- Captain Jack White: Imperialism, Anarchism and the Irish Citizen Army by Leo Keohane
Histories of the Irish Left prior to the Anglo-Irish War have traditionally been dominated by the looming, Janus-faced figures of James Connolly and “Big” Jim Larkin. Indeed, Connolly’s life and death in the Easter Rising gave birth to a veritable cottage industry of academic and popular biographies; Larkin, comparatively somewhat less examined, has more recently (and appropriately) become the subject of more historical attention. Between Connolly and Larkin, a long shadow was cast on their comrades in the Irish Left. Leo Keohane’s biography, Captain Jack White: Imperialism, Anarchism and the Irish Citizen Army seeks, in part, to redress that imbalance.
James Robert White (b. 1879), or “Captain Jack,” would have undoubtedly preferred to be in no one’s shadow. The son of Field Marshal Sir George White V.C., he was himself an accomplished veteran of the Boer War, born into the upper echelons of Ulster Protestant society and descended from Presbyterian refugees who had fled England for Ulster during the English Civil War. He was, from a young age, something of a troublemaker. With a likely element of narrative license, White claimed that his earliest recollection was a youthful act of defiance in standing on a three-legged stool when he was told he could not. Whether license or truth, it was fittingly emblematic of a pattern: White had a habitual distrust of, and defiance toward, authority.
White’s distrust of received knowledge and his habitual nonconformity also led, in part, to his departure from a promising military career and path toward involvement with the Irish Citizen Army. Like Connolly, White had seen the face of British imperialism through military service, and wanted little to do with it. Rejecting a military career occurred hand-in-hand with a quasi-transcendental conversion to a Tolstoyan spiritualism that White would maintain throughout the years, and—after some time spent chasing transcendence throughout Europe—White returned home to Ireland. There, he became embroiled in the vibrant politics of Ireland’s “revolutionary decade,” often sharing equal billing with luminaries such as Tom Kettle and Roger Casement.
Although originally focusing his attentions and talents upon the question of Home Rule, White soon became arrested by the vicious class conflict of the Dublin Lockout, and became a pivotal figure in the creation of the Irish Citizen Army. He would later claim, not without merit, that the Irish Citizen Army was crucial to the events leading to the Easter Rising. In spite of his declining influence, White was viewed as enough of a threat that he was arrested by British authorities and temporarily prohibited from returning to Ireland after the Rising; even the Provisional Government viewed him as a threat years later, as [End Page 156] he was again arrested in 1922. Keohane’s biography devotes the lion’s share of its attention to events prior to the formation of the Free State. White’s later activities, such as his involvement in the Republican Congress movement and his trip to Civil War Spain, are comparatively less documented.
One of Keohane’s most engaging contributions is his examination of White’s own political thought and its relationship to that of James Connolly. First, Keohane illuminates the quasi-Gramscian dimensions of White’s political thought in a compelling manner, suggesting that White has been underestimated as a novel radical thinker. Second, Keohane contends that there was a greater affinity between White’s nascent anarchism and Connolly’s syndicalism than has often been acknowledged. The latter is particularly compelling: indeed, in a rush to baptize Connolly as a doctrinaire Marxist of some Left-sectarian stripe, some analyses of his political thought have neglected the strains of anarchism he encountered in his involvement with the American Left and the Industrial Workers of the World. Keohane does not, by any means, claim that Connolly was an anarchist—he decidedly was not—but there was certainly a...