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Jail Journal by John Mitchel is the best book written by an Irish man or woman in the Nineteenth Century.

November 3, 2015

John Mitchel is 200 years old today.



If Roland Barthes was right when he declared that “literature is what gets taught”, the Jail Journal, for all its extraordinary qualities – is not literature.  This book is almost impossible to teach – which is why I’m going to try it.

John Mitchel was horrifically wrong about a great many things.  He was keen on slavery.  He believed hanging criminals rather than trying to rehabilitate them.  Reading Mitchel’s work has not (I’m anxious to say) seduced me on these points in the slightest.  Mitchel became become a fire-eating celebrant of the slave owning Confederacy, in large part because he hated the century into which he had been born.  He hated Britain, not merely (“merely”?) because of its tyrannical and murderous misrule of Ireland during the Great Hunger of the 1840s, but because Britain’s cruelty represented the epitome of the nineteenth-century in action.  In exile in the USA in the…

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