Misfit by Jack White [Review]

Jack White is a fascinating figure. Born into the Northern Irish Protestant ascendancy, he could have had a great career pacifying the ‘natives’ at home or abroad. But, despite getting to Captain in the British army, he went to the bad (or the good depending on how you look at it), turning to the Irish labour movement, Republicanism and later, Anarchism.

His autobiography, Misfit, first published in 1930 is aptly titled: he always hoed his own row, combining a kind of ‘primitive Christianity’ with a concern for social justice, and trying to put it into action. He is best described as pro-Jesus but anti-religion. He had no time for Catholicism in particular, but he was no bigot.

I can’t imagine he ever lost his ‘military bearing’, but he was no armchair general, and never ‘backwards about coming forwards’. His first claim to fame is drilling the Irish Citizen Army in 1913 with the aim of ‘putting manners on the police’, which they did. The ICA made White a footnote in Irish history, no more. Loyalists presumably regard him as a traitor. Republicans - even socialist ones - have little to say about him. Perhaps they see him as a ‘loose cannon’ for following his own political trajectory?

Misfit takes us to 1930, which leaves 16 years before White’s death. Is it a worse mistake to write you autobiography too soon, or not at all? Had his papers not been burnt by his family, we’d have a much better view of an even more interesting part of his life. Thankfully, Phil Meyler has drawn together the threads for a chapter titled ‘Misfit 2’ which sketches out some of the ‘what happened next’, including time with the Republican Congress group, the Spanish Civil War and involvement with the anarchist movement.

The book is concluded with some of White’s writings from the thirties, chiefly on anarchism and the Spanish revolution (and Communist counter-revolution). Less reflective and more urgent, they still clearly show White’s character and concerns, defying the scorched earth policy of his family.

White is such a partisan for social justice, so much his own man, that he’s almost non-partisan. Neither competing nationalism would want to claim him. Surely he’d make an epic subject for the film industry: passionate politics, passionate life not to mention plenty of exciting locations. Until then, Jack White will bang noisily from the historical cupboard in which he’s been shut up, inspiring Irish anarchists with a home-grown predecessor, but also noisily raising the social question, which is no more resolved now than when he died. Misfit‘s reappearance in print is a welcome start on levering open that cupboard door.

Misfit, by Jack White. Livewire Publications, 2005. ISBN 1-905225-20-2 £9.99 259 pages. Livewire Publication,  P.O. Box No 9902, Dublin , Republic of Ireland www.geocities.com/livewirepublications livewirepublications[at]yahoo.ie