There are occasions when doing research that you come across something that you’ve always accepted and then find out you’ve been wrong all the time and, more to the point, so has everyone else. While working on a chapter on 1848 and Chartism, I checked the reference for:
‘We desire no fraternisation between the Irish people and the Chartists--not on account of the bugbear of physical force, but simply because some of their five points are to us an abomination…’
I wanted to get the correct page reference in the Dublin Weekly Nation for this statement written by John Mitchel, the paper’s editor, and published on 14 August 1847. I’d always accepted this as the correct date based largely on Dorothy Thompson’s reference to it. In fact it was published a year earlier on 15 August 1846 in the ‘Answers to Correspondents’ section on page 8. In fact, the quotation is cited on three occasions in the Northern Star editorials as its banner: ‘‘The Nation’ and ‘The Charter’’, Northern Star, 19 September 1846, p. 4, ‘‘The Nation’ and ‘The Charter’’, Northern Star, 10 October 1846, p. 4, and ‘‘The Nation’ and ‘The Charter’’, Northern Star, 17 October 1846, p. 4. So how have so many historians—and there are exceptions such as –got this wrong?
It’s the classic case of an initial source giving a date that is then perpetuated in subsequent work. As far as I can see the first reference to Mitchel’s comment was in Charles Gavan Duffy, Four Years of Irish History 1845-1849: A Sequel to ‘Young Ireland’, (Cassell, Petter, Galpin & Co.), 1883, p. 450 and was, for instance cited as the reference by Christine Kinealy in her Repeal and Revolution: 1848 in Ireland, (Manchester University Press), 2009, p. 125.
Mitchel’s statement was written, according to Charles Gavan Duffy, because he was angered by ‘The Chartists who listened to the egotistical declamation of Mr Feargus O’Connor did not understand the party [Young Ireland]’. The full statement is as follows:
We have received a printed address from the Chartists of England to the Irish people, with a request that we should insert it in THE NATION. ‘We desire no fraternisation between the Irish people and the Chartists--not on account of the bugbear of physical force, but simply because some of their five points are to us an abomination, and the whole spirit and tone of their proceedings, though well enough for England, are so essentially English that their adoption in Ireland would neither be probable not at all desirable. Between us and them there is a gulf fixed; we desire not to bridge it over, but to make it wider and deeper.
As far as I can ascertain, this is a case of ‘false news’. Having checked the Northern Star for the months before August 1846, I have not come across any ‘printed address from the Chartists of England’ and can only assume that Mitchel concocted the whole thing. He is not saying anything that was not widely known: Mitchel was opposed to Chartism in Ireland and beyond as he did not see it as offering any relief to Ireland’s problems. He could have just as easily written this in 1847 as 1846. It was not until early 1848 that his view changed and he urged the Irish not to reject Chartism…cynical opportunism I suspect as much as a Damascene conversion.