Ballymena 1914 - You say you want a revolution?

editorial image

Jack White was born in 1879, at Whitehall, in Broughshane and as an only son, he initially followed in the footsteps of his father, Field Marshal Sir George Stuart White VC.

At the age of eighteen, White saw service with the Gordon Highlanders in the Boer War and was decorated with the Distinguished Service Order.

White resigned his commission in 1907, citing disaffection with the army and its role. During the next few years White travelled to Bohemia (then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire), lived in a commune in England and then travelled and worked in Canada.

Arriving back in Ireland, he found Sir Edward Carson’s campaign against Home Rule gaining momentum. He organised one of the first Protestant pro-Home Rule meetings, in Ballymoney, to rally opinion against the Unionist Party and against what he described as its ‘bigotry and stagnation’. Another speaker at that meeting, coming from a similar social background, was Sir Roger Casement.

As a result of the Ballymoney meeting White was invited to Dublin where he met James Connolly and was converted to socialism. In 1913 he proposed the creation of a workers’ militia to protect picket lines from assaults by the Dublin Metropolitan Police and gangs in pay of the employers. The notion of a Citizen Army, drilled by him, was enthusiastically accepted. Its appearance, as White recollected, “put manners on the police”.

Latterly, he put his services at the disposal of the Irish Volunteers, believing that a stand had to be taken against British rule by a large body of armed people. He went to Derry, where there was a brigade of Volunteers who were largely ex-British Army like himself. But he was shaken by the sectarian attitudes he found. When he tried to reason with them and make the case for workers’ unity they dismissed him as merely ‘sticking up for his own’, i.e. Protestants.

When Connolly was sentenced to death after the 1916 Rising, White rushed to South Wales and tried to bring the miners out on strike to save his life. For his attempts, he was given three months imprisonment. Transferred from Swansea to Pentonville the day before Roger Casement’s death, White was within earshot of the next morning’s hanging.

In the late 1930s, he went to Spain during the Spanish Civil War as a medic with the Red Cross. Returning to London n, he married Noreen Shanahan, the daughter of an Irish government official. In 1938 they returned to White Hall in Broughshane, White having inherited it from his mother after her death in 1935.

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. A witness to the proceeding, recorded that White ‘commanded a rich vocabulary of language’ directed at a plethora of targets that included Adolf Hitler, Pope Pius XII, Lord Brookborough and Éamon de Valera. However, noted the reporter, White reserved particular contempt for the ‘Orange Order and the Unionist Party for the control they exercised over coercion through the Special Powers Act.’

In 1946 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.