Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

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‘Captain Jack White: Imperialism, Anarchism and the Irish Citizen Army’ by Leo Keohane (Merrion Press, 2014).

For Jack White, that night at Beresford Place in November 1913 must have remained with him all the way through until his death 32 years later. The cheer of one thousand strikers when James Connolly announced the formation of the Irish Citizen Army. And then, when White asked the crowd to hold up their hands if they were game on to fight for social liberty, the sight of ‘almost every hand silhouetted out against the darkening sky’, as the playwright Sean O’Casey recalled.

By the end of the week, several thousand men were lined up for parade as Captain White prepared to drill them. As O’Casey out it, this ‘aristocrat and gentleman had signified his intention to throw in his lot with his socially humbler brothers.’

Jack White, co-founder and first Commandant of the Irish Citizen Army (ICA), is the subject of an intriguing new biography, ‘Captain Jack White’, by Leo Keohane. The book reveals the story of a deeply peculiar man who has hitherto been much neglected from the annals of Irish history. [i]

White was born in Richmond, Surrey, in 1879, the only son of an Antrim-born army officer.[ii] Over 230 years had passed since the first of White’s ancestors arrived in Ireland, a Royalist refugee from Cromwell’s England. The family established themselves at Whitehall, Broughshane, near Ballymena, County Antrim, where Jack White would later be buried.[iii]

Six months after his birth, Jack’s father won a Victoria Cross for showing immense dash and courage under fire in Afghanistan.[iv] Such military prowess gave the younger White considerable credit in the British imperial system but, over the course of his life, he was destined to reject all such traditions with mounting passion.

His rebellious nature revealed itself early on. At the age of seven, he was instructed not to stand on a three-legged stool as to do so was dangerous. He disobeyed, toppled from the stool and cut himself. However, rather than eat humble pie, he insisted his noncompliance was justified and blamed an uneven floor for causing the accident.

Fast forward a decade and he was to be found engaged in similar arguments with his headmaster at Winchester, one of the most prestigious public schools in England, from which White eventually ‘negotiated his expulsion’, as Keohane puts it. He had not been particularly popular at school, save for a brief period of notoriety when he peed on the cricket pitch in the middle of a game. He was frequently flogged but no more than many boys of his age and class, and he does not appear to have been traumatized by it. He comes across as a high-spirited boy, ‘taking unauthorized trips to town to sample everything from drink to the local girls’, and launching ‘an abortive attempt to blow up one of the teachers.’[v]

Next came Sandhurst where, despite his distaste for authority, the 6’ 3” blonde haired son of Ulster was gazetted into the Gordon Highlanders where, as he later wrote, ‘I disliked everything and every one’.[vi]

He was not long in the army when the Anglo-Boer War broke out in South Africa. White served in a battle at Doornkop near the goldmines of Johannesburg in which his regiment suffered over 100 casualties. [vii] After the battle, he captured a shell-shocked 15-year-old Boer sniper. When his commanding officer saw the boy, he ordered him to be shot. White apparently rounded on the officer and said, ‘If you shoot him, I’ll shoot you.’

The fact White avoided a court martial is ascribed to his father, by now a general, who had just won a major battle against the Boers to lift the siege of Ladysmith. As Keohane observes, the incident highlights White as ‘a consistent supporter of the disadvantaged regardless of the unpopularity or danger to himself.’

White won a Distinguished Service Order during the war when, having been abducted and partially stripped by Boers during a scouting mission, he escaped and ran six miles to summon reinforcements. As he put it, ‘Kitchener seems to have been so tickled at the idea of me running away in my shirt that nothing would do but to recommend me for the DSO.’[viii]

In 1902, White became aide-de-camp (ADC) to his father when the ‘exceptionally charming’ Sir George White was appointed Governor of Gibraltar, one of the most important British ports in the world.[ix] As ADC, White was given an intimate insight into the movers and shakers who ran Europe before the Great War, including numerous royals and ‘cavalier financiers’. He appears to have been particularly stung when Edward VII publicly belittled him over a glass of inferior Scotch; the lustful British monarch also suggestively remarked on what a fine looking woman White’s mother was.

White remained in the army until 1908, serving latterly in India and Aberdeen. In the meantime, he fell in love with Dollie Mosley, the beautiful half-Spanish daughter of a Roman Catholic businessman from Gibraltar. Despite massive objections from both families – as well as an affair with another woman in Monte Carlo - he held Dollie’s interest long enough for them to marry in Chelsea Registry Office in 1907.

The Whites spent much of the next five years wandering as Jack tried to distance himself from his prestigious background.[x] Much of what they tried failed, including a chicken farm and White working as a farm labourer, but he spent a year working as a horseman and on a logging farm in Canada.

He also spent a considerable time at the Whiteway Colony, a community of free-thinkers in the Cotswolds who were closely associated with non-violent anarchism as advocated by the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, with whom White corresponded. The colony was also apparently a hotbed of ‘free love’ although White sagely confessed that anyone ‘not by birth an aristocrat or gypsy lack[ed] the right balance of confidence or nonchalance’ to partake.

He was still in Whiteway in 1912 when his father caught a fatal chill at the Chelsea Flower Show. Sir George’s funeral occasioned one of the biggest funerals ever witnessed in the north of Ireland.

Following his father’s death, White returned to Ireland and turned his attention to the Home Rule debate.[xi] In October 1913, he orchestrated a sizeable rally at Ballymoney, County Antrim, to demonstrate that not all Ulster Protestants agreed with Edward Carson and the Unionists. His fellow speakers included Sir Roger Casement, with whom White quickly developed a very uptight relationship.[xii] White delivered a speech in favour of religious tolerance and Home Rule that received numerous ovations. However, the event did not create the big ‘stir’ he hoped for, perhaps because Antrim was the most Unionist county in Ireland.[xiii]

Within weeks, White was speaking at various events in Dublin where his ecumenical beliefs were soon honed by his growing empathy for the working class. Appalled by the deadly slum conditions of the city’s tenements, his political sensitivities were also sharpened when a force of 300 police baton-charged an unarmed crowd on the ‘Bloody Sunday’ of 1913.

White likened it to ‘basking seals’ being clubbed. When it emerged that the promised inquiry into the incident had been put on hold by the Viceroy, he decided it was time the working class were taught how to defend themselves against such gross State-sanctioned violence.[xiv]

The specifics about who actually conceived the Citizen Army are open to question. James Connolly said it was his idea and that White’s appearance at this time was merely fortuitous. Jack White, who adored Connolly, appears to have felt it was his brainchild.[xv]

In any event, the concept put him on stage with some of the greatest icons of the age – Jim Larkin, Arthur Griffith and, above all, Connolly whom Keohane describes variously ‘as one of the most dangerous revolutionaries in Europe’ and ‘probably the most important political thinker’ in early 20th century Ireland.

According to White, the comradeship with Connolly began after a blow out in which he told the Scottish-accented socialist to ‘go to hell’.[xvi] That their relationship improved was because both men shared a view that the impending struggle was inherently about class rather than nationalism.[xvii]

White took charge of drilling the ICA. From the outset, this was a working class organization with militant Labour aims. However, it was never called into action in any major way during the lockout, largely because the employers had changed direction and begun to starve the strikers into submission. Meanwhile, White did his best to nurture the ‘strength, will and determination’ of the men although Connolly had rather more revolutionary goals.

After a promising start, White became disillusioned with the ICA. Initial concerns about members’ lack of punctuality and non-attendance were augmented by mounting personal differences with mercurial Larkin, especially when the latter publicly lambasted White’s father as a man who had served under ‘the dirty flag under which [so much] disease and degradation had been experienced’.

There was also an irksome incident at Butt Bridge when White and four other ICA members were part of a 200-strong mob who had a scuffle with police. White and the other ICA members emerged from the brawl badly bloodied but most of the mob fled, after which the Dublin press unfairly lampooned the ICA as ‘the runaway army’. White fought his corner in the ensuing trial until legal costs compelled him to submit.

White had attended the founding meeting of the Irish Volunteers. As his ICA following dwindled to a solitary Company of less than 50 ‘faithful stalwarts’, his sense of alienation grew. It also cost him a pretty penny - he claimed to have expended a good deal of his income on boots for ICA members and later ordered fifty uniforms from Arnotts. (There was something of a rumpus when it was discovered the uniforms were made in England by tailors working under conditions Dublin tailors regarded as unfair). A recruitment drive into the countryside failed to produce any real boost to the ICA’s numbers.

The following month, White left the ICA and joined the Volunteers, initially commanding the Derry and Inishowen Brigade (which included the inspection of over 500 men at Brookeboro, South Fermanagh). However, a strong antipathy to John Redmond ultimately drove him away from them too.

White then converted his two–seater Ford motorcar into an ambulance, procured a nurses’ uniform for Dollie and the two of them set off for Belgium where he saw enough ‘of the whole filthy mechanical slaughter’ to convince him that pacifism was the only way forward.

When he learned of the Easter Rising and Connolly’s imprisonment in May 1916, White launched an extraordinarily ill-judged attempt to free his old comrade. He traveled to the coalfields of South Wales in a bid to get the miners to strike. He was arrested and sentenced to 3 months for sedition on the very same day Connolly was executed. He was sent to Pentonville Prison where he occupied a room just fifty yards from the shed in which Casement was hanged.

Banned from returning to Ireland, he became a wanderer again, encountering assorted odd-bods including the writer DH Lawrence whom he once punched. Over the next few years he was repeatedly arrested and imprisoned before being expelled from Northern Ireland in 1922 for being a general troublemaker. Indeed, Keohane makes the point that White served prison terms of all four jurisdictions – Wales and England in 1916, Scotland in 1921 and the Fee State in 1922.[xviii]

During the Spanish Civil War, he served as a medic with the Red Cross; the experience convinced him that he was an anarchist and he wrote voluminously on the subject.[xix]

In 1938, he returned to Ireland and was married secondly to Noreen Shanahan whose grandfather John Joseph Clancy was one of the nine MPs of the IPP who continued to support Parnell after the Kitty O’Shea scandal. His latter years were spent selling vegetables in Broughshane to support his family.

White had long enjoyed a taste for the ‘liqueur sensation’ which led to an ‘overindulgence in solitary drinking’. During his latter years, this would keep him in the pub at Broughshane until the small hours of the morning, right up until his death from prostrate cancer in August 1945. He left an estate of just £80.

White’s auto-biography, overlong but often searingly honest and witty, was aptly titled ‘Misfit’.

Keohane’s challenging book aims to decipher the depths of White’s anarchy, wondering whether he was a bona fide intellectual or was he, as one eminent historian suggested to Keohane, ‘a bit of an eejit’. Keohane clearly develops an empathy - if not a genuine fondness - for his subject. The book would perhaps have benefitted from some form of a timeline or a more judicious use of dates as it is not always clear which year we are referring to. It would also have been interesting to know what became of Dollie White or the other family members. Nonetheless, this is an extremely invaluable and well written addition to the canon of studies for the ongoing Centenary.


[i] Leo Keohane concedes thathis research was limited by the fact that all White’s personal papers are missing but he did have access to a large tranche of correspondence with White’s niece Katy English, as well as conversations with White’s two sons, Alan and the late Derrick, as well as other family members. Jack White’s papers may yet arise from the archives of some dusty attic.

[ii] James Robert White was born on 22 May 1879 at Richmond, Surrey, the home of his maternal grandparents. His grandfather Joseph Baly, a former Archdeacon of Calcutta (where he was applauded for his social work), became chaplain at the Royal Chapel in Windsor Park.

[iii] White’s family were landowners from Antrim, the most Unionist county in Ireland. His earliest known ancestors were English Presbyterians from West Riding of York who came to Ireland as Royalist refugees during the English Civil War and settled at Whitehall, Broughshane, just outside Ballymena, near the slopes of Slemish, the mountain where St Patrick once tended sheep and swine. The ensuing generations of Whites were renowned as a little unusual, occasionally prone to act rashly or to be oversensitive and to be socially awkward, all of which were characteristics of White. They also had a reputation for being ‘ sympathetic and generous to their tenantry’, particularly during the Land Wars.

[iv] George White won a Victoria Cross 6 months after Jack’s birth for a double act of courage in Afghanistan: a solo charge at Pathan rebels and the capture of enemy gun at the battle of Kandahar. Later became the ‘Hero of Ladysmith’, a personal favourite of Queen Victoria, painted by Philip de László and a Field Marshal in 1903. Considered a perfect and ‘exceptionally charming’ gentleman, he treated Jack with fond befuddlement and never seems to have pressurized him to conform.

[v] School brought about traditional punishments – corporal beatings – but he does not appear to have been particularly traumatized despite having Latin and Greek ‘flogged’ into him at Winchester in Hampshire from which school he ultimately ‘negotiated his expulsion’ with the kindly headmaster. He was not popular but school taught him that he possessed ‘the capacity of being bored to desperation, which moves me to break the mechanical routine under which others silently suffer’. He also showed himself as a capable debater, at one point defending Oliver Cromwell.

[vi] From school he gained a cadetship in Sandhurst, undoubtedly on account of his fathers’ influence, but continued to get in trouble for rejecting authority – he was rusticated for riding in a point-to-point when specifically forbidden from doing so. By his own admission, he ‘gravitated towards the higher ranks of the aristocracy’ at Sandhurst but he again enjoyed being a misfit, turning up to dinner in a bowler hat when everyone else wore toppers. He was gazetted into the Gordon Highlanders then quartered at Edinburgh Castle where, he later wrote, ‘I disliked everything and every one.’

[vii] The cavalry at Doornkop were commanded by Sir John French, later to become notorious for his role in the Easter Rising.

[viii] White’s memoirs barely touch on the suicidal charges ordered by Kitchener and the other generals, perhaps out of deference to the memory of his father who was a friend to many of them. Other than some scathing words about the commanders failure to communicate with their men, his principle legacy from the war was an awareness of his own cowardice which had ‘begot the courage of self-preservation’.

[ix] In 1900, Sir George was appointed Governor of Gibraltar, at a time when the Rock was central to much of the sabre-rattling and negotiations between the Great Powers on the eve of the First World War. As his ADC Jack spent the next two years living what Keohane calls ‘a sybaritic existence … the governor’s son with duties of the pleasantest kind and a license to indulge his passion for horses.’ He met many of the leading players of the day, including Kaiser Wilhelm II, Edward VII, Admiral von Tirpitz (‘that bewhiskered old pirate’) and ‘cavalier financiers’ like Horace Farquhar. Collectively they taught him to distrust imperialism. ‘I was as big a snob at the rest,’ he wrote, ‘but with one eye open.’

[x] After he resigned his commission in 1908, he began ‘to part ways with almost everything he was bred for’ and adopted the principles of the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy. He also briefly taught English in Bohemia, where he met Prince Raoul de Rohan and his wife Mary Agnes Rock of Dalkey.

[xi] Jack White actually delivered his maiden speech in London, challenging authoritarianism of every kind, but specifically Edward Carson’s breed of ‘bigoted’ Unionism, and urging tolerance and understanding of Catholicism.

[xii] Other speakers included the Liberal Home Ruler, the Rev. J. B. Armour. Jack White also began a correspondence with Lord Dunraven (‘though whether he is a Dunravenite pure and simple or not, I could not say’, p. 61).

[xiii] He made his next public speech when the Literary and Historical Society of University College Dublin hosted an evening of debates, speaking alongside Tom Kettle, John Dillon and Douglas Hyde. Kettle appears to have riled White a little when he brought the audience to laughter by stating that ‘the problem with Ulster was not a problem of irregular horses, but a problem of regular asses’.

[xiv] On 7 November 1913, White shared a platform at Liberty Hall with James Connolly, espousing his socialist beliefs. In private, he wrote to his mother of his aim ‘to establish a bond between their class [ie: workers] and the progressively-minded people in ours.’

[xv] By White’s own account, he first proposed it at a meeting of the Civic League (a group of intellectuals, artists and academics that included George Russell, Padraic Colum, Robin Gwynn, Sheehy-Skeffington and a ‘very drunk’ Tom Kettle). This took place in Gwynn’s room at Trinity College. He conceived of the Citizen Army as a practical way of putting his substantial military skills to use while still keeping his pacifism intact. Connolly’s own writings suggest that it was he who initiated the idea and that White’s appearance in the striker’ camp was merely fortuitous.

[xvi] You’re nothing but a great boy’, growled James Connolly.

‘Go to hell,’ replied Jack White.

It was, according to White, the start of a beautiful friendship. Or at least, the exchange marked the ‘first beginning of the dissipation of class-suspicion and the establishment of warmer relations between us.’

[xvii] White was never a nationalist and never supported Sinn Fein. He believed that the real fight was neither political not national ‘but a class fight’. ‘I was Red’, he conceded in 1940, but ‘I was never green’. He also opposed neutrality in WW2.

[xviii] Always an outsider, he had a habit of antagonizing just about everybody – the DMP, the RUC, the Orange Order, the IRA, the Blueshirts.

[xix] He became a member of the Anarcho-Syndicalist union. White professed a system of beliefs that would, albeit in hindsight, define him as an anarchist. However, while his instincts were anarchistic, White would have been uncomfortable with anarchism’s association with nonsensical bloodshed and violence. He simply felt that everything was there to be challenged, no least the received wisdom of ‘-isms’ like nationalism, communism and Catholicism.