James ‘Jack’ White was born in May 1879 in the village of Broughshane in Antrim, the son of Field Marshall George White. He was sent to a private school, and his only memory was the ‘frequent chastisement’ he suffered.
He later entered Winchester College, and was subsequently expelled at his own request. White then went to Sandhurst Military Academy and earned a commission with the 1st Gordon Highlanders.
White was a junior officer when his battalion was sent to South Africa in December 1899. His rebellious streak reappeared when he was ordered to execute a young Boer soldier who had been captured.
“‘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.”1
He was later decorated with a D.S.O. for his role in the Boer War. He served as an aide-de-camp to his father in Gibraltar and he had the opportunity of meeting various European monarchs. He commented that they were no different from ordinary people, except in their vanity and immorality.
When his father’s five-year term as Governor ended, White was sent to India. He was considered absent-minded and eccentric, as he could never get used to the dress of the Highland soldiers or the rigours of kit inspection.
He went on leave to return to Europe and marry Mercedes ‘Dollie’ Mosley, a lady he had first encountered in Gibraltar. Both families opposed the wedding (White’s family were Ulster Protestants and Mosley’s were orthodox Catholics) and Jack and Mercedes eventually decided on a quiet civil ceremony in London. White later admitted that his opinion of Catholics at the time was the same as that of the most bigoted Protestants.
White resigned his commission in 1907, having “felt a distinct spasm of guilt [about] drawing a captain’s pay and allowances for teaching people to kill each other and for swearing them into allegiance to their liege Lord Edward, irrespective of Edward’s moral condition.”
He wrote out a paper detailing the philosophical reasons for laving the army, and sent it to his father and Leo Tolstoy. White Sr. was not impressed, but Tolstoy sent back a charming reply. He also sent a copy to H.G. Wells, whose reply wasn’t so charming.
White then spent some time as an English teacher in Bohemia, a farm labourer in England, and a lumberjack in Canada. He wasn’t very successful in any position. He returned to England and became involved in a free-love commune called the Whiteway Colony.
In 1912, White had his first involvement with Irish politics. He wrote a letter denouncing the anti-Home Rule stance of Carson’s movement. He also spoke at an Irish Nationalist meeting in London, along with George Bernard Shaw and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. White was applauded enthusiastically as he protested “the stirring up of religious rancour and intolerance in Ulster.”
In October 1913 White addressed, along with Roger Casement, a meeting of four hundred liberal Ulster Protestants in Antrim. At this meeting White asked that those present sign their own version of the Ulster Covenant, which declared that the threat to civil and religious liberty lay not in Irish Home Rule but in Ulster Unionism’s own sectarian version of it, their proposed Government of Ulster.
White was well received at the meeting and was thus asked to speak in Dublin on the Home Rule issue. He arrived as the Dublin Employers’ Federation began its lockout of ITGWU members, in its attempts to crush the union. The Dublin Metropolitan Police made it clear it was not impartial as it ruthlessly attacked striking workers and made raids in the tenement buildings where the poor lived.
When two young workers were killed by the DMP, and another girl was shot dead by an armed scab, the ideas for a workers’ defence militia became more solid. White, then a member of the Civic League, was busy in making public denunciations of police strong arm tactics.
White moved a resolution at a Civic League meeting in favour of drilling the striking workers. Professor Houston of the League soon received a cheque to have this new army equipped with boots and staves. Jim Larkin announced to a gathering outside Liberty Hall that White would take charge of the army.
“The tall, athletic figure of Captain White appeared, and his boyish face was aglow with gratification as he listened to the cheers that seemed to proclaim to him a ready realisation of the schemes he contemplated towards the disciplined consolidation of the lower orders in the battalionised ranks of an Irish Citizen Army.”2
White drilled and trained this new army. With the lockout still ongoing, however, it was inevitable that the army would not be paramount, much to White’s chagrin. This led to a few heated encounters between White and James Connolly.
White told the men that the Citizen Army would fight for Labour and for Ireland. He wanted to build a properly trained and disciplined force. This was difficult, and he wrote to Connolly: “Their spirit is splendid, it is a pleasure to work with them, but two things are badly needed, the impression on them of the importance of punctuality and order and an organisation suited to the needs of the situation. So far as I can see my attempt at organisation will be no use.”3
White became caught up in the dispute himself. He led a demonstration to the Mansion House, was arrested to obstructing traffic and beaten by the police. White has been prepared for violence and replied to the police in kind.
When the lockout ended, the Citizen Army was reorganised with a constitution and White was made Chairman of the Army Council. White continued to drill the army, while at the same time trying to improve relations between them and the Irish Volunteers. For this he drew the scorn of some of the Citizen Army Council, and he resigned in May 1914.
In April White had spoken, along with Connolly and Richard Braithwaite, at an anti-partition meeting in Belfast. White was admired by the mostly Catholic audience for being a Protestant who had forsaken his family’s politics and come over to the side of the Nationalists. Connolly, known as a bitter critic of the Nationalist movement, was not as well received.
With the outbreak of the First World War, White went to France and Belgium as an ambulance driver. He was not well received because of his connection to rebel armies in Ireland. It was when in France that he heard of the Easter Rising taking place.
He was arrested in south Wales for trying to get coal miners to spearhead a national strike, in order to save James Connolly. He was imprisoned in Swansea Jail and then Pentonville Prison in London, where Roger Casement was hanged a day later. Upon his release, he was banned by Dublin Castle from returning to Ireland and thus remained in England.
In 1923 the Workers’ Council in Donegal invited White to stand as a Workers’ Repblican for Dáil elections. Speaking in the Mansion House, he declared he would stand, “as a Christian Communist, thus tending to unite the workers North and South not only in a common economic interest but in a common and individual Christianity.”4
He later withdrew from the elections, and was implicated in the formation of the Communist Party. He paid for Roddy Connolly to travel to Moscow to represent the Socialist Party of Ireland (later CPI) at the Communist International.
In the early 30s White was involved in the demonstrations of the unemployed in Belfast, and took a bad beating from the R.U.C. He turned up at a court date in dock with a bloodstained bandage wrapped around his head.
An exclusion order was passed against White, but it was suspended on his promise that he play no further part in the public life of Northern Ireland. He became chairman of a branch of the Republican Congress in Dublin. On the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, White went to defend the Republic.
He was no longer a friend of the Soviet Union and would not join the International Brigades, for fear that they were too much under the control of the Communist Parties. He went with the British Red Cross, but it is reported that he was commissioned to the train the Anarchist Militia.
White returned to Ireland following the fall of the Spanish Republic. He married again in the late 30s and died in a Belfast nursing home in February 1946.
1. Jack White. Misfit.
2. Sean O’Casey. The Story of the Irish Citizen Army.
3. R.M. Fox. History of the Irish Citizen Army.
4. Andrew Boyd. Jack White: First Commander, Irish Citizen Army.