The Third History – What Happened To Captain Jack White’s papers?

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“The Burning” – PDF here– is a full length play written about the circumstances surrounding the destruction Captain Jack White’s papers following his death in Broughshane, Co. Antrim in 1946. White, as many people will know, was one of the more well known figures in Irish history that identified with anarchism. The only son of British Boer War hero, Sir George Stuart White (“The Hero Of Ladysmith”), he was assured a bright future in the upper echelons of the British military until his conscience intervened and he resigned his commission.Breaking with family, he gravitated to political activism and the revolutionary left. His baptism of fire was the Great Lockout in Dublin in 1913, where he worked alongside Larkin and Connolly and proposed the idea of the Irish Citizen Army. Of Protestant “stock”, he was active in the fight against imperialism, reserving particular vitriol for the “Orange” state formed in the north of Ireland after partition in 1922.

White’s involvement with the Left in Ireland and the UK was constant throughout the 20’s and 30’s, but it was not until he went to Spain in 1936 that he became an anarchist. He was very active in London in the organisation and newspaper Spain And The World and wrote The Meaning Of Anarchism; an article that sought to provide balanced assessment of the upheaval in revolutionary Spain. He spoke and wrote positively of anarchism and felt it was a set of ideas closest to his own sentiment – this at a time when anarchism had few proponents in Ireland.

In the introduction to the reprint of White’s The Meaning Of Anarchism (entitled Anarchy and published by the Belfast Anarchist Collective in the early 1980s) Albert Meltzer wrote a short account of White’s life. Meltzer met White a number of times and was familiar with White’s collaboration with Matt Kavanagh, a “Liverpool-Irish” anarchist rooted in the anarcho-syndicalist tradition. White and Kavanagh worked on “a study of Irish labour in relation to anarchism” as well as an account of the Limerick Soviet. According to Meltzer, these and other works of White’s were ‘irretrievably lost’ when White’s heirs ‘disposed of his papers’ following White’s death from cancer in 1946 at “Whitehall”, the name given to the family home just outside Broughshane. Although Meltzer doesn’t elaborate, White’s ‘papers’ also probably included personal and political correspondences from decades of activism, his documents and notes from speeches and articles, as well as a draft of the second part of White’s biography.

Exactly what was “lost” will be never now be known but is nevertheless clear that a great deal of material of irreplaceable value disappeared. Not only documents important to the left and particularly the libertarian movement, but also material of a general historical value too, given the period that White lived and was active in.

Today White’s father, Sir George Stuart White, is a celebrated figure not just in Broughshane but also in the wider locality of Antrim. A number of guidebooks mention his life and role and, of course, his famous command in the siege of Ladysmith during the Boer War. At the family home (Whitehall) a Historical Society plaque on the door celebrates the house as the family residence of ‘Sir George Stuart White’. In contrast there is in no mention of Captain Jack White. Indeed it is difficult to find mention of him in the area at all and, for the most part, questions about him, elicit polite embarrassment.

It is beyond the terms of this short introduction to go into the detail of Captain Jack White’s politics and activism (see http://www.struggle.ws/anarchists/jackwhite.html for this). However what is clear now is that the destruction of White’s papers played a significant role in Captain Jack White’s subsequent near erasure from history. Only in recent years, mainly through the efforts of the Kate Sharpley Library and other interested anarchists, have new facts emerged. As a result there has been something of grudging appreciation of his life and activism. The fact that he remains one of the few left activists in the Ireland of the time to openly challenge the hegemony of Communist Party orthodoxy with respect to the civil war in Spain, is to his long-lasting credit.

The loss of White’s papers is not uncomplicated however. When viewed through the prism of his personal life, other aspects emerge. On the one hand White’s schism with his blood family ran deep and was acrimonious. It was alleged that he had besmirched the family name through his actions, and at one point a sibling attempted to have him declared insane. Add to this White’s own not-uncomplicated personal life. To cut a long story short he met his second wife, Nora Shanahan in London in 1936. Shanahan was a practising Catholic and from a well-off Dublin family and they had three children together. They returned to live in Broughshane around 1938 and stayed there until White’s death. Nora Shanahan later sold Whitehall and left the area.

“The Burning” is set in the family home at Broughshane in the period immediately after Jack White’death. The characters involved are White’s widow, Noreen Shanahan; White’s sister, Lady Napier; Lily, a family friend of Jack White’s; and finally Matt Kavanagh, White’s comrade. The play of course is a work of fiction, a conjecture about what may have happened. Although none of the individuals portrayed are alive today, there will be some who have memories of those involved. If any offence is caused by the portrayals set out then I apologise in advance.

Lastly a note on production: Although The Burning remains under consideration it still awaits its first stage production. So to anyone other there who knows of ‘theatre alternative’, press this work into their hands…

Download from http://www.struggle.ws/pdfs/pamphlets/TheBurning.pdf

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