Punching the Wind: Captain Jack White, the misfit of the Irish Revolution
By Ed Mulhall
The withdrawal by An Post of the commemorative stamp for the Citizen Army, because of the misidentification of the Army leader Captain Jack White, is perhaps the most fitting memorial for a man who in his own term was a 'misfit' in the story of the Irish Revolution. That he should be thus forced to disappear from the commemorative story is appropriate for a man who left the British Army, the Citizen Army, the Irish Volunteers and numerous other causes and campaigns, often due to acrimony and perceived slight but also because his individual form of idealism did not sit comfortably with the orthodox narrative. In this he has common cause with other individualists with whom he was for a time associated such as Roger Casement, Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, Erskine Childers, Countess Markievicz and Roddy Connolly.
The story of Captain J.R. White brings a complexity and a nuance to the history of those years and well as being full of incident and controversy. He is therefore a decorated soldier of the Boer War who threatened a fellow officer, a Sandhurst graduate who had been expelled from Winchester School, an ADC to his father as Governor of Gibraltar, an officer under Kitchener in India, who resigned to join a Tolstoyian commune, living as a tramp, then a lumberjack in Canada, who joined the Home Rule campaign with Casement, launched the Citizen Army, organised the Irish Volunteers in Ulster, drove a ambulance in the First World War, was jailed in Pentonville on the eve of Casement’s execution for leading a protest strike in Wales against Connolly's execution, who was invited to stand as a candidate in a Free State election in the 1920s and a Northern Ireland election in the 1940s, who was part of the Republican Congress and a Red Cross worker in Spain during the Spanish Civil War, who had literary work published in the Irish Review and who became a character in a D H Lawrence novel, who called himself a 'Christian communist' and who wrote a blueprint for anarchism, a Christian, a mystic, a Leninist, a protestant anti-clericalist both of whose wives were Catholics, a radical socialist who inherited his father's estate in County Antrim, a Misfit. If there were to be an image of him for a stamp of commemoration then maybe neither the formal military uniform of the Citizen Army nor the wide-brimmed hatted portrait of the autobiography would be fitting. Better would be the bandaged,confused, figure just released from detention and accompanied by Sheehy Skeffington - a radical, iconoclast at the centre of the action.
J.R. (James Robert) White, known as Jack, was born in 1879 in Broughshane near Ballymena, Co. Antrim, the only son of landowner and distinguished General Sir George White. Jack White was educated at Winchester School, where after a period of trouble making including a failed attempt to cause an explosion in an unpopular teacher's room and escapes to Ascot races he was expelled (by mutual arrangement he says). He went on to receive his military training at Sandhurst, where he learned 'fortification and fornication'. He joined the 1st Gordon Highlanders in 1899 and fought at Magersfontein and Doornkop in the Boer War. His father had led British forces in one of the most notable events of that war, the siege of Ladysmith, and became a legendary figure as a result. Jack White received a DSO for bravery in 1901 and he recounts in his idiosyncratic autobiography Misfit an occasion when he had to threaten to shoot a fellow officer who was about to kill an unarmed Boer prisoner: 'Peering over the rock I saw an extremely frightened youth of about seventeen.. Then an officer appeared, my superior in rank and by this time there were ten or a dozen men around. 'Shoot him, shoot him,' yelled the officer. A wave of disgust swamped my sense of discipline. 'If you shoot him, said I, pointing my carbine at him, 'I'll shoot you.' And he passed on... he is now a General that officer and I am a Bolshevik or reported as such.'
His DSO was awarded by Lord Kitchener and he said he and his father now had all the military orders between them, he with one his father with the rest.
Following the war his father became Governor of Gibraltar and Jack White, now a Captain, joined him as his ADC. There they hosted both the German Kaiser William II and King Edward VII. White preferred the "greater naiveté and greater sincerity "of the German. In Gibraltar he also fell in love with a catholic Spanish woman (Maria de la Mercedes Ana Louis Carmen Dolores) Dollie Mosley who, after a turbulent courtship, he married in 1905. White had now gone to India following the end of his father's term as Gibraltar Governor. Here he served under Lord Kitchener (who was living in the same house that Sir George had used when he was commander in India). Following India he moved as adjutant to the territorial battalion of the regiment in Aberdeen. He was now becoming disillusioned by the army and its constraints and heavily influenced by the writings of Tolstoy on the need to have freedom for spiritual adventure. He decided to resign his commission and wrote a rationale for his decision which he sent to his father and also to H.G. Wells and Tolstoy (the latter approved of its spiritual impulse, the former said he would like "to thrash his governesses and schoolmasters" ).
For the years up to 1912, White led a bohemian lifestyle, including a spell as an English teacher in Bohemia, where he tried to live a Tolstoyian lifestyle, down to the vegetarianism. He also travelled around England, like a tramp on his own account, and emigrated to Canada, where he worked as a lumberjack. He then returned to England and became a follower of the nudist Francis Sedlak joining his communistic free-love colony in the Cotswolds.
At the start of 1912 and still at the colony, White was becoming disillusioned with the Tolstoyian ethic. He began to take interest in events at home and had another of his life changing epiphanies. Following the growing Ulster Unionist opposition to Home Rule, he was prompted by the refusal to allow the liberal minister Winston Churchill to speak at the Ulster Hall in February to write a protest letter to the Belfast Newsletter. In it he condemned this failure to listen to an opponent’s view as going against the principle of Protestantism: " ' The letter killeth but the spirit givith life', that uneasy certainty in advance, which refuses a hearing to an opponent, is the naked spirit of Popery. Let those who believe such a spirit to be life giving shape their actions in accordance with it, but let them leave the name of Protestant to the heirs in spirit of those who called the world into being. Yours etc J. R. White, Late Captain, Gordon Highlanders."
The letter was not published until three months later and then by the Ulster Guardian to whom he had forwarded the correspondence in frustration " My mind is made up thus far , that whatever real obstacles there may be to the amalgamation of the two sections of the Irish people into one self-governing nation the leaders of the so-called Unionist party are appealing to nothing but the spirit of bigotry and stagnation....I hope that if stirring times are in store for Ireland I may not be idle on the side of progress and Protestantism, which I take to mean, the liberty of the reason, and to be represented by self-government or Home Rule in a nation, just as a free reason gives self-control to an individual. I hope to return to Ireland shortly."
He was soon back in Ireland for another reason as his father died on 24th June and was buried at Broughshane, Co. Antrim. White now had common purpose with members of the Ulster Liberal Association (who had invited Churchill to that meeting) and others who were keen to show that there was Protestant support for Home Rule. On December 6th he was invited to speak at a meeting organised by the Irish Protestant Home Rule Committee in the Memorial Hall in London. With him on the platform were George Bernard Shaw, Stephen Gwynne M.P. and Arthur Conan Doyle. In a speech which you could argue had echoes of Wolfe Tone he saw the Home Rule movement as transcending religious differences. The extension of universal suffrage and Home Rule were representation of the principles of Protestantism which puts an emphasis on individual truth and he concluded: " I hear the spirit of Catholic Ireland crying out to the spirit of liberalism " Give us some of the freedom you have won and we will give you some of the reverence and beauty you have lost".
In typical humility White was to assess the impact on his mainly Catholic audience "I read the speech with rapt attention. The predominantly Catholic audience cheered it to the echo. At the time I was so fresh and ingenuous I would have got a blessing from the Pope for a eulogy on Luther". His address was printed in the January 1913 edition of the Irish Review under the title Protestantism and Home Rule and this was the beginning of his contact with that literary and politically active group in Dublin. (Padraic Colum also published a piece by White, which harked back to his time in Gibraltar called A Ride in Andalusia in Its April edition.)
White was now fully engaged with the issue of Home Rule and in particular mobilising Protestant opinion in support. He came back in Ireland, supported by money from his father’s estate and he had acquired another aid to his activism, a motor car. In September 1913 he arrived in Ballymoney, Co. Antrim, to see if a meeting could be organised of Protestants in opposition to Carson's policy. Among the local organising committee was the local clergyman Rev. J.B. Armour who was also a prominent member of the Ulster liberals. Later that week Armour also received a letter from Roger Casement suggesting a similar meeting and he travelled from Belfast to discuss the possible arrangements. It soon became clear that there was a difference of approach between White and Casement and the two met in Belfast to discuss it.
It was the first time that they had met and it was quite an acrimonious meeting. As Armour relates Casement’s account: "…he opened on Sir Roger, accused him of every kind of crime, winding up with the charge that he was not an 'honest' man. There was a casting of the creels there and then. Sir Roger told me that and bound me over to secrecy...Sir Roger's explanation is that there is a slate off. Certainly White is peculiar.'' White is equally frank in his assessment of the row, explaining his annoyance at Casement seeking to shift the emphasis from the 'lovelessness' of the Carson campaign as he proposed to its "lawlessness". As White put it: "My appeal was to God. His was to Caesar.” (The difference could also be seen in their claims of inspiration. White felt his Protestantism was in the tradition of Tone and '98, while Casement hoped " with the assistance of every drop of Fenian blood 'in my soul' to 'light a fire' which would set the Antrim hills ablaze and would unite Presbyterian and Catholic farmers and townsmen at Ballymoney in a clear message to Ireland." Their co-operation and friendship survived this tempestuous start. “In our long subsequent association the note of that first interview was often repeated, but affection and a humorous tolerance on his part of my rival messiahship formed a pleasant accompaniment".
These difficulties were overcome by the diplomacy of Armour and the organisers who also had to deal with the risk of disruption from local Orangemen. The meeting went ahead on 24th October, with Captain White as the first speaker followed by Alice Stopford Green, Sir Roger Casement, Alec Wilson (who was a regular contributor to the Irish Review under the name Ulster Imperialist) and John Dinsmore, a Presbyterian from Ballymena. The Town Hall was decked out with Union Jacks and a banner hung over the platform declared "No provisional or provincial government for us". It was to be a meeting just for Protestants and it was estimated that there were between 400 and 500 present. With a strong police presence the meeting went off without interruption. Two resolutions were passed. The first rejected the claim of Sir Edward Carson's provisional government to speak for the Protestants of North-east Ulster and pledged lawful resistance to any degrees issued by this 'illegal and non- representative body'. The second was summarised as a call for the rejection of sectarianism as a divisive force amongst Irishmen and an invitation to government to help bring all Irishmen together 'in one common field of national effort'. Captain White also launched 'the new covenant', a Home Rule pledge to match the Ulster covenant " We intend to abide by the just laws of the lawful parliament of Ireland until such time as it may prove itself hostile to democracy, in sure confidence that God will stand by those who stand by the people irrespective of class or Creed."
White led off the speeches, asking: "When will Ulstermen see that the question of Home Rule is not or never will be a religious question, but a question of human rights in which the Catholic hierarchy has intervened to hinder rather than help?" Casement gave his first public speech: “While the Empire has been contracting and expanding Ireland has been contracting and falling apart." Angus Mitchell sees here in the first speeches of these men significant future trends. The 'human rights ' argument used for one of the first times, and Casement putting his view that it is imperialism that must be defeated.
The meeting was to be, however, an isolated one. It received some press coverage and a pamphlet of the speeches was produced, but it was soon followed locally by much larger pro-Carson meetings which helped support the London Times assessment that the Ballymoney meeting represented a "small pocket of dissident Protestants, the last survivors of the Old Liberals :”like the Cheshire cat..It has vanished till only its grin lingers furtively in a corner of Co. Antrim.” (This assessment was rebutted by Casement in a letter to the paper).
But the meeting did have an impact on its speakers. Casement received a number of compliments including one from Erskine Childers heralding his own move to a more active role. White received an invitation to speak in Dublin at the Literary and Historical Society which was also addressed by John Dillon MP and Professor Tom Kettle. White said in his speech that there was a responsibility on Catholic politicians to assuage the fears of the Ulster unionists that a Home Rule state would be controlled by the Catholic Church, asking: " cannot a supreme effort be made to set their fears at rest?". He didn't feel that he got unqualified approval from his audience for his sentiments and was rhetorically ridiculed by Tom Kettle.
Dublin at the time of this meeting was in the midst of the acrimony of the Lockout and a couple of days later there was a major controversy when Catholic clergy intervened to prevent children of striking workers being brought to England. The demonstrations at the docks were portrayed as the church intervening against the strikers and it stirred White to become involved in the campaign. He offered to speak at one of James Connolly's meetings at Beresford Place and also discussed the background to the dispute with AE whose newspaper article had impressed him. He spoke on a platform with Connolly and the American trade-unionist Bill Haywood. On 1st November George Russell (AE ) shared a platform with James Connolly, Delia Larkin, Sylvia Pankhurst and G B Shaw, in the Albert Hall at a meeting to protest against the jailing of James Larkin, where Shaw echoed the growing sentiment that some type of defence force was needed: " If you put a policeman on the footing of a mad dog, it can only end in one way, and that is that all respectable men will have to arm themselves. I suggest you should arm yourselves with something which should put a decisive stop to the proceedings of the police".
In Dublin White joined the Peace Committee at the time chaired by Tom Kettle and including Padraic Colum, Francis Sheehy Skeffington ,Joseph Plunkett, Rev Robin Gwynn of TCD and David Houston, the publisher of the Irish Review. At his first meeting in the Mansion House on the 11th of November according to White's account Kettle arrived late and worst for wear ('clutching in one hand a bunch of carnations and another a bag of oysters') and White was elected chair to replace him. The committee however was to be wound down and those interested reconstituted as the Civic League. It seems to have been at this meeting in the Mansion House that White proposed a motion to begin drilling the workers. Padraig Colum recounts his recollection in his biography of Arthur Griffith: "Captain White with his military carriage had bright blue eyes that danced in his moments of elation or exaltation, giving him a curiously elfin look. That he could reach those moments and reveal them made him, a man of action remarkable. His proposal as he stood erect, his blue eyes glancing and flashing was this: he would donate fifty pounds to the workers clause with the exclusive object of buying the men shoes. Men could not march in the broken ill fitting shoes of the Dublin workers, and if they could not march they could not be drilled. His proposal was to drill the locked-out men so as to form a Citizen Army that would be able to protect their right as citizens. The proposal was received with excitement by a committee that had not been able to make any positive move."
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Ed Mulhall is an Editoral Advisor to Century Ireland and a former Managing Director of RTÉ News & Current Affairs