A Strange Case of Hero-Worship: John Mitchel and Thomas Carlyle
The Scottish essayist Thomas Carlyle might be considered a surprising influence on the Young Ireland movement of the 1840s and its most militant leader, John Mitchel. Carlyle has become notorious for his anti-Irish sentiments, expressed most forcefully in his Reminiscences of my Irish journey in 1849. Yet his critique of the Benthamite and liberal Zeitgeist was a significant influence on Mitchel. This article examines what it was in Carlyle’s thought that appealed to Mitchel. Carlyle’s antagonism to liberal conceptions of progress informed Mitchel’s intellectual development and prompted specific political perspectives that can in some measure be viewed as a Carlylean response to Ireland’s crisis in the 1840s. Mitchel made many of the same historic and philosophical assumptions as Carlyle, legitimising the present struggle for Irish nationality via a critique of contemporary laissez-faire doctrine. Thus, Swift’s saeva indignatio was inflected in Mitchel by his encounter with Carlyle’s work, shaping Mitchel’s anger in terms of the spiritual-material polarity at the heart of Carlyle’s Signs of the Times (1829). This ‘sacred wrath’ helps explain why Mitchel is often seen as someone who hated England more than he loved Ireland.
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