Jenny Mitchel— a remarkable life

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 Jenny Verner—aged fifteen, she eloped with the 21-year-old Mitchel in November 1836.

Jenny Verner—aged fifteen, she eloped with the 21-year-old Mitchel in November 1836.

In November 1836, fifteen-year-old Jenny Verner, whose family had been involved in setting up the Orange Order, eloped to Chester with the 21-year-old son of a Presbyterian minister, John Mitchel. They were caught by Jenny’s father, Captain James Verner, but on 3 February 1837 John and Jenny were married in Drumcree Church of Ireland church. By 1848, as John Mitchel and his Young Ireland colleagues prepared for rebellion, Jenny was a charming, beautiful political hostess hosting ‘nights and suppers of the gods, when the reckless gaiety of the Irish temperament held fullest sway’. In 1851 Jenny, with her four children, followed John into exile to Van Diemen’s land, where she enjoyed the tactile chores of a farmer’s wife. When John escaped to Tahiti, Jenny, now with five children, followed him. When in 1853 in New York John Mitchel was hailed as a great Irish republican hero, Jenny’s home was again the centre of excited political debate.

With both Jenny and John supporting slavery, however, they moved south by ship, train and covered wagon to the wilderness of Tennessee. Here they lived in a log cabin and hated it. In 1860, after moves to Knoxville and Washington, they travelled to Paris, where John tried to interest the French in an invasion of Ireland. When the American Civil War broke out the family was split up. The two eldest boys were already Confederate officers; two daughters, Henrietta and Isabel, remained in Paris in a Catholic convent; Jenny and Minnie moved back to Newry; and John, with his youngest son, the seventeen-year-old Willie, ran the blockade into the Confederacy. Willie joined the First Virginian as a private. In 1863 Henrietta died and Jenny went to Paris to bring Isabel to Newry. After Willie was killed at Gettysburg, Jenny and her two daughters crossed the Atlantic and, under fire, ran the Union blockade, survived a shipwreck and arrived in the Confederacy. In July 1864 the Mitchels’ eldest son, John C., was killed in command of Fort Sumter. With Richmond under siege and shrapnel falling on her roof, Jenny Mitchel feared the arrival of black soldiers. In the event, the belles praised the behaviour of all General Weitzel’s federal troops.

After the war, with John’s health failing, the Mitchels lived a nomadic life of genteel poverty in New York. When, however, John Mitchel died in Ireland without Jenny, the Irish community provided her with $30,000 and a financially secure old age. Jenny Mitchel died in New York at 10.30pm on the last day of the nineteenth century.

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