Vintage, $32.99 pb, 453 pp
Nobody excoriated England like John Mitchel. He holds his place in the pantheon of Irish nationalism not for his revolutionary heroism but for the power of his rhetoric and his thundering denunciation of British misrule in Ireland, especially in the wake of the catastrophic Famine of 1845–47. Mitchel was the most militant of the separatist Young Irelanders, many of whom ended up in Van Diemen’s Land, transported after the abortive Irish rebellion of 1848.
These Young Irelanders are no strangers to the pen of Tom Keneally. The Great Shame: A study of the Irish in the Old World and the New (1998), his non-fiction amalgam of familial and political history, is the most conspicuous of his earlier engagements. In his latest novel, Fanatic Heart, Keneally returns to the subject, telling the remarkable story of Mitchel and his wife, Jenny Verner, both Ulster Protestants (he Dissenter, she Anglican), from attempted elopement to separatist movement in Ireland; from Bermudan prison ship to familial reunion in Bothwell; from a daring escape from Van Diemen’s Land, aided by Irish Americans, to New York and, finally, Tennessee.
It is not hard to see why such an eventful life would draw Keneally’s attention, nor why Mitchel’s championing of the downtrodden Irish would appeal to someone with Keneally’s progressive sympathies, especially when Mitchel draws parallels between famine victims across borders, famously comparing in his Jail Journal (1854) the ‘reeky shanks and yellow chapless skulls of Skibereen’ with the ‘ghosts of starved Hindoos in dusky millions’. Mitchel’s capacity for savage indignation has been compared to Jonathan Swift’s. His indictment of British imperialist cant, the refusal of hypocritical talk of progress and civilisation, and his horror at the ‘sublunary soap bubbles’ of international capital and commodification can seem remarkably contemporary, not out of place in a present-day arts faculty.