Academic journal article Eire-Ireland: a Journal of Irish Studies

John Mitchel and the Rejection of the Nineteenth Century

Academic journal article Eire-Ireland: a Journal of Irish Studies

John Mitchel and the Rejection of the Nineteenth Century

Article excerpt

IN response to a friend who accused him of not believing in the future of humanity, the Young Irelander John Mitchel retorted that, on the contrary, he did believe that humanity had a future but that "its future will be very much like its past: that is, pretty mean." (1) Such gloominess typified Mitchel's outlook: He was unimpressed by the rapid industrial progress of the nineteenth century, its advances in science and technology, and its long periods of peace. He dismissed the widely held belief that his century represented the pinnacle of human achievement, and found absurd "this triumphant glorification of a current century upon being the century it is. No former age, before Christ or after, ever took any pride in itself and sneered at the wisdom of its ancestors; and the new phenomenon indicates, I believe, not higher wisdom but deeper stupidity." (2)

Mitchel was one of the key personalities in the Young Ireland movement, becoming the main contributor to the Nation newspaper in 1845 after the death of its founder Thomas Davis. His writing was characterized by a fierce hatred of Britain, and in May 1848 he was sentenced to fourteen years' transportation for attempting to incite armed rebellion. After five years he escaped to America, from where he continued his savage denunciations of British policy in Ireland and around the world. (3)

When Mitchel was not attacking Britain, he was usually attacking the complacency and humbug of the nineteenth century. He dissented strongly from the Victorian cult of progress, for which he admitted having "a diseased and monomaniacal hatred." (4) He believed that notions of moral or social progress were illusory, and he was particularly contemptuous of the smug and self-congratulatory spirit of the day. While many of his contemporaries reveled in their century's achievements, particularly its technological advances, Mitchel poured scorn on the possibility that modern inventions such as railroads, steamships, and the electric telegraph could improve the general quality of life. Instead, he took great pleasure in detailing the devastation caused by accidents involving steamships and locomotives, and maintained that "slaughter by steam, on sea and land, on lake and river, is becoming so familiar to the public mind that it is fast blunting human sensibility. (5) Addressing the University of Virginia in 1854, he observed:

   If a man tell a lie at one end of a wire, it will not come out
   truth at the other end. The railroad carries men very quickly upon
   their business, such as it is, be their errands good or evil, be
   their intents wicked or charitable.... The true life of nations,
   the only well-being of human society, consists not in commerce,
   not in gas, steam, or electricity, but in simple justice. Where
   justice is denied or dead ..., the printing press will vomit forth
   only rubbish ..., the telegraphic wires will whisper more falsehood
   than truth and make electricity itself an instrument of wrong. (6)

Significantly, Mitchel's first brush with notoriety occurred in response to an article in the Tory Morning Herald, which mentioned the usefulness of the railways to carry troops quickly to potential trouble spots in Ireland. Mitchel responded with an article in the Nation which described how easily troop trains could be ambushed, and suggested that iron rails and wooden sleepers would provide excellent material for the manufacture of pikes. (7)

Just as the nineteenth century deluded itself with dreams of technological advance, so too it did much the same with illusions of social progress. Mitchel regarded the philanthropic schemes of the day as characterized by sentimentality, short-sightedness, and hypocrisy. Such woolly thinking led to social reforms that were misguided and often damaging to society at large. Mitchel argued that "instead of severe, sanguinary, sharp, and decisive punishments, which would repress crime, modern philanthropy so pampers and tenderly entreats the criminal as to put a premium on villainy. …

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