John Mitchel was born near Dungiven, County Derry in 1815. He became a leading member of both ‘Young Ireland’ and the ‘Irish Confederation’. He was a solicitor, an Irish nationalist activist and a political journalist. He was an outspoken critic of British rule in Ireland, in particular the government’s reaction to the Irish famine.
In 1848 he was convicted of sedition and sentenced to fourteen years transportation to Bermuda. Following his conviction for sedition in Dublin on the 27th of May 1848, Mitchel was transferred under military escort to Spike Island on H.M.S Scourge, where he was incarcerated for three days. During his journey from Dublin he began to write his famous ‘Jail Journal; or Five Years in British Prisons’, his diary of his experiences from Dublin until his arrival in New York on the 29th of November 1853.
His journal was first published in book form in New York in 1854. The book was highly influential during the time as many readers were shocked to hear of the ‘dark age’ conditions that some prisoners were still being kept. There was a loud call for reform which started right here on Spike Island and would be exported to the world, called the ‘Spike Island system’.
He returned to Ireland for the first time on the 17th February 1875 to contest a Tipperary bye election to become a Member of Parliament in the British House of Commons. He won the election however he was not allowed take his seat as he was a convicted felon. The election was rerun on the 12th March and he won this by a greater majority.