Saturday 23 February 2019

Irish nationalist who saw the Tricolour in the Confederate flag

The Confederate flag flies in South Carolina
The Confederate flag flies in South Carolina

Anthony Russell

This week, a little bit of history was made when the South Carolina legislature passed a bill to remove the Confederate battle flag from the state capitol grounds.

It took an emotional 13-hour debate to get backing for the removal of the controversial banner.

The flag, which dates back to the 1861-1865 American Civil War, is a symbol of slavery and racism for many and southern heritage for others. But the reason for all the hue and cry lies in its symbolism.

Emblems can mean different things to different people. And surely the thing about history is that it never goes away, whether a flag is run up the flag pole or not.

The controversy gives plenty of room for thought. As fiery passions are stirred about Charleston and the perceived significance of the Confederate battle flag, and with 1916 fast approaching in my book, Between two Flags: John Mitchel and Jenny Verner, connections between the Confederate flag and the Irish Tricolour are explored.

It was Mitchel who declared that the Tricolour should be the national banner of Ireland, flying "over a forest of Irish pikes". It was also Mitchel who more than any other writer or politician shaped the nationalist perception of the Great Famine. He was exiled in 1848 because the power of his ferocious republican pen embarrassed the British government and condemned its laissez faire approach to famine relief. Padraig Pearse was to declare Mitchel's Jail Journal to be "the last of the four gospels of the New Testament of Irish nationality, the last and the fiercest and the most sublime".

Yet, less than 20 years after the 1848 rebellion, we find John and Jenny Mitchel in the Confederacy fully supporting its cause, because they viewed slave-owning plantationsplantations as the antithesis of soul-destroying, steam-driven northern factories. For Mitchel, the slave was better treated than the northern proletariat.

John and Jenny Mitchel lost two sons fighting for the Confederacy. Their youngest, Willie, fell at Gettysburg, carrying the colours of the 1st Virginia and their eldest, Captain John C. Mitchel was killed as the commander of Fort Sumter. For John Mitchel, the American Civil war was a proxy war. For him, the agricultural south represented Ireland. The Union was the child of Britain's industrial revolution.

In telling the almost incredible love story of John Mitchel and Jenny Verner, who experienced, in reality, in Richmond what Scarlett O'Hara suffered in fiction, Between Two Flags deals with the paradox of the champion of the starving Irish peasant supporting and stoically suffering for the preservation of slavery; the paradox of the man who wanted the Tricolour as the flag of Irish freedom losing two sons under the 'Stars and Bars' of the Confederacy.

Oddly, the Mitchels refused to have slaves in their house.

Today, the eldest son of John Mitchel, who died bravely defending Fort Sumter, who declared "I die willingly for South Carolina, Oh that I died for Ireland", lies in Magnolia Cemetery, Charleston, surrounded by a model of the battlements of Fort Sumter.

His remains, and the support of John Mitchel for the cause of the Confederate battle flag, are again caught in the controversy surrounding Civil War monuments and war graves in Charleston.

Between two Flags: John Mitchel and Jenny Verner, written by Anthony Russell, Chairman of the Newry and Mourne Great Famine Commemoration Committee, is published by Merrion Press.

Irish Independent

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