A misfit is defined as: “one who is unable to adjust to one’s environment or circumstances or is considered to be disturbingly different from others.”
The historian Dr Éamon Phoenix spoke about a number of ‘Ulster’s political misfits’ last night in a fascinating talk at Bangor library. He outlined the lives of forgotten figures from history such as Sir Denis Henry, a leading barrister of his day who became the first, and so far only, Member of Parliament who was a Catholic and a unionist.
There was R. J. Armour, a Presbyterian minister whose dissenting faith and anti-landlordism led to his conversion to Home Rule, sharing John Redmond’s vision of a self-governing Ireland within the Empire. He even organised a Home Rule rally in his native Ballymoney.
And another Presbyterian minister, the Reverend Dr J. A. H. Irwin, who having never mentioned politics in the pulpit took leave from his congregation in Killead, County Antrim in the early 1920s, ostensibly on an extended holiday, to visit the United States on a speaking tour with none other than Éamon de Valera. The two men became good friends and regularly had tea together after Irwin became minister in Lucan, County Dublin, with Dev consulting him on the finer points of the 1937 constitution.
For me the most interesting figure in the talk was the charismatic Captain Jack White (pictured). The Whites were a family of modest landed stock from Broughshane and Jack, only son of the ‘hero of Ladysmith’ Field Marshal Sir George White VC, was assured of a solid career in the army, just like his father. He saw action in the Boer War as a young officer and was awarded the Distinguished Service Order rather by accident, “having, when taken prisoner, owing to mistaking advancing Boers for British troops, and stripped, escaped from custody and run six miles, warning Colonel de Lisle, and advancing with him to relief of Major Sladen’s force,” according to the citation.
After the war he resigned his commission, disaffected with the army, and disappeared for several years teaching in Europe and working as a ranch hand in Canada before returning to Ireland in 1913. He met James Connolly and, according to Phoenix, was immediately converted to socialism. White became heavily involved with the trade union movement and along with James Larkin set up the Citizen Army. After the Rising and the execution of Connolly, White moved further left toward communism and later still joined up with anarchists in the Spanish Civil War. He finally settled with his second wife, a Catholic, back at the family home in Broughshane in 1938 and following the outbreak of war rushed to offer his services to his country. Unsurprisingly, though not to White himself, he was refused on the grounds of his political activities in the past. “But I’m not orange or green, I’m red,” he is said to have protested, genuinely puzzled by the sectarianism in his native land. He died in 1946.
So who are today’s misfits? Can we compare Armour’s Home Rule rally in Ballymoney to Jim Allister’s anti-DUP rally on Paisley territory following the European election? How about Michael Portillo, who began his career as an arch Thatcherite but later recanted on many of his right-wing views and ran for the party leadership on a socially liberal platform.
Perhaps, but they’re pale comparisons to Captain Jack White.