A devout Presbyterian and Christian Socialist, Jack White was born in County Antrim, the son of Field Marshal Sir George White VC, who held almost every honour the British Army could bestow, especially after his defence of Ladysmith during the Boer War. The family were part of the Irish landowning class, being friendly with the Royal Family, and Jack White followed his father into the Army. He was awarded the DSO after seeing action against the Boers at Magersfontein and Doorknop. An incident at the latter engagement gives a clear indication of his character. Advancing towards the enemy lines they found only one Boer left, a terrified teenage boy. One of White’s fellow officers ordered the boy to be shot. “If you shoot him,” White is reputed to have said , “I’ll shoot you.” His comrades dispute this account, however. White eventually dropped out of the Army and worked his way around Europe and North America.
When he returned to Ireland Sir Edward Carson was rallying the Protestants of the North in their resistance to the proposed Home Rule Bill. The leading barrister of his day, Carson’s “magnificent presence and rock-like attachment to the cause provided perfect leadership.” Undeterred, White organised one of the first Protestant meetings, at Ballymoney, which opposed the Irish Unionist position, speaking on the platform alongside another prominent Protestant, the mentally unstable renegade Sir Roger Casement.
Carson was too strong in the North, however, and White was invited to Dublin. There he met the Scottish Marxist leader, James Connolly, and offered his services to the working-class cause during the time of the ‘Dublin lock-out’ (Frithdhúnadh Mór Bhaile-Átha-Cliath). White addressed a mass meeting in Liberty Hall and proposed that a drilling scheme be started as a means of bringing discipline “into the distracted ranks of Labour”. Samuel Levenson has commented: “Short-tempered, a commanding speaker, versed in military affairs, he gave lavishly of his knowledge, time and money to the Citizen Army when it was first formed. On the following evening, 13 November, the Civic League held its first meeting, and the formation of the Citizen Army was announced.”
White was to be wounded when an unemployed procession, led by himself and four other Citizen Army leaders, was charged by police. The confrontation shocked conservative Irish opinion, and, soon afterwards, when White offered to put a section of the Citizen Army at the disposal of the Irish Volunteers, the latter organisation replied that it could not enter into relations with a body that had recently been in conflict with the police.
Two incidents while White was in the North highlight the contradictory nature of Irish political attitudes. On one occasion Connolly had booked St Mary’s Hall in Belfast to protest against the agitation for partition. When White addressed the mainly Roman Catholic working-class audience he was given a vociferous reception and an attentive hearing by the capacity audience, while Connolly received a lukewarm reception. The chairman of the meeting, William McMullen, was of the opinion that White’s enthusiastic reception was due to him having forsaken the traditional politics of his family and having come over to the nationalist side. However, when White went to Londonderry to organise a brigade of Irish Volunteers there and was dismayed by the sectarian attitudes some of them held, he was dismissed as just ‘defending his own’ when he tried to reason with them.
When the First World War broke out White joined an Australian ambulance unit, but his association with Casement — who was to be hanged for treason after he tried to obtain guns for the Irish Nationalist cause from the Germans — meant that here too he was constantly regarded with suspicion. His ‘own’ people in Ulster, the unionist establishment, had long regarded him as a ‘Shinner’, so the cycle of suspicion was complete. When Connolly was sentenced to be executed for his part in Dublin’s Easter Rising, White took the one step he felt might save his friend — he rushed to South Wales and tried to bring the Welsh miners out on strike. For that he was sentenced to three months imprisonment.
With the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, White, like many other Irishmen, and indeed Ulstermen, including those from the Shankill Road, went off to fight for the beleaguered Spanish Republic, though he soon expressed disagreement at the way he felt the Communists were manipulating the International Brigades. However, in Spain, White was to witness a situation which convinced him that there was an alternative not only to the stagnant political attitudes of Ireland but to authoritarian Communism. As he recalled later to Albert Meltzer, he discovered, much to his surprise, that a profound social revolution was taking place within the areas controlled by the Spanish Republic.
This popular revolution, spearheaded by anarcho-syndicalists, was attempting to establish a totally new form of society. Factories were taken over by their workers; the countryside by the peasants; Barcelona — a city of one and a quarter million people — was being fed and controlled by its own citizens; and all of this organised in a vast co-operative effort which has been described as “the greatest experiment in worker’s self-management that Western Europe has ever seen”.
White threw himself enthusiastically into this people’s revolution, training Spanish militiamen and village women in Catalonia in the use of firearms, and speaking at meetings in London on behalf of the anarchist trade union, the CNT (Confederación Nacional del Trabajo). However, the gradual destruction of the revolution by an alliance of Republican and Communist political parties weakened the popular effort in the Civil War and Franco and his Fascist allies eventually overwhelmed the Republic. White returned to Northern Ireland, attempted unsuccessfully to reconcile himself with the Unionist establishment and died a disappointed man in 1940. He is buried in the First Presbyterian Cemetery, Broughshane, County Antrim.
To be continued