State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 84 December 2009


Kevin Molloy
An Irish Radical and his Nephew:
the papers of John Mitchel and Sir William Hill Irvine


In 2008 the State Library of Victoria was the recipient of a selection of papers, books and other items from the descendents of the former Premier and Chief Justice of Victoria, Sir William Hill Irvine (1858–1943).1 Born at Dromalane, Newry, in Co. Down, William Irvine was educated at Royal School, Armagh, and Trinity College Dublin. Following graduation he entered King's Inn at Henrietta Street Dublin, to further his legal studies. William's father, Hill Irvine, owner of a linen-mill, succumbed to bankruptcy in the late 1870s and died soon after. In 1879, at the instigation of William Irvine's mother Margaret, sister to the Irish political thinker John Mitchel, the Irvine family set out for Melbourne, where they took up residence in Richmond later that year.2 William Irvine, a conservative in politics, loyal supporter of the British Crown, advocate of Federation, and campaigner for conscription during World War One, went on to pursue a legal career in Victoria, achieving notable success in both State and Federal politics, in his later political years being appointed both Lieutenant Governor and Acting Governor of Victoria.3
William Irvine was described by some of his political peers as dignified, upright and statesman-like, a tribute perhaps to his Ulster background; but for others he was reserved and impossible to read. As one journalist noted, ‘he thinks every subject out for himself, studies it, considers it, and comes to a decision quite independently of platforms and programmes’.4 It was this extreme independence of mind, a hint, perhaps, of the northern-Irish Unitarianism from which his family had sprung, that made Irvine vulnerable in Australian party politics. In 1904, Irvine introduced a Strike Suppression Bill, followed immediately with the sending in of strike-breakers to halt the Locomotive Engine-driver's and Firemen's Association strike that was disrupting vital State infrastructure. This unilateral course of action, typical of Irvine's political thinking, caused him immense personal anxiety, and is seen as the incident that hastened his quick exit from the Victorian Premiership.5


Although William Irvine lived a very rich political and legal life, few papers survive from 1894, when he first contested a seat at Lowan for the Victorian Legislative Assembly, until his appointment, in 1919, as Lieutenant Governor of Victoria. A small number of Irvine letters can be found amongst the Alfred Deakin Papers and other political papers

The Irvine children Newry, c. 1870. Top left: Fanny, Mary and Margaret.
Bottom left: Henrietta (Nettie), Hill (jnr), John Mitchel Irvine, and William Hill Irvine.


John Mitchel in his early thirties, Dublin, c. 1847–48.

held by the National Library of Australia,6 and the present family collection contains a scattering of letters, ephemera, and other items relating to political and judicial appointments. However, the presumption is that the bulk of William Irvine's papers are no long extant. The State Library's collection of Irvine material is, therefore, not a political collection but one that documents key family memories, and events of personal, political, and religious significance. When last used by legal historian J. M. Bennett, in writing his ‘Notes on the Life of Sir William Irvine’, this collation, still in family hands, was referred to as the ‘Irvine Family Papers’.7 Thus one finds some notable family items; a very fine set of correspondence between William Irvine and his future wife, Agnes Sommerville Wanliss of Ballarat,8 eldest daughter of T. D. Wanliss, member of the Legislative Assembly;9 letters to and from Irvine's mother, Margaret Mitchel, a letter from his uncle, William Mitchel, to his sister Henrietta Irvine, in Melbourne; and another from William Irvine's New York resident grandmother, Mrs Mary Mitchel (née Haslett), to his father, Hill Irvine. There is fragmentary correspondence and other items relating to the life of William Irvine's famous uncle, John Mitchel, graduate of Trinity College Dublin, solicitor, historian, journalist, newspaper proprietor, political prisoner and later MP for Tipperary; and a letter from British radical and liberal statesman John Bright, to William Irvine's father, Hill Irvine, discussing Irish political organisation, the envelope, with the stamp of the English Queen, Victoria, deliberately turned on its head.
This collection also contains a sampling of family books: a Bible reputedly used by William Irvine, and inscribed from his aunt, Mary Mitchel, to his elder brother John Mitchel Irvine in 1879; a volume of sermons published in Newry in 1828, written by John Mitchel's father, the Rev. John Mitchel;10 an 1811 Presbyterian hymn book, like the sermons, printed and published locally in Newry11 and inscribed by Irvine's mother Margaret. There is a copy of John Mitchel's most autobiographical work, Jail Journal; or five years in British prisons, also inscribed; plus an album of photographs taken by William Irvine on his return trip to Dublin and Newry in 1904, and holding photos of the family home ‘Dromalane’. This collection also includes some notable political items; a signed photographic calling card of American Confederate General Robert E. Lee, perhaps significant to the Irvine family for several reasons. Firstly, as two of William

Masthead of the United Irishman, printed and published by John Mitchel at the newspaper's offices, 12 Trinity Street, Dublin, from 12 February 1848. This copy with John Mitchel's signature.

Irvine's first cousins, William and John C. Mitchel, died fighting for the Confederate Army, William under Lee's command; and secondly, as Irvine's aunt, Mary Mitchel, married Colonel Roger Page of Richmond, Virginia, often referred to as a nephew of General Lee.12 Of particular note in the collection is a complete set of the rare Irish political newspapers, the United Irishman, Irish Felon and Irish Tribune, newspapers edited and published by John Mitchel, John Martin, James Fintan Lalor, Thomas Devin Reilly, and Kevin O'Doherty. Like Mitchel, both O'Doherty and Martin were transported to Van Diemen's Land for their involvement in the Felon; Reilly escaped to America before prosecution for his work on the Tribune, while Lalor, a one time co-editor of the Felon, was imprisoned for five months, reinventing himself in later Irish politics.13
Printed and published weekly from 12 February to the 22 July 1848, each of these newspapers was, in turn, suppressed under the 1848 Treason Felony Act. Stamped postage marks on the copies indicate they were sent from Dublin to the family at Dromalane, Newry. The newspapers were most likely bound by Hill Irvine and are initialled and dated ‘old new year's day 1850’. One copy of the United Irishman, 26 February 1848, has John Mitchel's signature inscribed at the top left hand side of the facing page. While complete copies of the United Irishman and Irish Felon are held by a number of national and university libraries, including Trinity College Dublin and the British Library, complete runs of all three newspapers are scarce.14


It is perhaps appropriate to provide some context here for the Mitchel and Irvine families. Mitchel's pedigree is politically notable; his father, the Rev. John Mitchel, was a dissenting Unitarian Minister who had split from the Ulster Presbyterian Synod in 1829 and was well known, and criticised, as a minister who supported Catholic emancipation and who, in his pastoral work, aided poor Ulster Catholics; the Rev. Mitchel was referred

Isabel Mitchel, John and Jenny Mitchel's Australian born daughter.

Conferderate General Robert E. Lee, c. 1860.

to by some of his parishioners as ‘Papist Mitchel’.15 In the year John Mitchel published his first book – on the seventeenth century Ulster military and political leader, Hugh O'Neill – his uncle William Haslett was elected Lord Mayor of Londonderry, a city dominated by the politics of the loyalist organisation the Apprentice Boys. Mitchel's mother, Mary Haslett, was from a family fully involved in the republican United Irish uprising of 1798. Mitchel would also tell the story of his father, who, as a teenager, had taken the United Irish oath,16 the penalty of which was death or transportation. While true, the circumstances were slightly more complex than his telling, Mitchel always ready to embellish his radical connections. Mitchel's closest friend, fellow transportee and future brother-in-law John Martin, later became MP for Co. Meath; while two of Mitchel's nephews reached high political office, one, John Purroy Mitchel, as Mayor of New York City (1914–1917),17 the other, William Irvine, as Premier of Victoria. John Mitchel himself, in his last years, and to make a political point, stood for the seat of Tipperary on a Home Rule ticket; he won twice but was twice disqualified, still deemed in English law a political exile and therefore ineligible for public office. Mitchel and John Martin died within months of each other, Martin's parliamentary seat being filled by the then political unknown Charles Stewart Parnell, who had the previous year contributed significant financial support to John Mitchel's election campaign for Tipperary.18 In addition, Mitchel's wife, Jenny Verner, a noted activist in her own right, lived on until 1900. Her residence in New York city became a well known centre of Irish political and cultural activity.19
Such political connections would undoubtedly have been talked about in the family and would have impacted upon the life of the young William Irvine. Even in later years Irish politics was not far from the Irvine home. In 1889 Irish activist and former MP, John Dillon, on his fundraising tour of Australia and New Zealand, visited William Irvine's mother and sisters in Melbourne.20 Hill Irvine, William's father, was a solid friend of John Mitchel, and both his mother and father corresponded regularly with his exiled uncle. As a child Irvine would have known his Mitchel cousins who came from France on a number of occasions to stay for extended periods at Dromalane. In 1874, when the sixteen year old William Irvine was in his last year at secondary school in Armagh, John Mitchel returned to Ireland accompanied by his Australian-born daughter Isabel. They stayed in Dublin, dined with Lady Wilde, Irish nationalist writer and mother of Oscar, and travelled north to see Mitchel's sisters in County Down. Early in the following year he returned again, having been persuaded to contest the British Parliamentary seat for Tipperary. His successful election here was major news throughout the country with some of the biggest gatherings ever seen taking place in Tipperary town and Clonmel as thousands came out to see and hear Mitchel who was accompanied on the hustings by his son, the Civil War veteran James Mitchel and his sister Henrietta, William Irvine's aunt and wife of MP John Martin.21
Mitchel, whose health had never been particularly good, took seriously ill and died a little over a month later at the Irvine-Mitchel family home, Dromalane.22 More than ten thousand attended Mitchel's funeral in Newry, with major Irish political figures present; his death was reported widely in the American press with telegrams sent from numerous political organisations and individuals, including the Governor of Virginia and ex-Confederate President Jefferson Davis.23 While there is no firm evidence from the Irvine family papers that Mitchel and William Irvine met, it is highly likely that they did over 1874–75 when Mitchel returned to Ireland. Family evidence certainly suggests that Sir William Irvine was immensely proud of his uncle John Mitchel,24 and when he returned home to Newry in 1904 his speech to the leading citizens of the town, in the Board Room of the Newry Town Hall, paid particular respect to his father, Hill Irvine, his Uncle William Mitchel,25 who had been like a father to him after the sudden death of Hill Irvine, and to his famous uncle, John Mitchel. As the Newry Reporter of 9th July 1904 noted, when reporting the speech;
He had been proud too, of the distinguished name that had been mentioned – the name of John Mitchel. He had never shrunk for one moment, no matter what his position was, to maintain the great respect which he had always felt for a man of such fortitude, such courage, and such true nobility of character. (Hear, hear). Bad, indeed would it be if any feelings political or otherwise, were to blind them to the respect and devotion which they owed to such characters.26
John Mitchel's connections with Australia date from 1853 when he arrived in Van Diemen's Land with the dubious distinction of being the first Irish nationalist to have
ever been sentenced by a piece of British legislation designed specifically for the individual being transported.27 This was the Treason Felon Act (1848). Mitchel was arrested at his home in Dublin on 13 May 1848 and brought before a special Criminal Session sitting in the infamous Green Street Court. Two weeks later, on 26 May, he was convicted and shipped, before dawn, to a prison island in Cove Bay, County Cork. As proprietor of the Dublin newspaper the United Irishman, Mitchel was sentenced for treason, the writing and publishing of seditious articles likely to foment riot or revolutionary behaviour.
Mitchel was held at Cork in isolation for two months before being placed on a transportation ship bound for Barbados in the Caribbean. He spent one year in Barbados, confined to his ship, then months at sea en route to South Africa. Following weeks anchored off the coast of Cape Town, Mitchel was sent on a further sea voyage, eventually landing in Van Diemen's Land on 7 April 1850, two years after his initial arrest.28 Within a short time Mitchel found himself in the company of his political compatriots, including John Martin, William Smith O'Brien, Kevin O'Doherty, Thomas Meagher, and others, in arguably one of the most isolated outposts of the British Empire.29
Mitchel's sojourn in Australia was a brief three years. His escape from his farm near Bothwell, Van Diemen's Land, was largely engineered by Irish political interests in New York and aided by Mitchel's many friends and acquaintances on the Island.30 After careful planning and a number of mishaps, one that saw him miss his ship to Melbourne, Mitchel, with his wife Jenny and family, sailed to Sydney, on to Tahiti and then New York, via an extended stay in San Francisco. After passing Staten Island and landing at No. 3 Pier, North River, New York, on 29 November 1853, Mitchel was fêted as a hero, paraded through the suburbs of Brooklyn accompanied by numerous marching bands and contingents of the New York police, and made guest of honour at a banquet held by the mayor at City Hall.31 In the months after his arrival Mitchel again resumed his work for Irish political self-determination. He established the Irish newspaper the Citizen, its prospectus prominently set out in Irish ethnic newspapers around the world, like the 20 May 1854 issue of the Sydney Freeman's Journal,32 and, over the following year-and-a-half, published his classic nineteenth century prison diary Jail Journal, documenting his enforced exile, a key trope for nineteenth century Irish Diaspora politics.33 In 1855 Mitchel settled in Tennessee, for a number of years farming and editing the Southern Citizen before moving this newspaper to Washington DC in 1858, in order to be closer to the centre of American political activity. However, restlessness, and the possibility of a conflict in Anglo-French relations, saw him decide to move to Paris in 1859 with a view of working for Irish interests from that city.
There are a number of areas in Mitchel's life that are biographically significant and which throw considerable light on some of the contents to be found in this

‘Dromlane’, Newry, County Down, acquired by the Rev. John Mitchel in 1823, subsequently purchased by Hill Irvine in the late 1840s and converted into an imposing family residence.
Photographed by Sir William Irvine on a return visit to Ireland in 1904.

collection. Firstly, the role of family and his extended relations in Ulster; secondly, his work with the Young Ireland group including Thomas Davis and Charles Gavan Duffy and the setting-up of his own newspaper the United Irishman; thirdly, his life as political prisoner and Irish exile, memorialised in his most popular work Jail Journal, a work that is also a finely drawn text giving considerable insight into the development of Mitchel's social and political thinking; and finally, Mitchel's significance as historian, newspaper journalist,34 noted scholar and ‘man of letters’,35 author of such influential works as the Jail Journal (1853), Last Conquest of Ireland (Perhaps) (1861);36 The History of Ireland from the Treaty of Limerick (1868); and the Crusade of the Period (1873).


John Mitchel's very public career began in slightly inauspicious circumstances when, as
a twenty-one year old, he eloped with the not-yet sixteen year old girl from Newry, Jenny Verner, whom he had been courting for some months. The couple were pursued to England by her outraged father, a military officer and prominent member of the Orange Order. For this escapade Mitchel spent eighteen days in Kilmainham jail, Dublin, pending charges for abduction, which were eventually dropped. The following year Mitchel and Jenny Verner, the love of his life, eloped again, marrying secretly at Drumcree Church, Co. Armagh on 2 February 1837. Destined to be a minister in the Presbyterian Church, Mitchel's politics were radicalised by his short years in legal practice taking on the cases of northern Irish Catholics. After engaging with the inequities of the land tenure system and local politics, and meeting with Charles Gavan Duffy and Daniel O'Connell in Belfast in 1843, he joined the Repeal Association. Mitchel was drawn to Dublin and made the decision in 1845 to accept the position of co-editor of the very influential cultural and political newspaper the Nation, established by Thomas Davis and John Blake Dillon, and operated under the proprietorship of Charles Gavan Duffy. However, Mitchel's increasingly inflammatory articles, prompted by the horrors of the Famine and the mounting death toll, saw him split with Duffy and his moderate politics. Mitchel left in 1848 to found his own newspaper the United Irishman where he further developed the ideas of James Fintan Lalor on agrarian revolution and a national rent strike. It is to the influence of John Mitchel and James Fintan Lalor that Anglo-Irish historian, W. E. H. Lecky, later attributed the political and social chaos that engulfed Ireland from the 1880s.37 Before its suppression in 1848 Lalor wrote a number of key articles for the Irish Tribune that are today considered the forerunners of the socialist republicanism developed by James Connolly and Patrick Pearse in the early twentieth century.
John Mitchel began writing narrative history at the prompting of Charles Gavan Duffy who, building on ideas outlined by Thomas Davis, saw the market for a cheap readable national Irish literature that would inspire and politicise readers.38 In 1845 Mitchel published the first in this series, a life of the Irish seventeenth century figure Hugh O'Neill,39 Irish Chieftain and Earl of Ulster who had militarily resisted Elizabethan annexation of northern Irish territory, and who had later sought political exile in Spain. This was followed by his classic prison narrative Jail Journal, his subsequent volume the History of Ireland (1869), one of the most popular Irish histories to be exported to the Australasian colonies and a text available in many editions until well into the twentieth century. One further volume, and the most enduring in terms of understanding Mitchel's thinking on the political economy of Ireland during the Great Famine, was his 1861 publication Last Conquest of Ireland, a series of extended newspaper articles that first appeared in the Tennessee newspaper Southern Citizen in 1858, and then soon after in book form.
The final facet of Mitchel's life that is of note is his role as the political transportee and the story he made of this in the Jail Journal. Perhaps, most importantly, the Jail
Journal documents the beginnings of Mitchel's thoughts on events in Ireland over the 1840s, his analysis of colonialism and British Imperialism, and the evolution of his notion of both cultural accountability and political responsibility. The inevitable conclusion Mitchel reaches in the Jail Journal, and elaborates fully in his articles that became the Last Conquest of Ireland, was the doctrine that the Great Irish Famine, over the years 1846–52, was a deliberate act of ethnic genocide perpetrated by the British Government of Lord John Russell, his administration, and their immediate successors.40 As Patrick Maume has noted, it is a powerful idea that has ghosted modern Irish historiography ever since it was articulated by Mitchel.41 Further, it is a notion that almost immediately became part of the fabric of nineteenth-century Irish political discourse,42 finding instant resonance in the popular imagination, and expression in written history, fiction, and newspaper articles; it spawned the idea of the Irish nation in “enforced exile”,43 while later it was incorporated into twentieth century Irish Republican ideology.


In the William Irvine papers there are a number of documents and other items that reflect the complexity of Mitchel's personal and political life. The most important is the fragmentary sequence of nine letters, seven written over the years 1861–62, to William Irvine's mother Margaret, and his father Hill Irvine, from Choisy-le-Roi near Paris where Mitchel and some of his family were in residence; plus, a related letter from Mitchel's son John, dated 1863. One further letter of 1862, written by John Mitchel's mother in New York to Hill Irvine in Newry, is significant as it throws considerable light on Mitchel's liberal religious views vis-à-vis his daughter Henrietta and her life in Paris at this time. The genesis to the Paris sequence of letters lies in the years immediately following Mitchel's escape from Van Diemen's Land in 1853, his arrival in New York in November of that year and the setting up of the Citizen early in 1854. It was through the columns of the Citizen that Mitchel called for the creation of a radical organisation to progress Irish political aspirations. Two organisations were established over the next two years that coalesced under the control of John O'Mahoney and led to the founding of the Fenian Brotherhood in 1859 with its radical militarist agenda.44 Mitchel was associated with all these groups and by 1866 was acting as financial agent for the Fenians in Paris. However, Mitchel's first sojourn in that city was prompted by his personal desire to further the Irish political cause through his writing. In 1859 he closed the newspaper the Southern Citizen and moved to Paris for six months. He returned to the United States for a short period but was back to France with all his family in 1860 acting as foreign correspondent for a number of Irish and American newspapers including the Charleston Standard,45 the Irish American and the Irishman (Dublin).
This second residence lasted just over two years, the letters in the State Library's
William Irvine papers beginning with the family's recent move from inner-city Paris to Choisy-le-Roi, fifteen minutes by train to the city centre.46 Paris was home to a number of Irish exiles and Mitchel, between writing and touring was able to make acquaintance with individuals. These included Miles O'Byrne, a participant in the Irish rebellion of 1798 and whom he had met on his first Paris visit, and John Kenyon, the priest associated with the Young Ireland group of the 1840s and a life-long friend of the Mitchel family. In addition he was on regular occasions visited by family and friends from Ireland. It is almost certain that over this period he also began collecting materials for his History of Ireland.
Mitchel was ever the exile, and such themes dominate these letters. The Paris years of 1861–62 cover a time when he could not return to Ireland for fear of re-arrest and imprisonment,47 but was able to send his two youngest girls Henrietta and Isabel to the Mitchel-Irvine home, Dromalane, to stay for extended periods with their uncle, aunt, nephews and nieces, including the very young William Irvine. These letters are gossipy in tone, revealing a very personal side to Mitchel's life, his concern for the well-being of his family, and the conflicting emotions of a man driven by personal ideals to lead a very itinerant and precarious political life, to the obvious detriment of his wife and children. Issues clearly arose regarding his politics, Mitchel's sister Matilda and her husband Dr John Dickson, at one point refusing to have any more contact with Mitchel and his family, Mitchel regretting the fact of his children being caught in the middle of this family feud.48 The logistics of moving children between County Down and Paris, with escorts, and the difficulties of communication are constantly on Mitchel's mind when writing to his sister Margaret (William Irvine's mother), however his extended network of friends and family aided communication and gave a semblance of normalcy to his otherwise fraught life.
Interspersed with domestic matters are many observations that reflect current politics in Ireland and Mitchel's frustration at not being able to return home. He notes to his brother in law, an avid reader of Mitchel's newspaper columns, that on the advice of John Blake Dillon he had ceased writing for the Dublin newspaper the Irishman. The newspaper was struggling and Mitchel was owed over £60 for copy supplied, plus other incidentals.49 Mitchel's political concerns with this paper, his desire to see a purely secular newspaper free of church influence, information, and reviews of devotional works, is in keeping with the type of newspaper format developed by Davis, Duffy, John Blake Dillon and himself in the Nation of the 1840s, and that Irish Fenians endeavoured to establish during the 1860s:50 ‘I am tired, too, of the “Holy Father,” and of the religious aspect which the Irishman gives itself’.51 Mitchel knew that he could establish a ‘New United Irishman’ newspaper, and make it pay, but he was acutely aware of the political vicissitudes of Irish life and the political and cultural pressures put on such a venture, as he wryly remarks: ‘if there were to be found a decent person in Dublin willing to take
the risk of being publisher (registered proprietor) of a New United Irishman, with me for Editor, I could make it pay very well – but where is the man? For the present, I rest on my oars. I don't relish the idea of helping to keep up a miserable rag like the Irishman in its present hands’.52
Mitchel was torn between wanting to ‘do the best’ he could with his ‘particular’ political ‘trade of journalism’,53 and events that were unfolding in America. With the outbreak of the Civil War on 12 April 1861, Mitchel's financial position appeared precarious. The blockade of the Southern State ports necessitated Mitchel sending his newspaper reports, his only financial means of support, to Charleston through a Liverpool firm that was keeping communication with South Carolina open through an Express Company.54 Eventually, however, this doorway was closed and he had no news as to whether his newspaper reports were finding their way back to either South Carolina or New York. In addition, he was worried about his sons John and James, who had enlisted in the Confederate Army, James being at the battle of Manafras and having a very narrow escape in a bayonet charge.55 Any attempt to ship to New York and cross the border to the South he knew would meet with arrest and he pondered his options and that of his family in France. His girls arrived back in Paris from Dromalane at the end of September 1861, along with his sister Mary and youngest brother William, as he wrote to Hill Irvine;
it was good chance such as they may not be privileged with again, to see the old country and make some acquaintance with their cousins… The poor things have not had the advantages of every sort that I could have desired for them, and our unsettled way of life and precarious resources have denied them, but they are very good and well-disposed girls, and whatever is to be their future lot (it will not be very brilliant) they will certainly cherish the remembrance of their trip to Ireland which your friendship has afforded them. They seem much attached to all their cousins both at Dromalane and at Tullycairn.56
As the Civil War dragged into 1862 the Mitchels became more anxious about their sons. Writing to Hill Irvine in March 1862 Mitchel noted: ‘As to our boys in America the case is very hard. We cannot get the least intelligence of them, & have now only to make up our mind to it. When the war is over somehow, if there be still two boys to the fore we shall think ourselves very fortunate’.57 However, while the need to get back to America for the sake of his sons was a pressing issue, his perception of Irish affairs, the apathy of the able, the Catholic Bishops, and those that refused to engage in political activity to bring about change brought out his ire, as no doubt his brother-in-law was fully aware;
For political affairs in Ireland I never praise anybody for declining or avoiding all movement – therefore I won't praise you. If the country is in a shameful state, & if that is caused by English dominion then everybody without exception in Ireland is bound to say so, & act accordingly somehow. But after all I know there is not much to be effected just now – And why? Just because this man, & the next man, & the third man keep out of politics, & contents himself with criticizing those who do try
to give expression to the actual wants of the country. Now I [would] not have said anything of all this, but that you mention in this letter your own resolution of keeping clear of all Societies & As [associations]. I do not take the freedom to fall foul of you for it – but I don't praise you.58
In 1862, under the pressure of both financial and personal circumstances, Mitchel decided on a course of action, namely, to leave his two eldest daughters at the convent of Sacré Coeur in Paris, and with the help of his friend Father Kenyon, to send his wife Jenny and youngest daughter Isabel to Ireland. Mitchel would then proceed with his eighteen year old son William to America, and attempt to enter the Confederate States.59 The journey back was dangerous but Mitchel and his son, after many adventures and several narrow escapes, arrived in Richmond in October 1862. Mitchel's son William immediately joined up, but Mitchel, unable to enlist because of poor eyesight, at age forty-seven joined the ambulance corps, and was later also asked to edit the Richmond Enquirer. Mitchel was present at many unsuccessful Confederate engagements, dealing with the dead and tending to the wounded, before the final surrender of Confederate forces in 1865.
This brief but fine set of correspondence ends on a coda; a letter dated 8 September 1863 from John Mitchel's second eldest son John C. Mitchel, stationed with the Confederate Army at Fort Johnson, North Carolina. Writing home to his aunt, William Irvine's mother, the young Mitchel describes what details he was able to glean of the death of his brother William at the battle of Gettysburg, asking that the news be gently broken to his mother, who was not yet fully appraised of the death.60 In between noting that Charleston is in the first stages of the Union siege, and casually mentioning his escape from the battle at Morris Island with the loss of many of his men, John mentions his having heard of his sister Henrietta's illness and death in Paris, this shortly following her conversion to Catholicism and entry into convent life; plus other family tragedy, the deaths of his mother's brother-in-law Dr Dickson and his Uncle William's wife and child: ‘My Father is still hard at work in Richmond. James is with his Brigade facing the enemy across the Rapidan… We seem to have little other kind of news to exchange. Be kind enough to write to me and tell me how my mother bears this new affliction’.61 Towards the end of 1863 John Mitchel was joined by his wife who, with two of their girls Isabel and Mary (Minnie), had left Ireland on hearing the news of the death of her son, and had run the Union blockade, arriving in South Carolina safely, but with all their belongings, including the bulk of Mitchel's personal papers, destroyed with the firing of their ship.62 A little under a year later, in July 1864, Captain John C. Mitchel was killed in the final Union bombardment on Fort Sumter, South Carolina.


Mitchel's health declined rapidly in the early 1870s, limiting severely his ability to write and support himself and his wife Jenny. In 1874, at the instigation of John Martin, an
international Mitchel Testimonial Fund was inaugurated to which significant sums were contributed by the Irish and their supporters in Victoria, New South Wales and New Zealand.63 Letters from John Martin to Joseph Winter, in the State Library's Joseph Winter papers, acknowledge the contribution made by the Australian colonies, and the lasting impact of Mitchel's work. As Martin notes; ‘glad and proud I am that the Irish in Melbourne are sensible of the great and high qualities of John Mitchel and grateful for his life long devotion to the national cause of Ireland’.64 Similar sentiments were expressed in the columns of the Sydney Freeman's Journal, acknowledging Mitchel's essential and lasting service to the cause of the injustices in Ireland in that period when very few people dared to be actively involved in Irish affairs.65
Despite the eulogies John Mitchel also had his dark side. A cantankerous and charismatic figure with devoted followers and passionate enemies, images of Mitchel in Dublin in the mid-1840s with his wife and sisters entertaining guests Thomas Carlyle, Thomas Davis, James Clarence Mangan, Samuel Ferguson, novelist William Carleton, John Martin, and their constant visitor Charles Gavan Duffy, sit at odds with his later behaviour. Mitchel had the ability to alienate friend and foe alike; his break with Duffy, their mutual animosities and very public sniping in print, lasted for the remainder of their lives.66 In America, Mitchel's extreme dislike of the increasingly industrialised northern States meant he was naturally attracted to a vision of an ordered rural society like the American South, despite the fact that it was based on both class and racial inequality.67 In positioning himself with the South's plantation slave-politics, and supporting the Confederacy during the Civil War, Mitchel alienated many of his ardent followers. When confronted, as he was by many friends, he refused to back down, seemingly able to hold to opinions that were clearly inconsistent with his political writings and stated beliefs.
The Mitchel letters in the State Library's Manuscripts collection provide a rare if brief glimpse into the life of an important nineteenth century political radical. In his own lifetime Mitchel had enormous political presence, the result of his life's work in Ireland, twenty-six years in political exile, and the enduring influence of his seminal publications.68 A very close reading of Jail Journal, History of Ireland, and Last Conquest is still justified for the complexity it reveals of the writer as revolutionary, and for an understanding of the influence these works had on nineteenth-century Irish political thinking. Mitchel's life and work has continued to have an impact on twentieth century Irish political radicalism, and it is perhaps no coincidence that James Quinn's most recent biography of Mitchel was officially launched in Dublin in January 2009 by the President of Sinn Féin Gerry Adams.69 Given that the great bulk of Mitchel papers were destroyed in South Carolina in 1863, while many others used by William Dillon in his 1888 biography are no longer extant, these surviving letters, in the State Library's Sir William Hill Irvine collection, are of considerable importance.70


MS 13698. Sir William Hill Irvine, Papers (1811–1950), Australian Manuscripts Collection, State Library of Victoria (SLV). The author would like to thank Mr Andrew Irvine Morrison for this generous gift, and Shirley Goldsworthy for facilitating the deposit with the State Library. J. M. Bennett, Ann G. Smith, ‘Irvine, Sir William Hill (1858 – 1943)’, ADB.


J. M Bennett, ‘Notes on the Life of Sir William Hill Irvine: Chief Justice and Politician’, Victorian Historical Journal, vol. 48, No. 4 (1977), p. 297.


‘Irvine, Sir William Hill’, ADB.


Bennett, ‘Notes’, p. 301.


Irvine resigned on the advice of his doctors; for further details see Bennett, ‘Notes’, p. 299. This strike-breaking action was noted in the conferring speech at Trinity College Dublin when Irvine received his Honorary Doctor of Laws (LLD), see Argus, 12 August 1904, p. 8.


MS 1736, Papers of Alfred Deakin, National Library of Australia (NLA), and, MS 1540. Papers of Josiah Symon, NLA.


Bennett, ‘Notes’, p. 308.


William Irvine married Agnes Sommerville Wanliss at St Andrew's Presbyterian Church at Ballarat in 1891.


The papers of T. D. Wanliss and his family can be found at the State Library of Victoria, Australian Manuscripts Collection, MS 9903. See also Kathleen Thomson and Geoffrey Serle, Biographical Register of the Victorian Parliament, 1851–1901, Canberra: Australian National University Press, 1972, p. 219.


Rev. John Mitchel, The Scripture Doctrine of the Divinity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, and Other Subjects Connected Therewith, in a Series of Sermons by the Rev John Mitchel, Minister of the Presbyterian Congregation, Newry, Newry, Ireland: Robert Greer, 1828.


A Collection of Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs, Proper for Christian Worship; Selected and Arranged for the use of Congregations and Families, Newry, Ireland: R. Moffet, Sugar-Island, 1811.


Rebecca O'Connor, Jenny Mitchel, Young Irelander: A Biography, Dublin: O'Connor Trust, 1988, 329. The use of autograph calling cards, like that of General Lee, was common both before and during the Civil War, with stocks of such cards often held and retailed by photographers. William Mitchel was killed at Gettysburg in July 1863, aged 19, and John C. Mitchel at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, in July 1864, aged 26.


See G. Rude, ‘O'Doherty, Kevin Izod (1823 – 1905)’, ADB. For James Fintan Lalor see S. J. Connolly, ed., Oxford Companion to Irish History, Oxford: University Press, 1998, p. 294.


Copies of all three newspaper papers are held by the National Library of Australia.


William Dillon, Life of John Mitchel, vol. 1, London: Kegan Paul, 1888, p. 34. For an online version of the 1888 edition of Dillon's biography see Internet Archive, URL:


James Quinn, John Mitchel, Dublin: University College Dublin Press, 1988, p. 3.


‘John Purroy Mitchel (1879–1918)’, The Encyclopedia of the Irish in America, ed. Michael Glazier, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1999, p. 687.


Quinn, John Mitchel, p. 85.


For details on Jenny Mitchel see Institute of Irish Studies, Queen's University Belfast, online Ulster Dictionary of Biography, [Accessed June 2009]; O'Connor, Jenny Mitchel; and obituary, ‘Death List of a Day. Mrs Jane Verner Mitchel’, New York Times, 4 January 1900, p. 9.


MS 13698. William Mitchel to Margaret Irvine (Junior), 30 October 1889.


‘Ireland. John Mitchel's Address’, Freeman's Journal (Sydney), 17 April 1875, p. 3.


Mitchel died on 20 March 1875. For details see Quinn, John Mitchel, pp. 85–86.


Dillon, John Mitchel, vol. 2, p. 305. ‘Obituary. John Mitchel’, and ‘How the news was received in this city’, New York Times, 21 March, 1875, p. 2; for a more sympathetic obituary notice see the Irish World (New York), 8 April 1875, reproduced in O'Connor, Jenny Mitchel, pp vii-viii; also ‘The Late John Mitchel. The Late Member Elect for Tipperary a Citizen of the United States’, New York Times, 25 March 1875, p. 6.


Personal communication., Mr Andrew Irvine Morrison, 2008.


William Mitchel, John Mitchel's youngest brother, also had strong political leanings, having worked for a time in Dublin sub-editing the newspaper the Nation in late 1847, see Dillon, Life of John Mitchel, vol. 2, pp. 166–67.


‘Dr W. H. Irvine, M.L.A.’, Argus, 22 August 1904, p. 4.


The Treason Felony Act, 1848 was drafted and passed on 13 April 1848, at the instigation of Lord Clarendon, who, wanting to silence the Irish revolutionary press sought to make treason a felony rather than a misdemeanour. John Mitchel and Charles Gavan Duffy were the first two tried under the Act, see Quinn, John Mitchel, pp. 35–36.


John Mitchel, Jail Journal, with an Introductory Narrative of Transactions in Ireland by Arthur Griffith, London: Sphere Books, 1983, p. 202.


Mitchel's Journal contains numerous evocative descriptions of Van Diemen's Land and its inhabitants, for examples, see Jail Journal, pp. 228, 234–35.


Quinn, John Mitchel, p. 51.


Mitchel, ‘The Journal Continued’, Jail Journal, pp. 347–358.


‘Prospectus of “The Citizen”. A New Weekly Journal of sixteen quarto pages…to be conducted by John Mitchel, assisted by Thomas Francis Meagher’, Freeman's Journal (Sydney), 20 May 1854, p. 3.


The ‘Jail Journal’ was published in serial form in the New York Citizen, from 14th January – 19th August 1854. For a discussion on exile in Irish diaspora politics see Kevin Kenny, ‘Diaspora and Comparison: The Global Irish as a Case Study, Journal of American History, vol. 90, no. 1 (June 2003), pp. 134–62.


Mitchel edited or published the following newspapers: the Nation (Dublin) 1843–1847; the United Irishman (Dublin) from 12 February – 27 May 1848; Citizen (New York), 7 January – 31 December 1854; the Southern Citizen (Knoxville, Tennessee), from October 1857; removed to Washington DC, December 1858 – August 1859; the Richmond Enquirer (Virginia) 1862–63; the Richmond Examiner, 1863; edited the New York Daily News (1865); the Irish Citizen (New York) October 1867 – 27th July 1872. In addition, over the years 1860–1870 Mitchel was correspondent for a number of Irish and American newspapers including the Nation (Dublin), the Irishman (Dublin), the Charleston Standard (and Mercury), Irish American (New York), and Daily News (New York).


On this topic see Quinn, John Mitchel, p. 49, quoting from Smith O'Brien. There are also numerous references to individuals noting Mitchel's erudition cited in Dillon's biography.


For detailed provenance history of the publishing of Last Conquest of Ireland see Patrick Maume, Introduction and Biographical Note, The Last Conquest of Ireland Perhaps, Patrick Maume, ed., Dublin: University College Dublin Press, 2005, pp. ix-xxx.


William E. H. Lecky, Leaders of Public Opinion in Ireland, vol. 1, London: Longmans Green & Co., 1903, p. xiii.


Thomas Davis, ‘The Library of Ireland’, first published in the Nation, 28 June 1845, in D. J. O'Donoghue, ed., Essays Literary and Historical by Thomas Davis, Centenary Edition, with an essay by John Mitchel. Dundalk, Ireland: Dundalgan Press, 1914, p. 349–55. This series became the Irish national series and was mass produced by publishers such as James Duffy & Co. of Dublin, becoming a staple on colonial Irish book import lists.


John Mitchel, Life of Aodh O'Neill, Prince of Ulster; called by the English Hugh, Earl of Tyrone, Dublin: James Duffy & Co. Ltd, 1845.


Last Conquest of Ireland, pp. 133–34; Mitchel, History of Ireland, vol. 2, pp. 211, 221.


Last Conquest of Ireland, p. xvi.


See for example, Charles Gavan Duffy, My Life in Two Hemispheres, vol. 1, London: Unwin, 1898, p. 273; and ‘The Fleet and the Famine’, extracts from a letter of A. M. Sullivan to Mr Spring Rice, Freeman's Journal (Sydney), 27 January 1864, p. 2.


Roy Foster, ‘Ascendancy and Union’, Oxford History of Ireland, ed. R. F. Foster, Oxford: University Press, 1989, p. 170.


James Quinn, John Mitchel, p. 54.


This paper is also referred to by Dillon as the Charleston Mercury, see William Dillon, Life of John Mitchel, vol. 2, London, Kegan Paul, 1888, p. 160.


MS 13698. John Mitchel to Hill Irvine, 16 April 1861.


In later Paris years, when travelling, Mitchel often went under an assumed name, and in disguise, see Dillon, John Mitchel, vol. 1, p. 162.


MS 13698. John Mitchel to Margaret Hill Irvine, 28 April 1861.


MS 13698. John Mitchel to Hill Irvine, 9 July 1861, Australian Manuscripts Collection, SLV. For details on the Irishman in this period see R. V. Comerford, The Fenians in Context. Irish Politics and Society 1848–82, Dublin: Wolfhound Press, 1998, pp. 95–96.


MS 13698, John Mitchel to Hill Irvine, 17 July 1861. For the dissociation with church news see for example the first editorial of the Fenian newspaper The New Zealand Celt (NZC) established by Victorian miners in the South Island West Coast town of Hokitika, New Zealand, in 1867, NZC, 26 October 1867, p. 8. This newspaper was subsequently proscribed and its editors imprisoned under the New Zealand Treason Felony Act (1868).


MS 13698. John Mitchel to Hill Irvine.


Ibid., John Mitchel to Hill Irvine, 17 July 1861.


Ibid., John Mitchel to Hill Irvine, 17 July 1861.


Ibid., John Mitchel to Hill Irvine, 18 September 1861.


Ibid., John Mitchel to Hill Irvine, 18 September 1861.


Ibid., John Mitchel to Hill Irvine, 18 September 1861.


Ibid., John Mitchel to Hill Irvine, 29 March 1862.


Ibid., John Mitchel to Hill Irvine, 29 March 1862.


Dillon, Life of John Mitchel, vol. 2, p. 160–61.


MS 13698. John C. Mitchel, Fort Johnson, James Island, North Carolina, to Margaret Hill Irvine, Dromalane, 8 September 1863.


Ibid., John C. Mitchel to Margaret Irvine, 8 September 1863.


Dillon, Life of John Mitchel, vol. 2, pp. 182–88.


‘National Testimonial to John Mitchel. To the Irishmen of the Colony’, Freeman's Journal (Sydney) 16 May 1874, p. 8; also 11 July 1874, p. 13; 17 October 1874, p. 13;, 21 November 1874, p. 7.


MS 8622. Joseph Winter Papers, John Martin to Joseph Winter, 2 June 1874, Australian Manuscripts Collection, SLV.


‘National Testimonial to John Mitchel’, Freeman's Journal (Sydney), 16 May 1874, p. 8.


Duffy, My Life in Two Hemispheres, vol. 1, p. 250; Mitchel, Last Conquest, p. 17.


James Quinn, ‘John Mitchel and the Rejection of the Nineteenth Century’, Éire-Ireland: Journal of Irish Studies (Winter 2003), pp. 1–13. [ Accessed June 2008]. For some details of the Mitchel family in the Southern States see Kieran Quinlan, Strange Kin: Ireland and the American South, Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2005, passim.


James H. Murphy, Ireland: a social, cultural and literary history, 1791–1891, Dublin: Four Courts Press, 2003, p. 91; Malcolm Campbell, Ireland's New World: immigrants, politics and society in the United States and Australia, 1815–1922, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 2008, pp. 105–06.


This work was sponsored by the Historical Association of Ireland and launched at Trinity College Dublin on 15 January 2009.


Mitchel correspondence is held by the Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, the Belfast Central Library, and the Royal Irish Academy, Dublin. The State Library of New South Wales holds one letter, AM 141/2, John Mitchel to G. Baker, 10 July 1853, while the State Library of Tasmania and Tasmanian Archive and Heritage Office hold a small number of transcripts of Mitchel letters, Series NS1065, NS157; letters written by Mitchel to residents in Van Diemen's Land are printed in P. L. Brown, ed., Clyde Company Papers, vols. v-vii, London: Oxford University Press, 1963–71. For further sources see National Library of Ireland, Manuscript Sources for the History of Irish Civilisation, ed. Richard J. Hayes, Boston: G. K. Hall, 1965, pp. 386–87.