Mitchel’s letter to Lord John Russell on the Treason Felony Bill, 1848
“MY Lord,—The Crown and Government of your Gracious Sovereign Lady are, it seems, in danger, and want ‘further security.’ Security against her own beloved, highly-favoured, too-indulgently used, but ungrateful subjects! What is more wonderful, the danger arises not in the administration of those wicked Tories—wretches obstructive of ‘human progress,’ enemies of the human race—but while you, even you, rule her Majesty’s Councils; you the very high-priest of Liberality and Concession; you, who were to have ruled by justice, not coercion—opinion, not bayonets; whose thoughts were for ever intent on commercial reform, or municipal reform, or sanitary reform. What could a conciliatory Premier do (or promise) that you have not done (or promised)?
Yet the very Crown and Constitution are in danger. May God be between us and harm!
And, what is strangest than all, it seems to be from the Irish that you fear this danger most; the people whom you have been nourishing, cherishing and spoon-feeding, by means of so many kind and well-paid British nurses, for two years—on whom you have lavished so many tons of printed paper, so many millions of cooked rations—these are the people who plot ‘treason,’ and eagerly flock to hear ‘open and advised speaking,’ eagerly devour ‘published, printed, and written’ language all urging them to arm for the overthrow of British rule in Ireland! It is a bad world!
But you, the ‘Government’ will not endure this! You will check it at all hazards—if it cannot be stopped as a misdemeanor, [sic] you will make it ‘felony.’
And indeed, my lord, this ‘vigorous’ policy will prove an effectual check upon us Irish ‘revolutionists’ provided the men with whom you have to deal are fools, braggarts, traitors, and cowards. If we have undertaken the trade of patriotism for profit—if we have played the game of patriotism for notoriety—if we have been merely aspirants to the cheap martyrdom of two years’ imprisonment, with fetes, and levees, and couchees—why, in that case, the thing is at an end—you have tamed us— sedition is crushed—and the Queen’s ‘Crown and Government’ are safe for this time.
Those issues will soon be tried, and I am glad of it. For twelve long months we have desired to see this day. Twelve months ago, on the Easter Monday of last year , Dublin saw one of the most ignominious Easter festivals—one of the ghastliest galas ever exhibited under the sun—the solemn inauguration, namely, of the Irish nation in its new career of national pauperism.
There, in the esplanade before the ‘Royal Barrack,’ was erected the national model soup-kitchen, gaily bedizened, laurelled, and bannered, and fair to see; and in and out, and all around, sauntered parties of our supercilious second-hand ‘better classes’ of the Castle-offices, fed on superior rations at the people’s expense, and bevies of fair dames, and military officers, braided with public braid, and padded with public padding; and there, too, were the pale and piteous ranks of model paupers, broken tradesmen, ruined farmers, destitute seamstresses, ranged at a respectful distance till the genteel persons had duly inspected the arrangements—and then marched by policemen to the place allotted them, where they were to feed on the meagre diet with chained spoons—to show the ‘gentry’ how pauper spirit can be broken, and pauper appetite can gulp down its bitter bread and its bitterer shame and wrath together—and all this time the genteel persons chatted and simpered as pleasantly as if the clothes they wore, and the carriages they drove in, were their own.
We three criminals, my lord, who are to appear in the Court of Queen’s Bench, were spectators of that soup-kitchen scene; and we all left it with one thought—that that day we had surely touched the lowest point—that Ireland and the Irish could sink no lower; and that she must not see such another Easter Monday, though we should die for it.
I came to the conclusion on that day, my lord, that the Queen’s ‘Crown and Government’ were in danger—nay, that they ought to be in danger— and I resolved that no effort of mine should be wanting to make the danger increase and become critical. As I looked on the hideous scene, I asked myself whether there were, indeed, ‘law’ or ‘government’ in the land.
And what was more shameful and fatal still, this devoted people were in the hands of ‘leaders’ who told them that all this ‘Law’—this London Parliament Law— was the law of God—that if they violated it by eating the food they made, or wearing the cloth they wove, they committed a crime and gave strength to the enemy—nay, those leaders never failed to thank God in public with sanctimonious voice and head uncovered, that their fellow-countrymen were dying in patience and perseverance amidst their own bounteous harvests.
Such degradation was unexampled in the world. To think that Ireland was my country became intolerable to me. I felt that I had no right to breathe the free air or to walk in the sun.
I was ashamed to look my own children in the face, until I should do something to overthrow this dynasty of the devil. And I resolved that ‘Law’ must be openly defied and trampled on; and that I—if no other, even I—would show my countrymen how to do it; for I knew that the monster was impotent against Truth and Right. In short, I determined to walk, before the eyes of this down-trodden people, straight into the open jaws of ‘Law,’ to draw his fangs, to tear out his lying tongue, and fling his carcass to be trampled on by those who had trembled at his nod. I may be devoured, it is true; We may be destroyed; we will not be defeated. What the people want to see in their leader is individual heroism; is the determination to do themselves what they incite others to do: and seeing that, I believe they will follow, though it were to the gibbet’s foot or the cannon’s muzzle.
As you have deliberately pitted this British ‘law’ against the Irish nation, there is one little matter I should like to arrange with you. I have already broached the subject to my Lord CLARENDON - but there is no use talking to him—he is too hopelessly committed to bad company, and involved in evil courses. I mean, of course, the packing of the jury.
Of course you will pack the jury against us, because all the world knows you dare not bring us to trial before an impartial Jury of our countrymen. It matters little whether you pack or do not pack. Whatever kind of trial you select—a fair one or a fraudulent—a trial for misdemeanour or a trial for felony—or whether you drop justice altogether, and try grape-shot, I tell you that you are met. The game is a-foot; the work is begun: Ireland has now the ‘British Empire’ by the throat; and if she relax her gripe till the monster is strangled, may she be a province, lashed and starved forever. Amen!”
- P. A. Sillard, Life of John Mitchel, James Duffy and Co. Ltd, 1908
- Along with John Mitchel, both William Smith O’Brien and Thomas Francis Meagher were also charged with sedition. They were later to escape conviction, as the Juries were not sufficiently Packed against them. Mitchel on the other hand, whose charges of sedition were dropped, to be replaced with the new offence of Treason Felony. Found guilty before a packed Jury, he was sentenced to fourteen years transportation. P. A. Sillard, Life of John Mitchel, James Duffy and Co. Ltd, 1908