Ireland and the Spanish Civil War - "Jack White of Ballymena"


"Jack White of Ballymena"

By T.J. McElligott

Ballymena Guardian, 3 August 1989, p. 8

When the General Election of 1945 was announced, a retired officer of the British Army, then living in his family's ancestral home at Whitehall, Broughshane, offered to stand as a Socialist Republican candidate in Mid Antrim.

His announcement was, to say the least, scarcely expected in the heartland of loyalist Ulster but Jack White was never a man to tread water in politics or religion, in love or friendship. He did not just have strong views on everything and anything, he had views which might be considered extreme on most matters. When I met him towards the end of his life, he had put behind him several careers. None had led to the ease associated with positions that are permanent and pensionable. In all he did he followed the dictates of his conscience even when that led him to rebel against what was both prudent and conventional.

Yet his background was scarcely that of the traditional rebel. An ancestor, the Rev Fulk White, had come to Broughshane as Presbyterian minister in 1687. His own maternal grandfather was chaplain of the Royal Chapel in Windsor Park and his father the heroic defender of Ladysmith.

He attended Winchester College from July 1892 to September 1896 when his father entered him as a King's Cadet at Sandhurst. Doubtless, he looked forward to seeing his only son add further lustre to the family name. However, even as a young subaltern, he was sharply critical of the training he received there.

In his unfinished autobiography, entitled 'Misfit' (London: Jonathan Cape l930) he writes: ''In all my life I have never given verbal assent to so many unintelligible propositions, nor made so many marks on paper with so little understanding or interest in their import, as I did during the hours devoted to fortifications as Sandhurst. Was it that the fortifications in question had already been obsolete for fifty years?"

He was duly gazetted to the 1st Gordon Highlanders in 1899 with whom he served during the Boer War when he was awarded the D.S.O, during an engagement with the enemy at Doorknop, White was one of the first over the top only to find himself confronted by a lone 17-year-old boy. As the rest of the company topped the ridge, another officer yelled at White 'Shoot him, shoot him'. 'If you shoot him' replied White, I'll shoot you'.

At the end of the war he acted as aide to his father when the latter was appointed Governor of Gibraltar and then served with the 2nd Gordons in India. There his career as a soldier ended and he resigned his Commission in 1905. Henceforth, he was to look for opportunities not of 'achieving military glory' but of fulfilling some inner urge to serve humanity in ways, it must be said, that humanity some times may have found difficult to comprehend.

He was to live the remainder of his life in almost permanent rebellion against injustice, It was not so much that he sought confrontation but that he had never disciplined himself to avoid it even when it would have served his ends to do so.

Psychologists may well trace it all to the background of religious and racial unrest that underlies so much of the history of Northern Ireland. Part of Jack White's inheritance was the Presbyterian tradition of dissent, which gave to the United Ireland movement its dynamism as well as its first members. Where he differed from religious leaders was in his strongly held belief that there was an alternative to the monolithic power of the Christian churches which he saw as buttressing sectarian divisions.


It was this belief which made him oppose Carson. In the eyes of Jack White a monolithic Unionist Ulster did not exist and he decided to convene a meeting in Ballymoney in October 1913. The Town Hall was secured for the meeting and it was decided to limit the attendance to Protestants. By doing so, they hoped to emphasise the fact that not all Protestants supported Carson.

The Town Hall was bedecked with Union Jacks and when John McElderry walked on to the platform to take the chair, it was estimated that some 500 people were present. Two motions were passed at the meeting, each proposed by John McMaster and seconded by Robert Carson, The first rejected the claim of Sir Edward Carson's provisional government to speak for all the Protestants of north-east Ulster and second called for the rejection of sectarianism as a divisive force among Irishmen.

It was Captain White who proposed the signing of a New Covenant which was, in essence, an anti-Home Rule pledge: "Being convinced in our conscience that Home Rule would not be disastrous to the national well-being in Ulster and that, moreover, the responsibility of self-government would strengthen the popular forces in other provinces, would pave the way to a civil and religious freedom which we do not now possess and give scope for a spirit of citizenship, we, whose names are underwritten, Irish citizens, Protestants, and loyal supporters of Irish nationality. relying under God on the proved good feeling and democratic instinct of our countrymen of other creeds, hereby pledge ourselves to stand by one another and our country in the troublous days that are before us, and more especially to help one another when our liberties are threatened by any non-statutory body that may be set up in Ulster or elsewhere. We intend so abide by the just laws of the lawful Parliament of Ireland until such time as it may prove itself hostile to democracy. In sure confidence that God will stand by those who stand by the people, irrespective of class and creed, we hereunto subscribe our names."

It was a gathering which served to emphasise that the democratic tradition in that northern province belonged more to the meetinghouse than the Parliament to the people rather than to Ministers of State.

Within one month he was largely responsible for setting up a 'non-statutory body' in' Dublin, This was the Citizen Army, one of whose objects, with its strong echoes of Wolfe Tone, was 'to sink all differences of birth, property and creed under she common name of the Irish people'. As Captain White intended it, the Citizen Army was to be used defensively against police attacks and he saw to it that they were drilled only with staves.

It was during this period that be had a falling-out with Sir Roger Casement who like his own son, Tony, had been educated at Ballymena Academy, That was in 1913 and it was only three years later that the two men were reconciled in sadly dramatic circumstances. White found himself in Pentonville prison for attempting to bring the South Wales miners out on strike end in the same prison, welting to by hanged, was Casement, And White wrote: 'It was not the Government's intention, but Casement and I were reconciled, even united, at last'.

On his release he exchanged the prison garb for something more becoming a former officer of the Gordon Highlanders. He had tea with Countess Markievicz on the terrace of the House of Commons when he was described by her biographer, Anne Mareco, as being 'resplendent in top hat and spats'

Much has been made of the differences between him and the Socialist leader, Glasgow born James Connolly. They appeared on many political platforms, both in Dublin and Belfast, but their relationship seemed never to have been very close, they parted company when during a meeting Connolly burnt a Union Jack. Despite his implacable opposition to the imperialism which to him it represented, White said that as a son of White of Ladysmith he could not allow the flag to be insulted and he left the meeting.


Having felt the weight of police batons in Dublin and Belfast, having known the inside of prisons in Swansea and London, having lived in a commune in Gloucestershire, taught in Bohemia, worked in a logging camp in Canada. organised labour groups in Spain, driven an ambulance in the First World War, he was, when I came so know him in 1944, concerned more with religion than politics. He seemed ever to be questioning himself, uncertain where his faith was leading him but confident that Christianity had the right answers. To him belief was what mattered most and in an article published in 'The Irish Statesman' he wrote: 'The Christian has no need to be either Protestant or Catholic in the institutional sense we now attribute to the words'

The very strength of his convictions must have made theologians despair. In one of his last letters to me, dated April 28, 1945, he wrote: 'Unlike your Church (he knew that I was a Catholic), I believe in the sanctity of my own marriage which to her is mortal sin and I have committed it twice, as this is my second Catholic wife'.

Returning to that first paragraph of mine, I was then teaching in Ballymena Academy and living on the outskirts of the town at Tullygarley. Not content with reading his election manifesto when shown it, I wrote to him, contradicting many, of the views expressed therein. Had I known the apocalyptic wrath of which he was capable, I might have stayed my hand but, in the event, there came a most friendly reply and an invitation to dinner at the family home in Broughshane. The house looks down towards a small lake beyond which lie rich meadowland, Captain White was then in his late sixties but his erect bearing and youthful movements made him appear much younger.

Of that first meeting I remember little except that I learned theories tumbled from him as he analysed the torments and troubles which, in his opinion, Stormont was doing nothing to lessen. Much later I read R.M, Fox's Green Banners' in which White is described as 'that rare phenomenon, a man of action who is always questioning himself, an introspective extrovert, and this has made for originality of thought and conduct'.

The only other guest that evening was Betty Sinclair, who had come from Belfast, and I felt some surprise at hearing them speak of that city as if it were far closer to Liverpool and Glasgow than to Dublin. Neither of them spoke of Ireland in terms of a political unit: their concern was to effect a social union between all classes north and south. The living conditions of people were what mattered to Jack White and he looked on politics as providing a means of improving these. In all that he wrote and said there was a clearly discernible note, freedom for the individual was more important than freedom for the nation.

When in later months I came so know him better, I began so understand why he, a Presbyterian by birth, was opposed to the power of the Christian churches. To him the doctrine of Papal supremacy and Presbyterian elitism were equally unacceptable; he saw them as buttressing sectarian divisions, He sought to effect what he termed 'communion' between the two even as he would have native and settler populations united under a Socialist banner. When in May 1945 I saw that he was convening a meeting for the Orange Hall in Broughshane, I decided to cycle out to it.


It is a small hall reached by a stairway let into an outer wall. Small groups had already gathered at the foot of the stairs as I leaned my bicycle against wall and made my way up. A few wooden benches, a chair or two and a table gave the room a half furnished appearance The big Lambeg drums were ranged against one wall cobwebbed and dusty after the winter's rest from the marching.

Mrs White and one of her sons, probably Tony, sat quietly in front of the table at which also sat Captain White and the chairman, the Rev R Strawsbridge, of Ballymena. Mr A. Gillespie, later Mayor of Ballymena, was the only other person in the room whom I recognised.

When Captain White rose to speak, he directed his opening remarks to a couple of RUC men standing at the head of the stairs. In a voice that never had need of amplification he abused them for skulking half hidden at the back of the hall. Room was made for them and they sat down.

It was a meeting such as few era likely ever to have attended, Jack White commanded a rich vocabulary of invective which was aimed at wide range of targets: Stormont and Westminster, Hitler and the Pope, Brookeborough and de Valera. He castigated in particular the Orange Order and the Unionist party for the control they exercised over coercion through the Special Powers Act.

The uncompromising, and as times violent, nature of his speech must have shaken some of his listeners who may have expected to hear expressed sentiments of a very different kind. For me, it was enthralling. As the dusk of the summers evening fell, I imagined that upper room filled with men who, in an earlier century, had planned 'the Rising Out of 98' before marching from Broughshane to the battle of Antrim Town.

When it was all over, I made my way down and cycled the six miles back to the town, I had much to think of, The Presbyterian tradition of honest dissent was evidently still strong in at least one corner of County Antrim and if Jack Whites vigorous definition of dissent was at one end of the spectrum, he was not without support among the more moderate elements.

I was to see him but once more. He was accustomed to ride into the Saturday market in Ballymena on his grey hunter, and on one of these occasions I met him. It was early summer and the streets were lively with the high pitched accents of Glbraltarians who were in a refugee camp outside the town and whose parents he may have known when, as a young officer, he was serving 'on the Rock', I did not then realise that I was seeing him for the last time. Six months later he died in a Belfast hospital.


His tempestuous life was one during which, like a twentieth century Don Quixote, he never ceased tilting against windmills, The fairies present at his birth gave him very special gifts: a courage which never failed him, a determination to resist oppression and an imagination which made him so often resist conventional behaviour. He would have rejoiced in the words of the Ulster poet, John Hewitt, with their assertion of human rights:

'Against the anthill and the beehive state
I hold the right of man so stay out late,
To sulk and laugh, so criticise or pray,
When he is moved, at any hour of day,"

Three Additional documents by White

A rebel in Barcelona: Jack White's first Spanish impressions More here ...

Where Casement would have stood To-day By Capt. J. R. White More here ...

The Significance of Sinn Fein - Psychological, Political, and Economic. More here ...

Written by J R White Published Martin Lester, Ltd, Dublin 1919.