John Mitchel: a Foyle old boy?

John Mitchel - a Foyle College old boy?
John Mitchel - a Foyle College old boy?

In this article, KEN THATCHER - a member of the team of archivists compiling the official history of Foyle College - considers the view that one of the most underestimated figures in nineteenth-century Irish history, John Mitchel, could have been a past pupil of the Derry school.

He was a Young Irelander, politically active in the Ireland of the 1840s and 50s and a convicted felon who was transported to Van Diemen’s Land (as Tasmania was then called) by way of Bermuda.

At that time, the prison colony in Bermuda had a much harsher regime than that which obtained in Australia. So, I suppose, in one sense, he got a lucky break.

He had an even luckier break when he escaped from Van Diemen’s Land and made his way to New York. In his book, Jail Journal (1853), he describes how he escaped from prison and made his way to America.

During the American Civil War, he sided with the Confederate South, fell out of favour with the eventual winners and, once again finding himself on the wrong side of the law, was briefly imprisoned.

Unable to return to Ireland, he settled briefly in Paris where he wrote his ‘History of Ireland’. Returning to Ireland in 1874, he was elected MP for County Tipperary, was swiftly unseated as a convicted felon but quickly re-elected. He had little time to enjoy his success as he died shortly afterwards on March 20, 1875.

For many years I have been fascinated by local history and especially that of our city and from time to time the name John Mitchel crops up in connection with Foyle College but no one seems to be able to locate him precisely within the school’s or the city’s history.

Whilst doing some work on the forthcoming history of Foyle College - to be published early next year - I came across this interesting fact: there was a John Mitchell at the college in the 1820s and, although he spells his name Mitchell, historically he is within our time frame. Spurred on by this discovery, I decided to do some further research.

First, let me situate Mitchel more clearly in time and in place.

We know for certain that he was born at Camnish, close to Dungiven, in November 1815 and that his father was the Presbyterian minister for the area at that time.

Interestingly, but, perhaps, not surprisingly, Mitchel’s grandparents were of Scottish origin and had had to leave Scotland in the late 1700s. They fled to Tory Island where they remained for some time before moving to Dunfanaghy.

From Dunfanaghy, Mitchel’s father went to Glasgow where he trained for the ministry, eventually receiving a ‘call’ to come back to Ulster and, in time, became minister in Dungiven. In 1819, his father was ‘called’ to serve in First Derry Presbyterian Church where he remained until 1823 when, after some disagreement with the collegiate framework within which First Derry was operating, he went to Newry to continue his ministry and there he served until his death in 1843. But what of his son, John?

Very little is known of his early life except that he was apparently a very precocious pupil who at the age of five was well able to read the classics in Latin much to the dismay of his teacher at the time, a man called Moore, nicknamed Gospel Moore by his students, of whom I can find no trace locally.

We know with some confidence that, at that time, there existed no school locally where the classics were taught except Foyle but just possibly he may have been privately tutored by a local clergyman.

Examination of the ages at which pupils went to Foyle at that time reveals that it was not uncommon for children to begin at the age of eight or nine.

I have also tried unsuccessfully to discover if he was educated at the Bluecoat school run by First Derry Presbyterian Church, which, given that his father was the minister, would have a certain logic.

We also know that students entered Trinity College Dublin at a variety of ages at that time and it is known that Mitchel went there in 1829 at the age of just fourteen and graduated four years later.

The John Mitchell to whom I alluded earlier signed in his own hand the register of Foyle College in 1823 and in another hand on the register it is noted that this Mitchell left the school and returned again in 1826 and left again in 1829 just as Mitchel was going up to Trinity.

Naturally, this may be mere coincidence but we also know that Mitchel’s uncle was a prominent business man in Derry, Mayor of Derry in the early 1840s and a director of the bank in Derry where Mitchel worked for some time before deciding to train as a solicitor and, eventually, setting up a legal practice in Banbridge.

It is, therefore possible that he returned to school in Derry from Newry.

So, what might we conclude? John Mitchel was certainly in Derry for at least some of the key times of his education and most definitely a John Mitchell signed the register of Foyle College in 1823.

To the untrained eye, there is certainly a similarity between the signature on the register and the signature which can be seen under the portrait of Mitchel which appears in his biographies. There is also just a hint of irony in the fact that George Fletcher Moore, the Foyle pupil credited with rebranding the school as Foyle College as he gazed upon the Foyle from the new site at Lawrence Hill in 1814 was, at the time when Mitchel was a felon in Tasmania, making a career for himself on the other side of the continent in Western Australia.

While there, he made a great deal of money in property, explored the upper reaches of the Swan River, composed a dictionary of the aboriginal language of Australia and eventually rose to become acting Colonial Secretary.

Well, was he or wasn’t he a Foyle Old Boy? Did the man who described Daniel O’Connell the Emancipist as a ‘Wonderful, mighty, jovial and mean old man. With silver tongue and smile of witchery and heart of melting truth. Lying tongue, smile of treachery, heart of unfathomable fraud! What a royal yet vulgar soul!’ once look on the Foyle with the same lyrical pleasure as Moore?

The spelling of the name is a problem but the single ‘l’ spelling is practically unknown, as the telephone directories show. It is easy to imagine some stern bewhiskered usher telling the very young pupil: ‘We’ll have none of this showing-off! You’ll spell you name like every other Mitchell!’

Perhaps Foyle can claim him. It’s better than an each-way bet!