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A Captain among the Pigeons

Tom Wall

Captain Jack White: Imperialism, Anarchism and the Irish Citizen Army, by Leo Keohane, Merrion Press, 288 pp, £18.99, ISBN: 978-1908928924

Captain Jack White must have seemed heaven-sent to Home Rulers and Labourites alike when he first appeared on their platforms in 1913. Tall, handsome, intelligent, well-read, widely travelled, eloquent, if not always coherent, he was, nevertheless, an impressive orator. His pedigree added to his appeal. He was the only son of the recently deceased Field Marshall Sir George White, the celebrated Boer War hero; commander of the Ladysmith garrison during its long siege. Jack himself was also a distinguished Boer War veteran. Added to this, his Ulster Protestant background made him a welcome addition to a Home Rule campaign thinly supported within this community. His impressive military background gave the Irish Citizen Army, which he first proposed and commanded, much needed credibility.

But he made for an uncomfortable bedfellow. He was unpredictable and couldn’t be relied on to follow the party line. His commitment to join the fight against intolerance and injustice was genuine but his stated views were often idiosyncratic. His occasional efforts to bridge divides, between nationalist and unionist, Citizen Army and Irish Volunteers, workers and employers, earned him only suspicion. James Connolly, initially an admirer, became wary. The late Donal Nevin in his James Connolly, A Full Life, relates an incident where the chairman of a meeting in Belfast

called upon Connolly to address the meeting, only to find there was no response from him; he sat riveted to his seat. The Chairman after some hesitation turned to Captain White. Asked for an explanation at the end of the meeting, Connolly said to McMullan [the Chairman] that he was not sure what White was going to say and he desired to speak after him in case he did not take the right line.

Connolly had justifiable reasons to be cautious: at one meeting White had defended the Dublin Metropolitan Police ‑ elsewhere roundly condemned for their brutal and partisan attacks on workers during the lockout ‑ stating “the police had a perfect right to carry out their instructions and they are not, one and all, the brutes they are stated to be”. But his indiscretions were never Machiavellian or malicious; they were the result, sometimes of honesty, sometimes naivety, sometimes of expressing a thought that had just occurred to him. White was proudly impulsive. In his autobiography, Misfit: a revolutionary life, he dismisses the notion that knowledge should dictate action: he believed the opposite; he states: “action must always precede knowledge” on the basis that “for real knowledge there is no path but action to win and keep it”. His actions and thoughts were in constant flux, bewildering friend and foe alike.

This intellectual fluidity contributed to White’s philosophical progression from classical liberalism, towards Tolstoy’s austere communalism, then syndicalism, Marxism, “Christian communism” and, finally, his own take on anarchism. It is this progression, and most especially White’s drift towards anarchism, that is the primary focus of Leo Keohane’s study. Apart from White’s own account of his life in Misfit, this is the first published biography of him. Despite the loss of White’s papers – legend has it that they were destroyed by unsympathetic relatives after his death in 1946, though the author remains hopeful that they have just been mislaid ‑ Keohane has put together an impressively researched volume on a hitherto somewhat neglected person of no small historical importance. It will, however, disappoint those seeking a rounded biographical account of its subject’s extraordinary life. His tempestuous first marriage to the long-suffering Dollie Mosley is only tangentially dealt with. A dark-haired beauty, part Spanish, she couldn’t have been happy that her husband put his causes before her needs. She had married a Sandhurst-schooled officer with excellent prospects but soon after the marriage, to the dismay of his father, and presumably his wife, he left the army and, with intent, became downwardly mobile.

The Damascus-like change was the result of his growing attachment to Tolstoy and his teachings. Taking on board the Tolstoyan message that a “sincere and moral man will involuntarily prefer manual labour”, he moved from place to place, ending up in Canada tramping and doing various mundane jobs before his wife, not surprisingly, left for home: the first of many partings. Going further in search of happiness and enlightenment, he returned to England and joined a Tolstoyan community in the Cotswolds. He baulked at Tolstoy’s proscriptions on vegetarianism and celibacy but, as this particular group notoriously promoted free love, the need for sexual abstinence didn’t arise.

White, it seems, had a formidable appetite for sex and didn’t let his marital status inhibit him. This is not something Keohane’s book explores, being largely a political biography. Yet a portrait of the man, as a man, might have yielded more clues to White’s complex personality. His attitude to women warrants attention. He had a lot to say in his writing about sexual relations and marriage, some of which might be deemed, even at that time, misogynistic. The Citizen Army is rightly credited with allowing women to become full members, something neither branch of the volunteer movement permitted, but we are not told if this was something White facilitated or approved of and it seems only to have occurred after his command.

White never saw himself as, metaphorically, “in bed” with anyone. Alliances were temporary: although they yielded insights, they would inevitable be followed by a quarrel, rupturing relations. By all accounts, he could be charming; his learning and eloquence made him good company, but he was sensitive and tempestuous if challenged on any of his strongly held views. His Northern directness could offend. On meeting Roger Casement ‑ himself a Protestant with Antrim antecedents ‑ he said to him: “We’ll get on alright if you’re honest.” Although portrayed as a pacifist, based on his attachment to Tolstoy, he certainly didn’t believe in turning the other cheek and, if he felt provoked he could strike first. He was twice charged with assaulting a policeman; first as the result of a fracas in March 1914 on Butt Bridge in Dublin while leading a contingent of the Citizen Army in an unemployed workers demonstration; the second in Belfast eighteen years later during street disturbances, also in connection with an unemployed march. On both occasions he appeared in court swathed in bloodstained head bandages, advertising wounds inflicted on him by the police.

Famously, he struck DH Lawrence when provoked during an argument: a blow to the diaphragm according to Lawrence, a deserved kick in the behind, claimed White. The incident is portrayed in a chapter of Lawrence’s Aaron’s Rod, where Jim Bricknell (White) argues with Rawdon Lilly (Lawrence), first about Christ and love and later about Bricknell’s impending liaison with a young woman. Bricknell espoused the greatness of Christ’s message of all-encompassing love which Lilly scorned. Later, Lilly tells him that he is making a maudlin fool of himself with women.

You haven't been here a day, but you must telegraph for some female to be ready to hold your hand the moment you go away. And before she lets go, you'll be wiring for another. You want to be loved, you want to be loved ‑ a man of your years. It’s disgusting.

Bricknell protests:

I don’t see it. I believe in love.

White, leaving aside the specifics of the assault, accepted Lawrence’s narrative as a broadly true account of their encounter in 1918 when he stayed a few days in his home. That being so, it highlights White’s enduring obsessions: religion, love and sexual relationships. Sex love is akin to war, he declared in his autobiography. He extended the metaphor into politics describing the Irish problem as “the sex problem writ large”. Protestantism he perceived to have male attributes and Catholicism female. But the sex war, be it between a man and a woman, or between national or religious affiliates, was resolvable. What was needed were alternative bridging allegiances; class, Christianity or some combination of the two. Although he worked tirelessly for his causes, the Citizen Army in particular, he never entirely belonged to any of them. His thoughts were on a higher plane. His schemes, no matter how naively conceived, had a transcendent quality; he believed they had relevance for oppressed peoples everywhere.

His support for Home Rule was provoked, not by any conversion to nationalism ‑ he was never a nationalist – but by his anger at the refusal by unionists to allow Winston Churchill to speak at a meeting in the Ulster Hall in Belfast in 1912. Churchill was then a member of the Liberal Party and pro-Home Rule. This denial of free speech was denounced by White in a letter to the Belfast Newsletter as a betrayal of Protestant freedoms and akin to “the naked spirit of Popery”.  This was clearly intended for a Protestant readership and while his language and thinking were to modify when he moved south, he always remained convinced that the facility for independent thought and action within Protestantism made it superior to the rigid discipline imposed by the Catholic Church. He remained staunchly Presbyterian, in spirit if not in practice, throughout his life. Although born in England, he never considered himself as anything but an Irish dissenter. He grew up in the family estate in Broughshane, Co Antrim, where a few generations before many of the Presbyterian inhabitants of that village were “out” in the 1798 rebellion. White was not unaware of this and could justifiably claim ideological kinship to these United Irishmen.

The two women White chose to marry were, and with difficulty remained, practising Catholics. Both wanted to be married in a Catholic church but White was resolute in his refusals. In his autobiography he gives as the reason that Rome “… stood pre-eminently for the subordination of the inner light to external authority, individual vision to collective prudence”. Though never a regular churchgoer, White, through all his political manifestations, seems to have maintained a belief in a personal God. Keohane quotes his second wife (Noreen Shanahan) as saying about her late husband:

He had […] the child’s faith in God and the unshakeable conviction that whatever enterprise he was embarked on, was in fact not merely the work of JRW [his family referred to him thus] but of JRW as divinely-inspired vehicle of the Almighty.

A messianic zeal did seem to infuse many of his ventures. He self-depreciatingly confesses as much in Misfit when he refers to a “rival messiahship” affecting his relationship with Casement. Dollie, his first wife, in one of their many rows, once accused him of behaving as if he were God. Perhaps in White, scion of a national hero, himself at one time intimate with both King and Kaiser, delusions of grandeur were to be expected.

Although he tirelessly worked to establish and train the Citizen Army, and generously dipped into his own pockets to help uniform them, he struggled to gain the confidence of the recruits. Sean O’Casey wrote in his The Story of the Citizen Army: “White did not obtain the affectionate co-operation his nature craved for. His efforts to understand the mysterious natures of working men were earnest and constant and were never fully appreciated.” Not least by James Larkin, who at a public meeting referred to him in his presence as the “son of Sir George White, who defended the British flag at Ladysmith, the dirty flag under which more disease and degradation had been experienced than anything else that I know of”. Not surprisingly White, who only a year before had helped lower his father’s beflagged coffin into his grave in Broughshane, took umbrage. Pádraig Yeates, in Lockout, says that Larkin may have taken offence at something White said at an earlier meeting and speculates that Larkin was somewhat jealous and suspected him of “wanting to influence or capture our organisation and wean it from its first attachment to Labour Ideals”. Connolly and Sean O’Casey managed to heal the breach and White and Larkin remained uncomfortable allies with White later driving Larkin to meetings around the country in his two-seater Ford. Larkin was notoriously cantankerous and a more formidable “messianic rival” to White than even Casement. Their relationship ended when Larkin effectively took over control of the Citizen Army in May 1914 precipitating White’s resignation; a sad end to six months of staunch commitment. Despite their differences, White admired Larkin, although it was Connolly who influenced his political thinking.

White immediately joined up with the Irish Volunteers and took on the role of drilling their recruits in and around Derry. When the war broke out in 1914 he wrote to Kitchener, known to him from his military days, suggesting that the volunteers, along with the Ulster Volunteers, be given the role of defending Ireland. He saw this as an opportunity of uniting the two traditions. Typically, although he had no significant standing in the volunteer organisation, he took this initiative unilaterally. Although it was bound to fail, it anticipated, and may even have been intended to forestall, John Redmond’s call for the volunteers to enlist in the British army. White himself didn’t re-enlist ‑ although he initially seems to have been instructed to return his regiment; instead, with the apparent approval of Field Marshall Earl Roberts, his old Boer War commander and intimate, he converted his car into an ambulance and headed for the front. According to Ed Mulhall in an RTÉ Century Ireland essay, “Punching the Wind: Jack White, the misfit of the Irish Revolution”, he worked with an Australian ambulance unit in Belgium and later Dunkirk, where his wife joined him for a time working as a nurse. He seems to have abandoned this work by 1916 and (again thanks to Mulhall) we learn that, intriguingly, he stayed for a time with Maud Gonne in Paris.

He was in England when the 1916 rising took place and made no attempt to return to Dublin. It’s not clear if he was in sympathy with the insurrectionists initially but we know he was appalled by the executions that followed. Learning that Connolly was due to be shot, he travelled to South Wales in a vain attempt to convince the miners there to strike in protest. This resulted in his arrest and detention in Pentonville Prison. Casement was hanged there at the same time “not fifty yards” away from White.

In the 1918 election he offered to stand as a Labour Party candidate in Ireland but the offer was declined by party leader Tom Johnson (in the event, Labour stood aside and ran no candidates). He was arrested by the Provisional Government in Dublin for unstated reasons in 1922 and spent some weeks in prison. He was invited to become a candidate in the 1923 Free State election by the Donegal Republican Workers Council but declared he would only run as a “Christian Communist”. Not surprisingly, the invitation was withdrawn. White appears to have become a Marxist by 1918, although, influenced by Connolly’s legacy, he leaned towards syndicalism. He got involved in left and unemployed agitation in Belfast, which resulted in his being imprisoned there and being served with an exclusion order which meant he couldn’t live in his family house in Broughshane, which he inherited when his mother died in 1935.

He became involved in the Republican Congress and travelled to Spain to work with the (British Communist Party-inspired) Spanish Medical Committee during the civil war there. Like George Orwell, he was appalled by Communist Party intrigues there. Keohane quotes him as, true to form, likening Moscow-dominated communism to medieval Catholicism:

…in its ruthlessness to heretics, in glorification of a hide bound scholasticism supplying ready made arguments whose repetition is the only safeguard from the Inquisition, in docile obedience to its high priests and slavish support of their changes of policy however, unprincipled …

His disillusionment with communism led him towards anarchism. Perhaps he was impressed by the Spanish anarchist militias but, in any event, anarchism was a near best fit for his innate anti-authoritarianism. Yet even here it had to be adapted to White’s individualist philosophy: Keohane quotes him as stating that although he didn’t like labels, “Christian Anarchist” “is the nearest label to fit me”.

Before his Spanish adventures Dollie and he had finally divorced. He married Noreen Shanahan from Dalkey in 1938. The exclusion order having been lifted by then, they lived together in Broughshane in a stormy but far from loveless relationship. Jack died in 1946 and is buried in the local graveyard along with his ancestors.

Keohane’s Captain Jack White is a welcome contribution to the limited store of knowledge about this unique labour legend. As noted, this is not a conventional biography: at times it seems that White is more a vehicle for the author’s exposition of radical theories. There are frequent digressions into anarchism ‑ a rather nebulous subject as the author concedes – which distract from the narrative. The author’s tendency to interpret many of White’s utterances and actions as indicative of his move towards anarchism seems, at times, strained. Certainly, anarchism is the closest he came to a definitive political philosophy but, in reality he was, as he implied himself, impossible to categorise. He was a once-off.

To many of his contemporaries, White was impossible, impenetrable and inconsistent. But he was consistently on the side of the oppressed. He dissipated what little wealth he and his family possessed into linked causes. His life and endeavours can seem quixotic. Except that the windmills he tilted against were no imaginary giants; they were, and remain, the citadels of wealth, power and influence.

Tom Wall is a former assistant general secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions

1/1/2015

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