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Letter to the Editor

I'm getting very tired of hearing how it's indefensible or wrong or "unbelievable" or "confusing" or "shameful" that Mitchel and many other Irishmen sided with the Confederacy. Mitchel did what he thought was right, and indeed he did disagree

and quarrel with many of the Young Irelanders and other nationalists, such as O'Connell, but to make it seem as if he was doing so for love of annoying people is rather a low blow and indeed a lazy one. Mitchel quarrelled and disagreed due to his love of Ireland and the suffering and starvation he saw, the injustices and the wrongs, the evictions, the executions, transportations, emigrations and degradation of his countrymen (my ancestors included).

He didn't believe everyone was working on a direct path to justice for Ireland, and it angered Mitchel to no end. He was a good, kind man, who gave his life for his country. And this is how we repay him? By bandying words and disgracing his memory as if he was a nutter and a lunatic? Pushing him to one side and rebuking him as if he were insane? Arthur Griffith once wisely said, "the day the Irish nation needs an apology for John Mitchel, the Irish nation will need its shroud".

John Mitchel's Grave in Newry. Photograph: Columba O'Hare/
John Mitchel's Grave in Newry. Photograph: Columba O'Hare/

The Civil War was indeed an ugly thing. I say this as a descendant of an Irish Union soldier and as a descendant of a number of Irish Confederate soldiers who left Ireland to escape the famine. My ancestor in the Union army gave his life in August 1864 for the great United States of America with the Stars and Stripes fluttering above him fighting to save the Union, and his sisters and younger brothers back in Massachusetts (and one of his younger brothers, my great- great-grandfather) back in Ireland. Another of my ancestors in the Confederate army gave his life for the noble cause of the South, his brothers also served in the Army but they survived. He died with the Southern cross above him, proudly defying what they saw as a tyranny, his brother also back in Ireland (my great-great-great-grandfather). Both causes were honourable and I'll stand up for both wherever they're slighted.

Most Irish in America at the time supported slavery, and it was completely justified, I'm not afraid to say it anymore because I'm sick and tired of beating around it and trying to apologise for it when people bring it up, as if they were in the wrong somehow.
As Irishmen were starving at home, the British were able to fork up the money to free slaves in the West Indies, and prior to that they were able to feed them and clothe them. In contrast the Irish had no clothes, no food and were forcefully evicted from their homes by corrupt landlords and redcoat soldiers. They fled to America, my ancestors included, and found a land where they could be free.
When they met with the abolitionists however (those who wished to abolish slavery and who are today painted in such a heroic and noble light. A light which I believe they do not deserve) they found them rather distasteful. They were vehemently anti-Irish, anti-immigrant, nativist and anti-Catholic, thinking it completely acceptable that us Irish were treated so badly in New York and New Orleans yet thought it was wrong that blacks were working on plantations, being fed and clothed and housed?

How would you have felt if you came from being evicted from your home by soldiers, your family starved half to death due to the forceful removal of food at gunpoint, you arrive in New York and are greeted by a group of people who don't want you there, who want rid of you, who think you're worthless and lazy and are quite happy keeping you as a second class citizen and seeing you slowly starve to death as a wage-slave in the slums of New York or on a small farm in upstate New York, where they'd burn your crops and your churches. Yet, they believe that the "poor, badly treated" blacks on plantations should be freed. Blacks whom have food, clothes, a roof, and work? More than us Irish ever had in Ireland during the famine.

It was hypocrisy at the highest level, and those abolitionist Irish back in Ireland hadn't been to America and didn't understand in the slightest the conditions.

New Orleans was one of the very few cities in the south with the Nativist Know-Nothings in control, and as such us Irish were treated as the lowest of the low. Blacks weren't allowed to do dangerous jobs because they were "too valuable". But the Irish who were arriving in droves escaping the famine were perfect. Because of course, we

weren't valuable. We were used for fixing boilers of river barges and other volatile things. If one exploded, then they could just hire another Irishman. Much less than $1 a day, perfectly dispensable, yet the blacks were far too valuable because they cost hundreds and hundreds of dollars and had to be looked after. We Irish were also gotten to dig canals, another dangerous job. In Louisiana when slaves were being worked hard by their masters they complained that they were being "worked like Irishmen".

Yet when Louisiana seceded in 1861, they called upon the Irish to fight, for there was never a braver fighter than an Irishman, and they formed the Louisiana Tigers regiments, nicknamed "The Louisiana Irish Brigade". The same happened in New York and throughout the northern States. As soon as war broke out, the Irish volunteered to fight for their adopted home despite the Know-Nothings and their abolitionist rhetoric. The famous Irish Brigade led by Thomas Francis Meagher and Michael Corcoran fought bravely throughout the war for the Union. And the 33rd Illinois, known as the "Illinois Irish Brigade".

It is far, far too easy to slight Mitchel and rebuke him for his views, and it's also too easy to beat around the bush and try and say he was deranged. Nothing is more insulting, nor is anything more unjust. If we want to talk about people from the 19th century we can't impose 21st century views on theirs. Mitchel was a man of sound mind, he understood what he was doing. So did Meagher, another honourable Irishman and one of Mitchel's friends. I also believe that to slight Mitchel in such a way shows a certain laziness to a person, because it shows they really aren't interested in Mitchel at all and if that's the best they can come up with then they either don't know very much about Mitchel, or they want to make controversy and call someone a racist the moment someone steps up to defend him, thus winning the argument in the eyes of this modernist world, where even the slightest implication of the accusation of "racist" will nullify you from any conversation of defence of your point.

In the 21st century, "slavery" has a different connotation, and rightly so, I'm glad that slavery was abolished. But not how the Know- Nothings would have gone about it.

So here I am defending Mitchel, alas, he shouldn't even need a defence, if one would only look at and be bothered to understand the era he lived in they would understand. I'm also here defending those other maltreated Irishmen and women who fled to America and were greeted with the greatest hypocrisy known to America, the Know- Nothing party, and who are now accused of "racism" and belittled by people in this modern world. I'll end on a quote from Mitchel himself

“It is altogether a new thing in the history of mankind, this triumphant glorification of a current former age, before Christ or after, ever took pride in itself and sneered at the wisdom of its ancestors; and the new phenomenon indicates, I believe, not higher wisdom but deeper stupidity.”
- John Mitchel

R. J. Kincaid, 2020

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  • This commment is unpublished.
    JOHN MITCHEL · 28 days ago


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