Welcome to Day 10 of our Alphabetical Tour Around Tasmania.
Today, we’re visiting John Mitchel’s Jail Journal, which is indeed a book, rather than a place. The first edition of John Mitchel’s Jail Journal was published in the New York Citizen, the journal established by Mitchel on his arrival in America, between 14th January and 19th August 1854.
As you may recall, I wrote a brief bio of John Mitchel: Here.
Unfortunately, I have to admit that I’ve bitten off way more than I can chew, trying to sum up Jail Journal in a few quick paragraphs. Indeed, I’m choking on my folly.
Of course, writing about Jail Journal seemed a fabulous idea three months ago, when we were driving around Tasmania and I was scrawling out my list of all things Tasmanian from A to Z. Back then, I not only needed a “J”, I also thought I had a good grasp on the book. Well, at least the story.
However, it turns out that I’d only read the chapters pertaining to Mitchel’s escape, and hadn’t exactly read most of the book. Moreover, now that I have read most of the book (more in the manner of an express train than pausing at every station), all I’m seeing is a blur. Still, I’ll attempt to pull out some detail.
So, I apologize in advance for any mistakes or omissions and ask you to add these in the comments please. Today, I’m very much on my L Plates (that’s what we stick on the car in Australia when you’re learning to drive).
Jail Journal opens on May 27, 1848 in Newgate Prison after John Mitchel has been sentenced to 14 years transportation:
“On this day, about four o’clock in the afternoon, I, John Mitchel, was kidnapped, and carried off from Dublin, in chains, as a convicted felon. I had been in Newgate Prison for a fortnight. An apparent trial had been enacted before 12 of the castle jurors…Sentence had been pronounced, with much gravity, by that ancient Purple Brunswicker, Baron Le Froy- fourteen years’ transportation; and I had returned to my cell and taken leave of my wife and two poor boys.1. ”
Trial of John Mitchel 1848
Mitchel goes on to ask:
“…for what has this sacrifice been made? Why was it needful? What did I hope to gain by this struggle with the enemy’s `Government’ , if successful? What unsuccessful? What have I gained? Questions which it truly behoves me to ask on this evening my last day (it might be) of civil existence. ..I am on the first stage of my way, faring to what regions of unknown horror? And may never, never- never more , O, Ireland! – my mother and my Queen!- see vale, or hill, or murmuring stream of thine. And why? What is gained? 2.”
As it turns out, John Mitchel travelled to Van Dieman’s Land in a circuitous route via Bermuda and South Africa. Once he reaches Van Dieman’s Land (Tasmania), he finds out that he will serve out his sentence “as a gentleman”, rather than a run of the mill convict. The journal follows the ups and downs of being exiled from his homeland, his family and describes his encounters. It concludes on the 29th November, 1853 four and a half years later, after his escape culminates in his arrival in New York.
While the dust cover suggests Jail Journal is acknowledged as an important piece of Irish literature, it’s not well known in Australia, even in Tasmania.
Indeed, despite having an Honours Degree in Australian History and also studying Australian Literature at the University of Sydney 1988-1992, I’d never heard of John Mitchel or Jail Journal until we were researching Geoff’s family history. Geoff’s family pretty much populates the North and North-East of the State. However, we only needed to trace back his direct line, to find our connection with John Mitchel and quite a few references to his family throughout Jail Journal.
You see, Geoff’s Great Great Uncle, John Burke and wife Honora (formerly O’Meara) concealed Mitchel in their Westbury home for two weeks, during which time Mitchel acted as nurse for their son, William Morgan Burke:
“Mrs Burke is busied in preparations for our departure, and in providing what is needful for our journey. Amongst other things, the good creature gets some lead and judiciously casts bullets. Her husband comes with us, as well as his brother (Daniel Burke); and their father (William Burke) lends me a good horse”3 .
BTW, such was the closeness between Mitchel and the Burkes’, that Mitchel left Daniel Burke his infamous horse, Donald, after his escape. This Daniel Burke went on be the Warden of Westbury for many years and celebrated his 100th birthday.
While my kids have had their heads overloaded with family history and more stories than they could ever hope to remember, my husband grew up knowing very little about his family’s part in Mitchel’s escape. In recent years, we’ve met up with various cousins who’ve helped reunite us with Geoff’s family history, but it’s been something we’ve acquired and had to research ourselves, not passed down through the family.
Anyway, when John Mitchel arrived in Hobart Town on board The Neptune on the 5th April, 1850; his first impressions were far from positive:
“We are becalmed in the Channel; but can see the huge mass of Mt Wellington, ending to the Eastward in steep cliffs. In the valley at the foot of those cliffs, as they tell me, bosomed in soft green hills, bowered in shady gardens, with its feet kissed by the blue ripples of the Derwent- lies that metropolis of murderers and university of burglary and all subter-human abomination, Hobart-Town.4″
I’m not going to dwell on Mitchel’s time in Tasmania prior to his escape, except to mention that his family moved out from Ireland to join him and they bought a farm…Nant Cottage.
To all intensive purposes, aside from the occasional ripple, it appeared John Mitchel had accepted his fate and put down roots.
However, all that changed with the arrival of “Nicaragua” Smyth from New York, who’d been sent to help the Irish exiles escape. Being too difficult to for them to escape at once, it was agreed that Mitchel would go. However, first he would have to withdraw his word as a Gentleman that he wouldn’t escape. This would cancel his parole and, of course, alert authorities to his plans. So, he had to make a speedy and well-orchestrated getaway. Desperate Mitchel now resolved to trust to his disguise, and go to Hobart Town by the public coach, so, getting into Launceston by midday, he walked coolly down the street to the house of a friend, and having eaten, took passage as Father Blake by the night coach. He accomplished his journey safely, notwithstanding that he had a fellow-passenger, the Hon. T. M’Dowell, then Attorney-General, who tried to get him into conversation about his “bishop.” At Green Ponds, where every creature knew him by sight, he had a narrow escape. The chief-constable, on “special business,” looked in upon him; but Father Blake, with one hand on the farthest door-handle, and the other grasping the butt of a pistol hidden beneath his cassock, met the inquiring gaze unflinchingly. At Bridgewater Father Blake alighted, feeling that to brave the “door of the Ship Inn in Hobart Town, crowded with detectives,” would be madness. He spent the day walking by the river bank, and took passage by the night coach to Hobart Town. In the centre of the town he made the coachman pull up, and walked to Conellan’s house in Collins street where he was met by Nicaragua Smith. After many false starts and dashed hopes, on the 20th July, 1854 John Mitchel finally escapes on board The Emma bound for Sydney and eventually arrives in New York the 29th November, 1853 to a hero’s welcome.
Of course, being a diary, Jail Journal has been written in the first person and even though he refers to others’ views and comments, it is still 100% his perspective…his story. As I read Jail Journal, I found him quite likable. He’s evidently a literary man and wrote beautifully, even if some of his rantings complete with classical allusions and Latin quotes sound hilarious to the modern reader. Moreover, while Mitchel strongly defended Ireland’s freedom, he went on to support the South in the American Civil War and opposed the abolition of slavery. Moreover, while he could well be cast in the same light as Ned Kelly, Australia’s favourite rogue, terrorism is still terrorism. The use of force against innocent people is still a crime.
So, I’m left with mixed views.
On that note, I hope I’ve drawn this to something of a close. I feel like I’ve been wading through thick mud trying to get these details straight. Any corrections and comments will be more welcomed and encouraged.
 John Mitchel, Jail Journal, Sphere Books, 1983, p. 1.
 Ibid. pp 4-5.
 Ibid pp 301-302.
 Ibid, p. 201.