5 May 2005 Edition
The anarchist from Broughshane
Misfit - an Autobiography
By Captain Jack White
The name of Captain Jack White flits through histories of the pre-1916 period. He was one of the founders of the Irish Citizen Army and was the first to drill and train its men. He later worked with the Irish Volunteers. And that brief appearance on the stage of Irish politics is about as much as most students of Irish history know about him.
White came from staunchly unionist Broughshane, County Antrim, and his father was a general in the British Army who was famous for his defence of Ladysmith during the Boer War. Jack followed his father's footsteps and served as a British Army officer in South Africa, India and Gibraltar, where his father was the British Governor. Starting from the privileged confines of the official residence on the Rock, White followed a remarkable path, which led him to revolution in Ireland.
It was in Gibraltar that White had a kind of premonition in which he saw himself at the centre of revolutionary events. He set to wandering and ended up in a kind of early hippie commune in the south of England.
Vegetarianism, communism and free love were practiced and it was in this unlikely setting that White was first 'turned on' to Irish politics. He says he saw the relationship between male and female, thought and being, introvert and extrovert, as analogous to the relationship between Protestant and Catholic in Ireland. (White's wife was a Catholic and he was a Protestant. His treatment of her did him no credit, as he admits.) In any case, he sought his destiny in his native land and returned to Ireland in 1913, plunging into the middle of the Home Rule crisis and the Lockout.
He publicly challenged the Carsonite opponents of Home Rule as contradicting the true spirit of Protestantism. With Roger Casement he organised the famous public meeting for Protestant Home Rulers in Ballymoney, County Antrim in October 1913. Witnessing the brutality of the police against the locked out Dublin workers he urged the formation of a workers' defence force. It must have been his obvious conviction as well as his useful military training and ability that gained him acceptance in the ranks of militant labour with James Connolly and Jim Larkin.
It would seem that White was as difficult a character to work with as Larkin himself and he soon fell out with the Citizen Army. He then offered his services to the Irish Volunteers, commanding and training battalions in Derry and Tyrone in 1914. This work also had a fractious conclusion but not before White took an extraordinary and baffling initiative. He hatched a scheme which he proposed to the British Government, whereby it would, with Volunteer officers, jointly train Volunteers who could then opt for defensive operations at home or for foreign service — ie in the Great War which had then begun.
White seems to have viewed this as a 'cunning plan', with the Irish deceiving the British into training their army for them. In the event, John Redmond induced most of the Volunteers to join the British Army, while the principled minority went on to prepare for the Rising. White's plan was utterly unacceptable to both the anti-Redmond Volunteers and to the British.
The next step in White's curious journey was his Red Cross work in Belgium for a short period. By 1916, we find him back in Dublin campaigning to stop Connolly's execution. He crossed to Wales to try to get the Welsh miners to strike in defence of Connolly. He tells us little of this episode or of his subsequent imprisonment. Then his autobiography ends abruptly. He did continue it but the manuscript was destroyed after his death in 1946.
In an epilogue, Phil Meyler tells us of White's life after 1916. He saw himself as a Christian Communist and worked with various left-wing groups during the '20s and '30s, writing for An Phoblacht, among other journals. He was involved with Republican Congress and went to Spain in 1936. White was much inspired by the Anarchist revolution in Catalonia and this book includes several interesting pieces he wrote about that 'ism' which was closest to his heart.
White's last political act was characteristically quixotic. He called a meeting in the Orange Hall in his native Broughshane to propose himself as a Republican Socialist candidate in the 1945 General Election but never actually got nominated. He died six months later.
This publication brings long overdue recognition to an extraordinary character who proved the point that it "takes all sorts" to make a revolution.
BY MÍCHEÁL Mac DONNCHA