Intro by Phil Meyler
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"I have the strongest and deepest objection to the all too common Irish habit of breaking a man's heart by misunderstanding him while he is alive and canonising him as soon as he is dead. I might almost say, because he is dead."
(Where Casement Would Have Stood Today, 1936. Jack White)
Misfit traces Jack White's life up to 1916. His life after that is somewhat sketchy. He went off to France as part of an ambulance crew in late 1915 for The First World War. It was here that he heard of the ill-fated 1916 Easter Rising and returned to Ireland immediately and was active in the campaign to oppose the execution of the 1916 leaders. In April 1916 he was arrested in South Wales for attempting to organise a miners' strike in support of his erstwhile friend, James Connolly. He was charged under the Defence of the Realm and jailed for sedition, being transferred to Pentonville prison in London on the eve of Casement's execution.
White wrote The Significance of Sinn Fein in 1918, a short pamphlet that attempted to explain the political and parliamentary success of Sinn Fein in the aftermath of the execution of the Rising leaders. However, increasingly influenced (like many of his contemporaries) by the news of the successful Russian Revolution, his politics moved sharply leftward.
After a series of arrests and prison terms for agitating (Dublin 1920, Edinburgh 1921) he was proposed as a candidate 'in the interests of the Workers' Republic' for Donegal in the1922 Free State elections. At this time Donegal was a hotbed of worker militancy and political struggle and possibly could have won a seat but White soon withdrew his candidature, declaring he was a 'Christian Communist'. He declared that 'he was not prepared to go forward as the representative of any class or party, but only on the principle of voluntary change to communal ownership of the land and the gradual withering of the poisoned branches of standing armies, prisons and the workhouse system.' It was not quite what the Donegal electorate wanted to hear.
Jack White, throughout the 1920s, was active in a host of organisations including The Irish Workers League and The Workers Party of Ireland, moving between Dublin, London and Belfast and now clearly identified himself with left republican politics. A regular public speaker, he also wrote for many publications including An Phoblacht. In 1930, his autobiography, Misfit was published in London by Jonathan Cape and is an invaluable insight, from the point of view of one active participant, into the history of this period.
Jack White was active in the Revolutionary Workers Party in Belfast in the early 30s. In 1931, he was involved in a bitter street battle between unemployed workers and the RUC on the Newtownards Road in Belfast where he was arrested and his Crown Court appearance was widely covered in the media. After being found guilty and imprisoned, he was served with an exclusion order under the 1922 Special Powers Act (Northern Ireland) prohibiting him from residing in any part of Northern Ireland other than in the district of Limavady. The exclusion order caused him considerable distress not least because his daughter Av', from his first marriage, was then at school in Belfast . This Order remained in force until 1935.
In the mid-30s White gravitated to the Republican Congress and was associated with the ex-Serviceman's section in Dublin. Here he was a familiar figure to many contemporary activists including Peadar O'Donnell and Frank Ryan. In 1934, he took part in the now famous march to the Wolfe Tone monument in Bodenstown as a part of a contingent from the Protestant Shankill Road in Belfast, carrying a banner that proclaimed 'Break the Connection with Capitalism.' The IRA prevented the contingent from attending the commemoration.
At the age of 57, in 1936, White travelled to Spain (as part of a Red Cross ambulance crew) to help fight Fascism. Here he made contact with the members of the Anarchist CNT-FAI and POUM, just as Orwell had done, as described in Homage to Cataluna. White was forceful and always pushed himself up to the front line and insisted on meeting everyone of any interest to him. Impressed by the social revolution that was unfolding in Spain, he was further attracted to the Anarchist cause and especially the CNT-FAI, though criticised their decision to enter the Popular Front Government in 1936. He wrote the short pamphlets The Meaning of Anarchy (1937) and Anarchism: A Philosophy of Action (1937) in order to explain the background to the May 1937 street battles and the struggles between the workers, the POUM-CNT and the Communist Party members in Barcelona, a struggle which has been depicted quite well in the Ken Loach film Land and Freedom.
In December 1936, the Socialist Party of Cataluna which had shared power with the anarchists (CNT) in the Popular Front Valencia Government had declared their intention to do away with the duality of power which existed in Cataluna where armed militias had taken control of the streets and certain strategic public buildings and wanted to return control to the National Republican Guard (police) and the Assault Guards. Armed militias erected barricades and a General Strike was called which spread all over Barcelona. The anarchist Minister in the Popular Front Central Government, Garcia Oliver, called for an end to the barricades and the CNT and UGT as well as the Trotskyst POUM (which did not want to alienate the CNT, their conduit to the Valencia Government) called on the workers to return to work.
Only some small organisations, like The Friends of Durutti, (Anarchist) named after Buenaventura Durruti, the skilful militant anarcho-syndicalist and military tactician, who had been killed in the attempt to save Madrid from the assault of Franco's army, and some elements of the IV International (Trotskyist) acting alone, joined the barricades, against the orders of these organisations. They were nicknamed 'The Uncontrollables'. For almost a week Barcelona was in the hands of its inhabitants when the Stalinists sent in 5,000 Assault Guard troops resulting in 15,000 deaths, thousands of wounded, the banning of POUM and the CNT and the end of the revolution.
White was radical in his Anarchism, as he had been radical in all else. He wrote in The Meaning of Anarchism, republished below; "So I must perforce be an uncontrollable. An uncontrollable is an anarchist who has stuck to Anarchy and who is not, therefore, primarily, concerned with the shades or strata of Capitalism but with revolution by direct action; who believes with Marx that the emancipation of the workers must be the work of the workers themselves and with Bakunin and Kropotkin and Malatesta that free humanity must be substituted for the State and that when Anarchists take part in a Government, they allow themselves to be deflected from their proper task and become corrupted by association with the instrument of tyranny. The first false step in Spain was the association of Anarchist leaders with the Government and the State. Had they given all their energies to co-ordination and unified command of CNT Collectives and Anarchist military units, instead of sacrificing Anarchist principles and control to compromises with a Government, the uncontrollables would have remained in control of themselves and ready for co-ordinated action with other sections instead of being sacrificed to a State dictatorship through a political party." It was about this period that he had written his second part of Misfit and it is a shame that no legacy of this is available today.
Jack White was unlucky in marriage; he was married twice, both to middle-class devout Catholic women. His arguments with his wives are infamous and renowned. It was an unfortunate and contradictory side to his troubled life that he never found a proper soul mate; a Protestant looking for the nationalist Catholic wife who could temper his aristocratic background; he was a military captain to the end. These were his personal failures. The only thing is that he admitted them and criticised himself for them.
Returning to London from Spain in 1937, he worked with "Spain and the World", a libertarian propaganda group active in Britain in support of the Spanish anarchists. While in London, he met his second wife, Noreen Shanahan, the daughter of an Irish government official, while attending the same Spanish language school. Noreen Shanahan came from a well-off south County Dublin family and was a practising Catholic. They had three children together, Anthony, Derrick and Alan.
However at the time of his death, White had completed a second part of his autobiography, a Misfit 2. Moreover, Albert Meltzer who knew White from his days with 'Spain and The World', states that White, around 1937-8 worked with Matt Kavanagh, a Liverpudlian anarchist of Irish extraction, on a 'survey of Irish labour and Irish aspirations in relation to anarchism'. In the same article Meltzer also mentions 'White's study of the little known Cork 'Soviet'', which was influenced by his exposure to the workers self-management movement in revolutionary Spain in 1936-37. Unfortunately these writings have been lost to history. The writings, which did survive, are now preserved in the Kate Sharpley Library in London (www.katesharpleylibrary.net).
Although it has not been conclusively established as to why these documents were destroyed, there is little doubt that White's second wife, Noreen Shanahan, either alone or in conjunction with the White family, disposed of the bulk of her husband's papers in the aftermath of his death. It is possible that this may have occurred through neglect or simple expediency, but it is more likely that it was driven by White's conflict with his wife, an ardent Catholic, about his views on the evils of the Catholic Church and Catholicism itself; see his article The Catholic Church; Fascism's Ally which follows. It is quite probable that other articles in a similar vein existed in his notes. Whatever the exact circumstances, the destruction of these papers is a tragic loss for Irish history and especially for the history of Anarchism in the Spanish Civil War, as well as anarchism in relation to the revolutionary struggles in Ireland.
White inherited the family home and lands of White Hall by his father's will in 1912, but the inheritance was deferred as long as his mother lived; she died in 1935. In the interval, White had received a regular income from the rent and sale of the lands attached to the estate; this had been supplemented by occasional income from journalistic efforts. Although he had spent short periods at White Hall (and nearby Cushendun) in the intervening years, it wasn't until 1938 that he was able to live at the family home in Broughshane for any prolonged period. But despite the relative isolation of Broughshane, he appears to have remained in regular contact with his political associates, although the outbreak of World War Two was to paralyse any real work.
White made a final and brief reappearance in public life during the 1945 General Election campaign. Proposing himself as a 'Republican Socialist' candidate for the Antrim constituency, he convened a meeting at the local Orange Hall in Broughshane to outline his view. But he never actually got his name on the ballot paper.
Six months later Jack White died from cancer in a Belfast nursing home. After a private ceremony, he was buried in the White family plot in the First Presbyterian Church in Broughshane.
In many ways White is an unsung hero of the Irish Revolution and sadly forgotten by all but a few on the international scene. He is barely cited in Irish academic history. The History of the Irish Working Class, (Berresford Ellis, 1972) fails to even refer to him and outside a certain few anarchists groups there has been no talk about him at all. The semi-official academic version of Irish history, The Making of Modern Ireland, 1603-1923 (J.C. Beckett, 1966) mentions him only once in relation to the setting up of the Irish Citizen Army (1). Beckett writes that "the strikers and their supporters, claiming that the police had acted in an aggressively brutal manner, organised a military force, the Irish Citizen Army, for their own defence. Its first leaders were J.R. White, an Ulster protestant nationalist who had served with distinction in the British army, and James Connelly, who had returned from America in 1910, and had been trying in vain to convert the Belfast workers to socialism until he was called to assist Larkin in Dublin."
Albert Meltzer, the London Anarchist who knew White well in the 1930s wrote "He told me once he had originally accepted the principle of libertarian socialism in Bohemia, but had been 're-introduced' to socialism, as syndicalism and as Marxism, in Dublin . He was always more of a syndicalist than a Marxian Socialist and described himself at the time as a guild socialist" (1)
It is a shame that Jack White's later autobiography was lost, as it could have shed much light on both the Ireland of the 30s as well as his involvement in the Spanish Civil War.
1. The Making of Modern Ireland , 1603-1923, J.C Beckett, Faber and Faber, 1966.
1. Anarchy, JR White. With an introduction by Albert Meltzer. entitled 'From Loyalism to Anarchism'. (1981). Meltzer had many meetings with both Jack White and the Limerick born anarchist, Matt Kavanagh, throughout the 1930s and White discussed many of his ideas with him.
2. Much of the information here is taken from the excellent article by Kevin Doyle (2001) on the Workers Solidarity Movement website at http//flag.blackened.net/revolt/anarchists/jackwhite/bio.htm. It is by far the most thoroughly researched article on Captain White to date.