Newry Foresters Inspired By Presbyterian Patriot

BORNE at the head of the parade, involving Foresters from North and South, participating in the 2005 Annual INF Convention at the frontier town, was a banner bearing a portrait of the Presbyterian patriot, John Mitchel, patron of the Newry Branch.

But how many present-day residents of the Newry region are familiar with the fascinating life of this son of a Protestant minister, commemorated by a local street, Gaelic football club and INF branch, while his statue stands on a section of the main thoroughfare called John Mitchel Place.

Born into a Presbyterian family, John Mitchel graduated from Trinity College in Dublin; became a solicitor in Newry and then Banbridge. Going South, he joined the Young Ireland movement, advocating rebellion against British rule, while editor of the `United Irishman.`

Convicted of treason felony, Mitchel was sentenced to 14 years’ transportation to Van Dieman’s Land (now Tasmania). But he escaped to America, fighting in the Civil War during which two of his sons were killed. Eventually, the patriot had a triumphant home-coming as the newly-elected MP at Westminster, but died shortly afterwards, his funeral being the largest ever seen in the frontier town.

John Mitchel’s ancestors were Scottish Covenanters, who fled to Ireland after the massacre of Bothwell Bridge in 1679, and settled first on Tory Island. There were several brothers in the Mitchel family, one of whom became Rev John Mitchel. He married Mary Haslett of Derry, and they became parents of nine children, the fourth of which, John, was born at Dungiven in Co Derry.

One daughter, Margaret, married Hill Irvine of Newry, and they were parents of William Irvine, later Attorney-General of Australia and Prime Minister of Victoria. Henrietta wed another great patriot, John Martin of Loughorne, also transported to Van Dieman’s Land. Last-born was William, John`s only brother.

When John Mitchel escaped from the convict colony and sought refuge in America, his mother took William and two daughters to New York, in order to greet him on arrival. The mother is buried in the Old Meeting House Green at High Street in Newry, along with her husband and son, John.

Rev John Mitchel was educated at Glasgow University for the Presbyterian ministry, and in 1810 was given charge of a church in Dungiven. Nine years later he moved to Derry city, from which he came to Newry, ministering here until his death in the 1840’s.

There had been a split in the Presbyterian Church in 1829, when the Rev Mitchel took the side of the Unitarians, which led to some bitterness among his flock. But his honesty and sense of justice were such that he still held the respect and esteem of all, being untiring in his efforts for peace and charity. And he did trojan work during a cholera outbreak, alleviating the suffering of the afflicted.

As a boy, the Rev Mitchel had strongly supported the United Irishmen, and had remained steadfast to their ideals throughout his life. His opposition to bigotry and the persecution of his Catholic fellow countrymen earned him the title of `Papist Mitchel.`

When the family moved to Newry in 1823, they bought a small house at Dromalane called `Ivybrook.` John was then 8-years old, and was later sent to the educational establishment of Dr Henderson at Margaret Square. There he met John Martin, later his brother-in-law, who joined him in the fight for freedom. He is commemorated by John Martin Gardens in Newry, as well as Glenn John Martin GFC.

Also among the students was another future Young Irelander, John O’Hagan, as well as noted scholar and poet, Dr Kells Ingram, author of `The Memory of the Dead.`

While John Martin was mild, moderate and adaptable, his future brother-in-law, John Mitchel was contemptuous of those, who would “seek to destroy the good name of Ireland.” But they formed a close friendship, which would last a lifetime.

Even as a boy, John Martin had suffered from severe attacks of asthma, and John Mitchel would often walk to Loughorne, sitting up with him all night, arguing about Ireland, its problems and possible solutions. Mitchel later also became a victim of asthma, suffering from it for the rest of his life. In his `Jail Journal,` he recalled periods on board the convict ship, when he almost died.

In 1830, John Mitchel enrolled at Trinity College in Dublin, where he received a BA degree. Also on the roll was another student, who would go down in the annals of Irish history, Thomas Davis, after whom a Newry pipe band was named. The Mitchel family had hoped that John would follow his father ‘s footsteps into the church. But this was not to be, - instead he tried banking, then joined the law firm of John Quinn at Trevor Hill.

On his way from Dromalane to work one morning, John Mitchel spotted a girl, Jane Verner, entering Miss Bryden’s School for Young Ladies, located at Marcus Square, later the offices of solicitor Luke Curran. They fell in love, but the romance was not encouraged by their parents.

So the young lovers eloped to Gretna Green, hoping to be married there. But they were pursued, caught and brought back, eventually being married in Drumcree Parish Church at Portadown. Jane Verner was 16 years old, while John Mitchel was 21. Completing his apprenticeship, John went into partnership with a solicitor by the name of Frazier, and took charge of the Banbridge office.

Meanwhile, Thomas Davis had been called to the Bar in Dublin, but concentrated on reading history and publishing pamphlets. In 1840 he addressed the Trinity College Historical Society, telling his audience that they were “the hope of the nation. The history of a nation is the birthright of her sons. Who strips them of that, takes away not which enriches him, but makes them poor instead!” The lecture was published under the heading: “Gentlemen, you have a country!”

Daniel O’Connell had founded the National Association for Repeal of the Union, winning the support of all those who were forced to pay tithes and rack-rents. For the first time, a nationalist corporation was elected in the capital city, with O’Connell, becoming the first nationalist Lord Mayor of Dublin.

John Mitchel met Thomas Davis, moved down South, and joined the Repeal Association. He, along with Davis, Gavan Duffy, and John Blake Dillon, founded the Young Ireland movement. And they decided to publish a `truly nationalist newspaper,` the Nation, which would `support the campaign for Repeal, and promote patriotism.’ The newspaper soon had a circulation of 300,000, while among its writers were Mitchel, Davis, Charles Mangan and Samuel Ferguson.

However, Daniel O’Connell was cast into prison, causing a strong reaction, including huge street rallies, while John Mitchel brought him a petition from a Protestant district of Co Down. About this time, Thomas Davis died, and Mitchel was appointed editor of `the Nation.`

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© Fabian Boyle 2001-2008