Keneally explains John Mitchel

Book Review by Frank O’Shea

FANATIC HEART. By Tom Keneally. Vintage Books 2022. 453 pp. $32.99

First you need to decide whether this is history or fiction. Because the subject is the Irish rebel John Mitchel, it is of course history, but it is his story told as that of a human, a husband and father, lover and friend. The period covered is a relatively short one, the final years of the 1840s in Newry, Banbridge and Dublin in a story that ends just as America, to its surprise was about to enter a civil war.

Mitchel was the son of a non-doctrinal Presbyterian minister. In his work as a solicitor, he found himself often the favoured advocate for the small, emerging Catholic middleclass in the northern half of his country. His awareness of the sufferings of a people for whom the potato crop was failing came as much from his road trips passing the unburied dead as from some academic or other knowledge. But those scenes were the source of his long hatred of the policies of Downing Street and his sufferings for his activism.

Although not specifically set out in that way, the book is divided into three sections in three different countries: Ireland, Australia and America. Mitchel was hired by Gavan Duffy to edit The Nation newspaper but was sacked because he was regarded as so extreme that the authorities would close it down. He founded The United Irishman instead; it was a huge success, but lasted only a short time after he was charged with manufactured treason and found guilty. His sentence was 14 years transportation; the verdict was handed down on a Saturday and on the same day, lest the Irish would rise in rebellion, he was put on a boat from Dublin to Spike Island and from there immediately to Bermuda, because there was no ready transport to Van Diemen’s Land.

The book goes back some ten years to trace the story of his early romance with Jenny Verner, niece of the Grandmaster of the Orange Order. Her association with the young law clerk, recent Trinity College graduate, was not enthusiastically approved by her family. His friendship with the flamboyant Thomas Francis Meagher did not endear him with his in-laws either. At the time, Meagher was a sometime companion of a young woman named Jane Elgee – it was thought they might marry – who was annoying the establishment by her writings as Speranza. She would achieve later fame after she married the learned surgeon William Wilde; their second son Oscar would in time achieve his own fame. Keneally deals with all those romances.

Mitchel was some months in Bermuda, apparently well treated, before being taken to Van Diemen’s Land via the Cape of Good Hope; the colonists there were unhappy to receive convicts from Britain, a position also adopted at about that time by mainland Australia. So Van Diemen’s Land it was for the next five years. He was given a ticket-of-leave, requiring him to give his word as a gentleman that he would not escape without first returning the said document. He settled as a farmer in Bothwell, about halfway between Hobart and Launceston, where he was joined by his wife and family.

He seems to have enjoyed his time in Tasmania, travelling – illegally – to meet and scheme with some of his fellow-convicts like Meagher, William Smith O’Brien, Patrick O’Donoghue and John Martin. Indeed, so much of the story is set here that the book would benefit from a map of the island. The story of his time in this part of the world and the escape of many of those involved is told in a number of other books, most notably Patsy Adam-Smith’s Heart of Exile.

Once he got to New York, Mitchel found himself much admired and much in demand. He took what we would today regard as an unpardonable position on slavery. ‘All New York shouted, and bands shouted. What is America? Tell us what you think of slavery, quick.’ His and Jenny’s views on that subject are dealt with in a long chapter in which he discusses the subject with the abolitionist Beecher. His views would lead to his eventual move to the South and support of that side in the civil war, while his friend Meagher became a brigadier general in the Union army and later the acting governor of Montana.

As indicated, though this is a work of accurate history, the narrator is a storyteller first. He tells his story magnificently, if at times a little long-windedly.

Frank O’Shea is a member of the Tinteán editorial team.

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