Out of Ireland

6 months ago 77

“Remember John Mitchel far away, though a convict bound in chains.” This is the final line of a popular ballad praising a leading light of the Young Ireland movement of the 1840s. Mitchel, a Presbyterian, solicitor, newspaper editor and advocate of armed insurrection, was arrested in Dublin in 1848 on a charge of treason felony and sentenced to fourteen years’ penal servitude. It was a time of revolutions, and in Ireland an uprising duly occurred, though without the participation of Mitchel himself, who was already ensconced on the Dromedary, a prison ship somewhere in the Bermudas. (Actually, the phrase “bound in chains” is a bit of an exaggeration: the chains were removed once Mitchel had boarded the ship and his treatment thereafter was relatively lavish and preferential.)

The uprising of 1848 was only a small affair in County Tipperary, known derisively as “the Battle of the Cabbage Patch”, with the fifty or so insurgents easily dispersed by a local police force. It was ill timed and partly scuppered by members of the Catholic clergy, who forbade their flocks from taking part. Its leaders were contemporaries and associates of Mitchel, some of whom, including Thomas Francis Meaghar, were destined to meet up with him in Tasmania, or, as it was then known, Van Diemen’s Land. In fact they arrived there before he did, since his journey to the penal colony suffered many detours and delays.

Mitchel is the subject of Thomas Keneally’s long and enlightening new novel. Fanatic Heart (the title is taken from the W. B. Yeats poem “Remorse for Intemperate Speech”, 1931) falls roughly into three parts, featuring, respectively, Mitchel’s Irish blight and intransigence, his Tasmanian confinement and his American public life. The book opens with a scene that will be familiar to readers of Mitchel’s Jail Journal (1854). It is the terrible summer of 1847, and Irish country roads are strewn with the corpses of the famine dead. Derelict cottages house the skeletal remains of whole families; no smoke rises from the chimneys of deserted clachans; and lamentation fills the air. Believing the famine to stem from a policy of deliberate genocide on the part of the British, Mitchel sees it as his mission to foster rebellion.

Born near Derry in 1815, Mitchel was the son of a liberal Presbyterian minister. He grew up in Newry, studied at Trinity College Dublin, practised law in Banbridge, edited the Young Ireland paper the Nation and founded the United Irishman as an outlet for his increasingly revolutionary views. A bungled elopement with a redoubtable young woman named Jenny Verner, followed by the runaway couple’s later marriage, added first spice then stability to his private life; both Mitchel and Verner possessed “an appetite for large events”, and their Dublin home drew in all the notables of the day, including the flamboyant Jane Elgee (the poet Speranza, later the mother of Oscar Wilde), who terrified the Mitchel children with her tales of fairies and witches.

All of this comes to an end in Fanatic Heart with Mitchel’s transportation. But the years in Van Diemen’s Land prove remarkably agreeable, especially when the intrepid Verner makes the arduous journey across the sea with their five children (soon to be six) to share her husband’s exile. Mitchel, as a “ticket-of-leave” prisoner, is subject to few restrictions and free to engage in an active social, farming and intellectual life, with many friends from his militant days around him. His home, Nant Cottage in Bothwell, is a place of charm, with unsurpassable views across the brilliant Tasmanian countryside. Keneally’s descriptive gift comes into exquisite play with the colony’s particulars – the wild iris and mimosa, stringybark trees, kangaroos, vast lakes and mountaintops – his prose tempered, characteristically, by an ironic undertone that keeps the narrative buoyant.

With Mitchel’s protracted, dangerous and endlessly frustrated escape plan, Fanatic Heart takes on something of the character of a nineteenth-century adventure novel. Tight spots and wild dashes abound. Mitchel’s restless desire to be once again in the thick of political and journalistic activity leads him to set his sights on America. He makes it in the end, disguised as a Catholic priest; after him come his uncomplaining family, uprooted once again and not making a great to-do about it.

America, and in particular Irish America, greets Mitchel with astonishing displays of support and acclamation. But then comes the strange aberration in his world-view that has destroyed his standing as an apostle for liberation: the fighter for Irish freedom comes out in support of Black enslavement. Keneally struggles a bit here not to jettison sympathy for his protagonist, whose views he tries to cast as complex rather than simply abhorrent (these views, as the dedication of Fanatic Heart to bygone African Americans and others makes clear, are utterly at odds with Keneally’s own). He doesn’t, perhaps wisely, cover the final twenty years of Mitchel’s life, with its continuing upheavals, dramas, sorrows and controversies, but brings his story to a close with the family’s arrival at an idyllic hill farm near Knoxville in Tennessee.

With this, his fortieth novel, and now aged eighty-eight, Thomas Keneally shows himself to be as adept as ever at converting research into illumination and evocation.

Patricia Craig’s books include A Twisted Root: Ancestral entanglements in Ireland, 2012

Browse the books from this week’s edition of the TLS here

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