Captain Jack White: imperialism, anarchism and the Irish Citizen Army

Published in Book Reviews, Issue 2 (March/April 2015), Reviews, Volume 23

18LEO KEOHANE
Merrion Press
€20.25 pb, €49.95 hb

ISBN 9781908928931

Reviewed by
Angus Mitchell

Of the many strands of radical thought to be reckoned with in the ideological crossfire of Ireland’s revolutionary years—nationalism, socialism, feminism, anti-imperialism, modernism, internationalism, pacifism and vegetarianism—the relevance of anarchism is notably understudied. Part of the reason is due to the pejorative connotations associated with the very notion of anarchy as a political alternative. Historian F.S.L. Lyons famously used the term in the title of his published Ford Lectures, Culture and anarchy in Ireland 1890–1939. He deployed the word negatively to describe the lack of common identity that resulted in years of internecine tragedy. But anarchy as a philosophy has a coherency lacking in Lyons’s usage.

Oscar Wilde’s undervalued The soul of man under socialism (1891), the campaigning of Dublin-born Nannie Dryhurst (translator of Peter Kropotkin’s The Great French Revolution 1789–1793) and the agitation of Tipperary-born Agnes Henry are all specific Irish interventions in this global movement. If anarchism could be freed from its symbolic association with chaos and violence, as it is in other European countries, it might be reimagin-ed as a coherent challenge to the oppressive formations of power of the pre-1914 world. The ideals of anarchy sought to disband central government and replace it with community organisation, individual freedoms and creative education.

Notions of cooperation lie at the very heart of anarchist theory and belief. This is evident in the collaborative endeavour that drove the moderate separatism of Horace Plunkett’s cooperative movement, the designers of Irish Arts and Crafts, as well as the Irish Citizen Army. This critical biography about a prominent Irish anarchist is most welcome. It asks us to rethink the meaning, value and relevance of anarchy both to the past and to our own time.

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Born in Richmond, Surrey, in 1879, Captain J.R. ‘Jack’ White was one of the wild men of the revolutionary generation. For some, he remains too hot to handle. He merits no mention, for instance, in Roy Foster’s recent study on the revolutionary generation, Vivid faces (reviewed on p. 59). As the son of one of the British Empire’s most distinguished military heroes, Field Marshal Sir George White VC, Jack was born into a world of privilege and imperial entitlement. For some years he tried to conform to the norms of his Anglo-Irish background. After Sandhurst, he was awarded a DSO for gallantry during the Boer War. Like others prepared to challenge the restrictive protocols of the Edwardian age, he grew to reject the excesses of money and class privilege. His intellectual formation was built upon his reading of Carl Jung, Georges Sorel and Vladimir Lenin. When living in the experimental utopian Whiteway Colony in Gloucestershire, his anarchism found some release.
With the emergence of the Home Rule crisis in 1912, White entered into the arena of Irish politics with unformed ideas and plenty of gusto. He shared a platform with the historian Alice Stopford Green, the incorrigible British foreign office consul Roger Casement and the Presbyterian minister John Armour. Like Green and Casement, he had that privileged access to and understanding of the ruthless nature of British imperial power; this he combined with a suspicion of both papal supremacy and Protestant élitism. Their protest in Ballymoney, in October 1913, was a valiant, if unsuccessful, attempt to challenge Carsonism and persuade loyalists to forsake the Empire and unite in common purpose for a peaceful united Ireland.

But as the battle lines were drawn and political solutions evaporated, White’s sympathies swung towards socialism and the class struggle. The core chapters of this book persuasively re-insert White into the narrative of the War of Independence and reveal the transformative effect of his revolutionary engagement. White was imprisoned after 1916 for seditious efforts to persuade Welsh miners to strike in support of James Connolly before his execution. He was transferred to Pentonville shortly before Casement’s execution and placed in a cell within earshot of the scaffold. He emerges as a brave, single-minded, opinionated and, above all, non-violent participant in that age of sacrifice and slaughter.

Much of the book interprets White’s life through his volume of confessional memoirs, Misfit (1930), a book apparently helped into print with the encouragement of T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia). Misfit is a much under-utilised source, describing White’s internal struggles, his mystical and psychic experimentations, and his trust in a universal purpose that drove his action. This included a conviction that rebellion in Ireland would ignite world revolution, overthrow the imperial and capitalist system and herald a new world order controlled by the working class. Keohane, never shy of criticising White’s failures and cognitive eccentricities, mines the memoir to reveal the complex dissensions of the man.

Without any archive to speak of, the later years of White’s life are difficult to map. In the early 1930s, Indian political intelligence spied on his liaisons with the Ceylon communist Philip Rupasangha Gunawardena. Later he joined the Republican Congress and over Easter 1936, to mark the anniversary of the executions of Casement and Connolly, he gave an impassioned speech at the Sinn Féin Club in London. It was a hopeless effort to reconcile socialist and nationalist differences as the world was being swept helter-skelter into the Nazi vortex. That autumn White headed for Spain, but beyond his administrative work for the British medical units there is little precise knowledge of what he got up to and whether or not he fought with either the anarchists or the Connolly Column.

After inheriting the family home in Broughshane, Co. Antrim, and plagued by debt, White devoted his old age to interpreting the Scriptures. He earned a paltry living selling vegetables from his kitchen garden. His correspondence with the British intellectual John Cowper Powys is one of the few sources for understanding the anticlimactic end to his bold and undervalued life. Keohane is to be applauded for his rigorous research and for providing an amusing and most readable account of a character who is both awkward to historicise and nigh impossible to categorise.

Angus Mitchell is the author of Roger Casement in the ‘16 Lives’ series (O’Brien Press).

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