NAME UP IN LIGHTS The Castlebar Mitchels senior football team stand for a pre-match photograph at MacHale Park back in 2013. Pic: Sportsfile
OF all the things we thought we’d be talking about during a break from GAA activity, Castlebar Mitchels, slavery and white supremacy was simply unimaginable.
But the fact that the storied Castlebar club is named after the controversial Irish nationalist, John Mitchel, has catapulted Mitchels into the national headlines in recent days.
Mitchel lived in the 19th century (1815-1875) and was considered by many of the epoch to be a Republican hero. He was one of the first to suggest that Britain had taken an active role in causing the Great Famine and accused them of genocide.
But Mitchel was also a defender of slavery and a racist. He described black people as ‘an innately inferior’ people. Two of his sons died fighting for the pro-slavery Confederacy side in the American Civil War.
Castlebar Mitchels were founded in 1885, just ten years after Mitchel’s death.
For the vast, vast majority of people since, Mitchel’s views on slavery and the fact he was a white supremacist were simply not known. Not ignored, simply not known.
However, with Black Lives Matter protests taking place around the world in recent weeks, petitions were launched in Newry – where Mitchel was brought up – calling for a statue of him in the town to be removed and for John Mitchel Place in the town to be renamed.
And, so, suddenly many in Castlebar are, for the first time, becoming aware of the side to John Mitchel that is altogether less heroic. They’re also being asked to change the name of their club. In fact, some are demanding it.
Cool heads needed
THIS is where cool heads and an even-handed approach is needed.
The club should be given space here, and making demands of them is not the way to proceed.
What people need to realise is that as horrible a man as John Mitchel might have been, anyone calling for the club to be renamed is asking a huge thing of Castlebar Mitchels.
They are the oldest GAA club in Mayo. They were formed in 1885, just one year after the Gaelic Athletic Association was founded in Thurles, Co Tipperary.
The club’s website says it is ‘almost certain’ they took their name from John Mitchel. It is telling that they cannot be definite, that there may be some confusion.
We are talking about 135 years ago, after all.
It goes without saying, but we will say it anyway, that the mid-1880s was a very difficult and different time. Not alone was Ireland still under British rule but the impact of the Great Famine still loomed large and wide-scale agitation demanding land reform was a very recent phenomenon.
The Land League was formed in Mayo by Michael Davitt and James Daly just seven years earlier.
Two Mayo clubs, Moy Davitts in Foxford/Bohola and Davitts in Ballindine, were named after the famous Straide man.
Slavery had been abolished across the British Empire many years before, in 1833.
While you could argue Mitchel’s views of slavery were of the era, the fact he held them long after slavery had been abolished is impossible to defend.
To give some perspective, historian Donal Fallon noted on RTÉ Radio 1 on Sunday that US Confederate president Jefferson Davis regarded Mitchel as an extremist on race.
That said, it is hard to imagine those views sparking much discussion in Mayo in the 1880s. There was so much strife in front of people at the time that they were unlikely to be able to worry themselves about an issue that did not directly affect them, even if Irish tenant farmers were, in a very broad sense, victims of a similar outlook as victims of slavery – they were seen by many in the ruling classes as an inferior people.
Many clubs were formed in the coming years and named after various different Irish people.
Some GAA of the club names no longer survive, other clubs no longer exist. Some of the clubs registered in Mayo in 1889 included Bohola Tanners, Ardagh Mandevilles, Mayo Home Rulers, Croagh Patrick Sunbursts and Mulranny Brian Borus.
There’s three Sarsfields in Mayo, named after the 17th century Jacobite, Patrick Sarsfield, the first Earl of Lucan.
We bet you can’t name all three. That’s because all three are almost always referred to only by their geographic name, which proceeds Sarsfields in each case.
Charlestown, Ardnaree and Lacken are the clubs, for the record. We doubt too many in those clubs could tell you too much about Patrick Sarsfield.
IN Mayo the two notable exceptions where the geographical name often takes a back seat to the historic reference happen to be the two most successful clubs in the county, Ballina Stephenites and Castlebar Mitchels.
While many club names were dropped and others faded into the background, Mitchels remained front and centre, as did Stephenites, named after the fenian James Stephens.
In recent years Castlebar adorned most of their gear with Na Mistealaí. At games you don’t hear ‘come on Castlebar’, but ‘come on the Mitchels’.
It does not mean that people shouting that adore John Mitchel and endorse his views. They are – or were – blissfully ignorant of that until recent days.
Mitchels are one of the most multi-cultural clubs around. John Mitchel is a very insignificant figure for most people in the town. But Mitchels, conversely, means a lot to them.
From one historical identity, a very distinct and different modern identity has been forged.
Is it possible to separate the two?
That’s not simple, but this issue has to be explored from every perspective.
Castlebar Mitchels didn’t, in the 21st century, decide they would honour a slavery supporter, a white supremacist. That decision was taken 135 years ago, likely in ignorance of those views. That’s a very long time ago. In the meantime a huge identity has been formed around that name and so much has changed in the world.
It is important to step carefully around such issues because there is a lot of emotion involved.
It is easy to take the moral high ground here and virtue signal, on both sides of the argument.
But ultimately before anyone comes to a conclusion here, the club themselves should be given time and space to discuss this. It’s a huge huge demand or request of them.
They have done nothing wrong. That has to be front and centre in everything here.
So they need to be given time and the decision should be theirs.
Let them decide this one as they see fit themselves. It is not an easy decision and the reality is that with so much of their identity and glory tightly bound around the name Mitchels, it is hard for any of us outside the club to tell them what is right and wrong here.