Patrick White, who was shot dead in Spike Island prison 100 years ago on the 31st of May, 1921.
Patrick White, who was shot dead in Spike Island prison 100 years ago on the 31st of May, 1921.

Remembering Patrick White

By Will Murphy

In summer of 1921 Tom Devereux of Danescastle, Co. Wexford, wrote to his wife Annie. He was away: in Spike Island internment camp. He had written tens of such letters since his arrest months earlier but, on this occasion, he felt the need to reassure her that he would take her ‘advice about the barb wire’. It was, he continued, "very sad about Poor White".

Poor White was Patrick White of Meelick, Co. Clare, and he had acquired the epithet ‘poor’ because, on Tuesday, 31 May, he died at the same camp. At about 6pm that evening, White had been reaching through the wire to retrieve a ball when Private H. Whitehead, a sentry, shot him dead.

Forty-five years later, in the weeks leading up to the fiftieth anniversary of the 1916 Rising, Mrs Thomas Mulvey, White’s niece, who then lived in Drumshambo, Co. Leitrim, wrote to Patrick Gallagher, her local TD. He forwarded the letter to the Minister for Defence, and a civil servant added it to a file on White among the Military Service Pensions papers. Like so much of the correspondence that came to rest in that collection, Mrs Mulvey’s letter told a story of post-revolutionary struggle against the hardships of the everyday, and of her feeling that there was ‘not enough about’ her uncle.

In 1921 Patrick White was in his mid-thirties and a carpenter by trade. He was also a captain in the Meelick Company of the East Clare Brigade of the IRA, and, consequently, was arrested early that year. During those months, the moment of arrest and the hours afterward were usually the most dangerous, but Patrick White survived these. Eventually, he was transferred to Cork Male Prison and, on 12 April, from there to Spike Island.

As the Devereux’s correspondence suggests, White’s death seven weeks later was widely reported in the Irish newspapers. Initially, these reports were circumspect about the circumstances, but most indicated that he had been ‘in the vicinity’ of the barbed wire fence when shot. During the 1950s, in statements to the Bureau of Military History, two fellow internees, James Duggan and Richard O’Connell, gave similar accounts. A group of internees, they stated, had been playing hurling when the ball passed through the fence. When White went to fetch the ball, he was, in Duggan’s words, ‘shot by a nervous sentry’.

The entrance of what was Spike Island Prison in modern times. 
The entrance of what was Spike Island Prison in modern times. 

Sport was a very common activity in the internment camps and prisons of the Irish revolution, but hurling was not. For obvious reasons, those who managed the camps and prisons at this time feared the consequences of substantial bodies of men equipped with hurleys. In a question to parliament on 20 June 1921, Lieut-Commander Kenworthy, a consistent critic of British policy in Ireland, stated that White was ‘playing football at the time’ and, when supporting a compensation claim by White’s sisters in May 1924, Commandant Kingston, Southern Command, National Army, also described White as ‘playing football’. On the other hand, Thomas Ringrose, the fellow internee who formally identified White upon his death, remembered (like Duggan and O’Connell) that their game was hurling.

Whatever the code White and his colleagues played that day, there is no doubt that his fateful act was the simple one of pursuing a ball. According to Private Whitehead’s own evidence at a Military Inquiry in Lieu of an Inquest held on 3 June: “I saw one of the internees reaching through the wire. My orders were to fire on any internee tampering with the wire. He was stretching out his hand through the wire to get a ball. In accordance with my orders, I fired at him and hit him.”

The camp regulations, issued on 9 April, had indeed warned that it was forbidden ‘to tamper with’ the boundary wire and that ‘Any person disregarding this order is liable to be shot.’ Though the Inquiry exonerated Whitehead and recorded that the ‘deceased was himself to blame’, Whitehead’s actions and explanation infuriated at least some of his superiors. Acknowledging that Whitehead had technically conformed to the regulations, Col-Commandant H.W. Higginson of the 17th Infantry Brigade characterized his actions as a display of ‘crass stupidity’.

An aerial view of Spike Island. 
An aerial view of Spike Island. 

Whitehead was aware, Higginson wrote, that ‘the deceased was not tampering with the wire with any intention of escaping; it was therefore quite unnecessary for him to have fired.’ On the other hand, Nevil Macready, the General Officer-in-Command in Ireland, was more sympathetic to the soldier, stressing his inexperience and the fact that senior officers had ‘put the fear of God into our sentries’ regarding the danger of escapes.

According to Eunan O’Halpin and Daithí Ó Corráin’s recent book, The Dead of the Irish Revolution, Patrick White was one of eleven men to die that day as a direct consequence of the violence that had enveloped Ireland. If you visit Spike Island you can see there a plaque erected to him in 1957.

In Meelick, White is remembered too, as an athlete, hurler and because of the way in which he died one hundred years ago.

Will Murphy is an Associate Professor, School of History and Geography, Dublin City University and a member of the GAA’s History & Commemoration Committee.