had been treated despite their vital assistance in holding the Walls of Derry against King James.
Following his appointment in 1823, the Rev. Mitchel moved his family to the County Down town. Over the next two decades, his tolerant attitude towards Catholics and his support for Daniel O’Connell’s Emancipation campaign earned him the moniker ‘Papist Mitchel’.
The young John Mitchel consequently grew up with a strong sense of Irishness. He also suffered from asthma and, by his twenties, other bronchial problems, all of which increased his awareness of his mortality and his desire to make an impact before that final day came.
Having studied at Trinity College Dublin in the early 1830s, he embarked on an unsuccessful stint as a banker before returning to Newry to pursue a legal career. Tall and handsome, with what Russell calls ‘the cultivated looks of a romantic rebel’, he was also something of a party animal at this time and his letters are replete with tales of ‘dashing’ young ladies and thwarted romance.
In 1836 the 20-year-old was walking along the banks of the Clanrye River when he spotted a beauty strolling upon the opposite shore. She was Jenny Verner, the feisty 15-year-old daughter of a rather lacklustre army officer who had been disinherited for an unrecorded misdemeanour. The Verners were lower tier Protestant landlords who derived their income from the rents of their tenant farmers and linen workers. Her uncle Sir William Verner, 1st Baronet, had succeeded to the family home of Churchill, near Craigavon, Co. Armagh, and the family had strong ties with Orangeism; the locality was rife with sectarian conflict as an increasing Catholic population vied for more control of power and trade. The Battle of the Diamond, which gave rise to the Orange Order, was fought close to their home in 1795. However, the Verner’s world was soon to fall asunder with the collapse of the rural linen industry, from which they derived so much income, and the famine.
After two unremarkable spells in the army, Jenny’s father James Verner had relocated to Newry where he had two children Jenny and Richard with his mistress Mary Ward before his death in 1847. Jenny was educated at Miss Bryden’s School for young ladies in Newry and grew up as a tenant of the brewer Arthur Russell, whose son would later defend Parnell and become the first Catholic Lord Chief Justice of Ireland since the Reformation.
The romance between John Mitchel and Jenny Verner began in 1836 and would remain deep until his death just under forty years later. However, it began in a whirl of panic when Jenny’s father voiced his intent of relocating the family to France to improve his health. On young Mitchel’s initiative, the couple eloped in November 1836 and made it all the way to Chester where James Verner caught up with them. The story made the Dublin Mail and other newspapers. As Jenny was a minor, Mitchel spent 18 days in Kilmainham Jail before he was discharged on bail.
Upon his release, Mitchel tracked Jenny down and the couple were married in the Church of Ireland in Drumcree on 3 February 1837. They initially lived at Dromalane, Newry, and their life involved much dancing, partying, smoking, walking and talking with friends such as John Martin, while they also welcomed three sons and a daughter.
Mitchel had by now qualified as a local solicitor and, although he often expressed frustration at the limitations of such a profession, he gained an invaluable insight into the mindset and grievances of the Catholic tenant farmers, cottiers and labourers with whom, like his father, he had much sympathy. He also became increasingly opposed to direct rule of Ireland by England and developed a keen sense of injustice.
In 1839 he helped organise Daniel O’Connell’s visit to Newry. The following year he relocated both his family and his practice to Banbridge.
In 1845, he attended his first meeting in support of Repealing the Union; his father had drawn the line at supporting Repeal, prompting a bust up between the two men which caused much sorrow. At this stage, the younger John still shared O’Connell’s view that objectives such as Repeal could be achieved by ‘constitutional agitation’ and peaceful means. However, this would soon change as he veered to the right.
One contemporary recalled how Mitchel’s ‘dark grey eyes seemed full of dreams and melancholy’ at this time. However, the suave young man was still ‘happily married’ and reluctant to become too embroiled because ‘to devote myself to this cause would simply ruin me, and I cannot sacrifice my family’ (p. 24).
He had by now turned to journalism, writing letters, reviews and articles for The Nation, a newspaper published by a ‘gifted circle of young Irishmen, of all religions and none’ who became known as Young Ireland. In 1845, Mitchel, Charles Gavan Duffy, John Martin and another friend embarked on a walking tour from Rostrevor to Donegal that further enhance his understanding of the plight of the poor. Mitchel had a lifelong inability to cooperate or work with others but Gavan Duffy of Monaghan was destined to become his most enduring enemy.[i]
Much was changed in June 1845 by the death from scarlet fever of Thomas Davis, the charismatic founder of the Nation and the ’82 Club of which Mitchel was a member. On Duffy’s urging, Mitchel agreed to join the Nation’s staff fulltime and relocated his young family to Dublin, initially living at 1 Heathfield, Upper Leeson Street, and later moving to 8 Ontario Terrace. His remarkable literary skills were still a relative unknown at this time but he went on to be one of the most outstanding journalists of his generation.
These were still relatively carefree days as the Young Irelanders came to the Mitchel’s house for ‘nights and suppers of the Gods, when the reckless gaiety of Irish temperament held fullest sway’. One new friend was Thomas Francis Meagher, the outspoken son of a Catholic merchant from Waterford who famously introduced the tricolour to Irish lore; they met at an ’82 Club event which, resplendent with women, he described as ‘a banquet of breathing beauty.’
By July 1846, there were serious dissensions with Mitchel leading the Young Irelanders who heatedly split with O’Connell’s Repeal Movement over the latter’s refusal to use force to achieve their aims.
On 13 January 1847, the Irish Confederation was founded in the Rotunda at the northern end of Sackville Street (now O’Connell Street) in Dublin, where the Irish Volunteers would be founded 66 years later. Its members vowed ‘to drill, seek arms, march and eventually attempt a rebellion.’ (p. 31).
When the Irish Famine struck, it came in many guises, proposes Russell. It was geographic in that many different parts of Ireland suffered at markedly different levels. It was also a social famine in that its chief victims came from the vulnerable underclass of cottiers, labourers and small tenant farmers. The Young Irelanders, being of well-to-do stock, could at least continue to meet, eat, drink and sing as in days of old.
However, as the famine unfurled its horror across Ireland, Mitchel began to view armed rebellion from a less theoretical and increasingly practical viewpoint. He had no time for British relief efforts, where men weak with hunger were obliged to break stones to build roads and piers. As such, he did much to shape the future of nationalist thought when he adamantly maintained that the failure of the potato was a deliberate British policy of ‘shaking small leaseholders from the soil’, an ‘artificial famine’ designed to strengthen London’s ‘possession … of the property, lives and industry of the Irish Nation.’ (p. 33). As Brendan O’Cathair put it, Mitchel’s ‘inflamed mind mistook the combination of laissez-faire economic dogma, parsimony, inefficiency and insensitivity for genocide.’[ii]
By February 1848, Mitchel was advocating guerrilla war, causing a major rift with his Young Ireland colleague Gavan Duffy who felt obliged to censor some of his writings. Smith O’Brien was also appalled but, like many over the decades, he managed to stay friends with the man while abhorring his militant views. Mitchel resigned from the Confederation and established the United Irishmen, which he described to his mother as ‘a new and most furious newspaper’. (p. 37). Mitchel’s call on the Irish peasantry to rebel and drive the government out at bayonet’s point was not so much about making peasant’s equal citizens but rather so that they might establish Tenant Right; he still regarded the aristocracy and landed gentry as ‘the natural leaders of the Irish people’.[iii] In much the same way he would later ‘demand humane treatment for the black man, but only within the institution of slavery’. Moreover, he was, like Wolfe Tone before him, practically alone along the nationalist leaders in extending an invitation to the ‘Saxon Irishmen of the North’ (ie: Ulster Protestants) to join them.
Mitchel’s newspaper was obstreperous from the outset, offering readers top tips on how to defeat a cavalry charge with pikes and such like. However, it also captured the zeitgeist as Europe exploded into revolution in the spring of 1848 and the hitherto cool-headed Young Irelanders were swept up by rebellious passion. When Meagher returned from France with his tricolour, Mitchel urged that it become the new flag of Ireland.
A deeply apprehensive government now passed a special act - the Treason Felony Act – by which political prisoners could be tried as felons and thus liable to transportation, rather than being tried for treason which carried the death sentence. On 13 May 1848, Mitchel was arrested for the downgraded crime of felony and sent to Newgate Prison by Dublin’s Cornmarket. Ahead of the trial, Mr. Whitty, the jury foreman, received a powerful death threat: ‘By the thundering God, you bloody Saxon rascal, your life, and your life only, shall pay the sacrifice of your orange bigotry! Prepare your coffin!’ (p. 51)
As he awaited trial, hundreds marched and cheered through the streets of Dublin while 600 Confederate supporters apparently gathered at 8 Ontario Terrace one evening to support Jenny and her children. There were now over 50,000 members of the Confederacy across Ireland – a number escalating rapidly – but its leaders decided to postpone any attempt at a rising - or at rescuing Mitchel -until after the harvest. During his trial, Mitchel was defended by Robert Holmes, the elderly brother-in-law of Robert Emmet, a patriotic link which pleased him, greatly but Holmes could not prevent him receiving 14 years transportation. That same day, Mitchel commenced his famous polemic Jail Journal in which he pitched himself as a heroic Roman at war with the evil Carthaginians (aka British).
Mitchel was in chains when he bade Jenny farewell; a National Fund later raised £2000 to save her and the children, now numbering five, from destitution. The authorities then speedily transported him by steamer to Spike Island, Cork (where he wore the clothes of a convict) before dispatching him to Bermuda on HMS Scourge, under Captain Wingrove, who treated him as a gentleman and supplied him with wine. On arrival in Bermuda, he was housed in a convict hulk Dromedary but again his conditions were superior to those of an ordinary convict. Nonetheless, Bermuda depressed him greatly and, combined with a frenzy of asthma attacks, he contemplated suicide. He finally rejected it on the basis that ‘I hope to do my children some good before I die.’ As Russell notes, this was a promise Mitchel was unable to fulfil.
In July 1849, Mitchel left Bermuda on an eight-month odyssey that brought him via Brazil and South Africa to the convict settlement on Van Diemen’s Land. By that time, the exiled Young Ireland leaders – whose rebellion spluttered to an inglorious halt at Ballingarry - had also arrived on the island, including Meagher, Smith O’Brien, Kevin Izod O’Doherty and his great friend John Martin. Island life agreed with Mitchel and not only did his health recover but in June 1851, he was joined by Jenny and the children, three years after they had last been together. As Anthony Russell observes, ‘one assumes that that night they did not read Disraeli’s Young Duke’. Five children duly became six.
The Mitchels settled into ‘domestic tranquillity’ on a 211-acre sheep farm in what Mitchel later called ‘an umbrageous and highly perfumed dungeon’. He gave little thought to the indigenous Tasmanians, going so far as to applaud the manner in which epidemics killed the physically weak who would otherwise linger and ‘… even propagate, perhaps, their unhappy species.’ (p. 81). He took his family on travels all over the island and talked at length with their fellow exiles and watched as James, John, Willie, Minnie, Henrietta and baby Rixy all grew bigger.
There was an Arthurian sense of honour that none would try to escape but that all changed when Meagher did just that. Although critical of Meagher at first, Mitchel soon began to plan his own escape. He was assisted by PJ ‘Nicaragua’ Smyth, an agent sent to the island by the Irish New York Directory in 1853 with a brief to help the remaining Young Ireland leaders escape. After a couple of false starts, Mitchel’s three year sojourn on Van Diemen’s Land ended when he rode out on a white ‘half-Arab’, which he’d rather brilliantly purchased from the local police magistrate. Dressed as a Catholic priest, he caught a ship from Hobart to Sydney and onwards to Tahiti where he was joined by his family.
By October 1853 they were in San Francisco although they quickly headed onwards to New York to reunite with other Irish exiles, as well as his widowed mother who had moved to Brooklyn. They settled in Union Street where John was feted as an 1848 hero and Jenny was once again the political hostess. Together with Meagher, Mitchel set up a newspaper called The Citizen but his extreme views on slavery would soon scare many friends, well-wishers and readers away. Mitchel was adamant that ‘it is not wrong to own a slave’ and that ‘dread of the lash’ was an acceptable way to get a slave to work. (p. 104) He maintained that ‘taking the negros out of their brutal slavery in Africa, and promoting them to a human and reasonable slavery’ in the USA was perfectly sound. He ‘enthusiastically supported slavery and saw no dichotomy in an Irish Republican doing so.’ (p. 105). Jenny likewise supported slavery as part of a natural patriarchal hierarchy.
Mitchel was condemned and criticised by many fellow Republicans, and even friends such as John Martin were saddened by his stance on slavery. He was also increasingly sceptical of ‘progress’ and rejected the Enlightenment, believing men were no happier or wiser or better than they had been thirty centuries earlier.
Nonetheless, the Mitchels enjoyed a good social life with Irish and Irish-American friends, while their sons attended the best school in New York. However, with newspaper sales tumbling and Mitchel’s eyesight failing, the Mitchels upped sticks in 1855 and moved to a 132 acre pig-farm on the beautiful but remote Tucaleechee Cove of Tennessee. (Their son John stayed in Brooklyn where he was training to be a civil engineer.) They soon found life in the two-room log cabin ‘isolated and lonely’, despite their neighbouring ‘Hoosiers’ who John described as ‘excessively ignorant and cunning but civil and otherwise not intolerable’. (p. 115). On the plus side his ‘manly’ second son James impressed the Hoosiers with his sharp-shooting.
By the close of 1856, the family had moved again, building a timber house on a 3.5 acre sitein Knoxville which they ambitiously called ‘No Where Else’, even though the ever-restless Mitchel rightly remarked that ‘Jenny might as well have married a Bedouin Arab.’
Although he himself never owned slaves, Mitchel’s support for slavery and the Deep South intensified. He co-founded a new weekly paper, the Southern Citizen, ‘as an organ of extreme southern sentiment.’ In its pages he began to lobby for the reopening of the African slave trade – an extremity that was too much for many hardcore Confederates. He was judgmental, absolute and uncompromising but he was also consistent and true. As he noted in a letter to his sister in 1861, his friend ‘John Martin is savage with me for my intolerant and reckless habit of denouncing everybody who does not agree with myself. I cannot help it.’ (p. 128)
Nonetheless, his cache as an 1848 hero was still enough to merit James Stephens visiting to try and enlist his support in the Fenians, an emergent cell-based secret organisation dedicated to ending British rule in Ireland.
In December 1858, the Mitchels moved once more, this tome to Capitol Hill in Washington, where John hoped to boost circulation figures for the Southern Citizen despite his admission that ‘a great many people regard me as an incendiary and a madman’. (p. 121). He reunited with Smith O’Brien and met President Buchanan.
When France declared war on Austria in 1859, it appeared England might be drawn in. Envisioning himself as a new age Wolfe Tone, Mitchel wound up the Southern Citizen and voyaged to France where he spent a year trying to drum up French support for an Irish rebellion. During this time he met the 1798 veteran, Colonel Miles Byrne, while making a vital income as a freelance correspondent.
However, the eruption of the American Civil War lead him back to the USA where, given is poor health, he was assigned to Major Dooley’s Ambulance Corps and began recovering wounded soldiers from the battlefields around Richmond. His three sons were amongst the 40,000 Irish who fought for the Confederacy. John junior was a captain in the regular army while Willie and James joined the Montgomery Guards in the 1st Virginian Infantry.
This was a devastating period for the Mitchels. It began when their eldest daughter Henrietta died in the Paris convent where she was based. And then Willie fell at Gettysburg while John, who had become commander of Fort Sumter, was mortally wounded just as his superiors were about to promote him to major. On the basis that the Mitchels had already sacrificed too much, their sole surviving son James was given a staff job.
The failure of the southern cause was profoundly depressing but Mitchel was particularly horrified when the Confederate House of Representatives passed a bill allowing black men to enlist in the army, so long as they had their master’s permission. This did not prevent Grant seizing Richmond while the retreating Confederates set the city alight.
After the war, while young James found love and started a family, the elder Mitchel pushed it too far by continuing to write articles justifying the Southern cause in New York’s Daily News. After he ignored several warnings, Grant signed an order for his arrest and he was transported to Fort Monroe where he was kept in solitary confinement in a small dark cell without tobacco, books or exercise. His health deteriorated to such an extent that the authorities eased up – he subsequently exchanged greetings with the imprisoned President Davis in the exercise yard.
The 50-year-old was released after four months, following intensive lobbying by the Fenians. He met with several senior Fenians afterwards and agreed to go back to Paris as their salaried financial agent. However, he distrusted and disliked the Fenians, who were quarrelling amongst themselves, and he resigned after seven months. He remained in Paris as a correspondent for New York’s Daily News but his eyesight was ever worsening.
Despite his support for the Confederacy and his rejection of the Fenians, Mitchel was still hailed as a hero by Irish Republicans and cheered whenever he went anywhere overtly Irish such as the Irish College in Paris.
In 1867, when he was back in the USA, the reconciled Fenians invited him to become their leader but he rejected the offer, believing any rebellion to be futile while England was otherwise at peace. He was commissioned to write a History of Ireland from the Treaty of Limerick. He also set up his final newspaper in New York, the Irish Citizen. The paper backed the Democrats and initial sales enabled him to move the family into upmarket Fordham although they later returned to Brooklyn. However, he alienated many buyers by opposing both Fenians and the emergent Home Rule movement, which he dismissed as ‘a hapless, driftless concern’. (p. 184). He was vociferous in supporting the memory of the Manchester Martyrs.
There was some happiness as the man now regarded as the elder statesman of nationalist Ireland befriended his toddler grandson, nicknamed Buffer, and began playing whist. True to form, they kept on moving – first to Long Island, then to an apartment on West 56th Street, New York (where – despite his abhorrence of progress – he was delighted by a ‘dumb waiter’) to cheaper quarters on Clinton Avenue, Brooklyn. As their circumstances became reduced, a testimonial fund was established in Ireland and raised $10,000; Mitchel declared himself ‘humiliated’ by the response.
On the other hand, he lived long enough to see Ireland and his childhood home in Newry again. In 1874, while still in New York, he had stood as an independent nationalist in Cork but was thrashed by his Home Rule opponent. However, the escaped felon returned to Ireland soon afterwards. ‘I left Queenstown 26 years ago in a shower and I see it hasn’t stopped since’, he joked to those who greeted him. Thousands lined the street of Newry to greet him while, during much travels over his 2-month sojourn, he met people such as The Nation’s writer Speranza (Oscar Wilde’s mother) and O’Donovan Rossa (whose funeral would inspire the Easter Rising).
In 1875, he contested the Tipperary election and was returned unopposed but, having returned to Ireland, his flight from Van Diemen’s Land reared its head and he was disqualified as a convicted but not fully punished felon. He made brief appearances in Tipperary, Clonmel and Cork, but the transatlantic voyages and his asthma were playing hard on him. Despite reigning supreme in a second election over the Tory candidate Captain Stephen Moore.
Eight days later, on 20 March 1875, he died peacefully in his old bedroom in his family home in Newry.
Over 10,000 attended his funeral in Newry and, while many noted his controversial past, all obituaries admired his sincerity and resolve. A fund of $30,000 was arranged for Jenny, enabling the Mitchels to set up a profitable lithographic and photographic business. Jenny Mitchel died on the last day of the 19th century. In 1914, the Mitchel’s 34-year-old grandson John Purroy Mitchel became Mayor of New York.
‘Between Two Flags – John Mitchel and Jenny Verner’ by Anthony G. Russell is published by Merrion Press, 2015. Mr. Russell is academic advisor to the Thomas D’Arcy McGee Summer School (17-19 Aug, 2005).
[i] Thomas Carlyle, the Scottish philosopher, also became an admirer at this time.
[ii] In his hometown of Newry, many Catholic merchants prospered during the Famine with Warrenpoint emerging as a major port for ships importing timber from Canada and returning across the Atlantic with emigrants. Darcy McGee of Carlingford was first to coin phrase ‘coffin ships’.
[iii] p. 41. Note Holycross, County Tipperary, connection for Clarke of Graiguenoe.
With thanks to Alister McReynolds.