The amazing life of Harry White, Chief of Staff for the Irish Republican Army. White was so loyal to the cause that even tried to take the cause on all by himself when everyone else was imprisoned!

For nearly a year there was no official chief of staff of the Irish Republican Army. The chain had been interrupted, but not quite broken. Nearly all ardent believers were either dead or in jail.

An example of the scant membership of the IRA in 1944 is illustrated by this incident:

A sympathetic warder in the Crumlin Road jail took prisoner Joe Cahill aside and said, “You’d better get word to Harry White. Tell him to get the hell out of the bushes.”

Incredulous, Cahill replied, “What are you talking about?” The officer explained that he had spotted White crouched in the bushes leading to the jail, revolver in hand, obviously waiting to kill a certain jailer who was notorious for his harsh beatings of Republican prisoners. When word was sent out to White to cease and desist, he wrote back, stating, “What did you want me to do? There’s nobody else out here to do it” (All the Dead Voices by Danny Morrison, p. 38). White was the only member of GHQ staff not imprisoned, earning him the nickname “the last Volunteer.”


White was born in Belfast in the year of the Rising, joined the IRA at a young age, participated in the English Campaign, but returned to Dublin before being run to ground by Scotland Yard (Harry by Uinseann MacEoin, p. 77). He was sent to Killiney Castle to participate in explosives classes under Paddy McGrath (All the Dead Voices by Danny Morrison, p. 33). During the course of his IRA career, he had seen the inside of a prison cell at Mountjoy, Arbour Hill, Crumlin Road, and the Curragh.

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He was first arrested in June 1935 while attending a training camp outside Dundalk. On 8 December 1937, he was again arrested for helping a “wee lad” over a fence, the lad being pursued by the RUC. Six months in Crumlin Road was his reward (Harry by Uinseann MacEoin, pp. 46, 50−51). In September 1938 he traveled to England, where he became the Operations Officer in Manchester. A premature explosion of a bomb prompted his unplanned departure from England. By late July 1939, he was again in the company of the Gardaí, when he was arrested at a training camp in Offaly. Mountjoy was his home for the next months. In October 1941, White was released from Arbour Hill but driven to the Curragh that same day (Harry by Uinseann MacEoin, pp. 73, 84−85, 90).

His stay on the Kildare plains didn’t last long. Sean McCool asked White to sign out and take the listing of the arms dumps (which McCool had cataloged in his head) to GHQ Dublin. There was no written account of such storehouses because of the perceived danger that the listing could fall into the hands of the authorities. To “sign out,” an internee must ink a statement of “good intent,” meaning he promised not to engage in illegal activity against the State. A person was viewed with contempt by the IRA for doing this and immediately expelled from the organization. How to get around this dilemma? White and McCool came up with an interesting solution: White resigned from the IRA, signed out, went to Dublin and met with Charlie Kerins, who gave him enough funds to maintain himself in the capital until he was reinstated in the IRA.

On 9 September 1942, Detective Sergeant Dinny O’Brien was shot and killed just beyond the gateway to his house in Rathfarnham. Although White had nothing to do with the killing, his name was included on the Wanted List of suspects for that murder. On 30 September, White accompanied Paddy McDermody to the wedding reception of McDermody’s sister, Jane, in County Cavan. The two were in the house only a few minutes when detectives burst through the door with guns blazing. McDermody was killed, and White suffered two bullet wounds to his leg but managed to run through the darkness and collapse in a ditch, where he remained for thirty-six hours. In his attempt to sneak through the cordoned-off area, he encountered a Free State soldier named Reilly, who, against all betting odds, helped him to a barn, dressed his wounds, fed him for several days, then gave him a bicycle with which to pedal the seventy-five miles to Dublin (All the Dead Voices by Danny Morrison, pp. 36−37).

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Four weeks later White and Maurice O’Neill were just leaving a house in Holly Road, Donnycarney, Dublin, when both men were called upon to halt! Shots were exchanged, White ran down the lane and escaped while O’Neill dashed back into the house, only to be seized by the authorities. Detective George Mordaunt had been killed in the melee. White escaped “through several houses, then broke through to the Malahide Road where a detective armed with a Thompson machine-gun opened fire on him” (All the Dead Voices by Danny Morrison, p. 37). He jumped over a wall and landed in the Clontarf Golf Course, crossed it, and found his way into the back garden of an unknown savior, where he lay for two days undetected.

In the latter days of 1942, Harry moved north and was appointed acting O/C in Belfast (All the Dead Voices by Danny Morrison, p. 38). He exchanged an occasional note with Charlie Kerins. Eileen Tubbert, future wife of Paddy Fleming, served as a courier (Harry by Uinseann MacEoin, p. 143).

Safety was a primary concern. To survive, Harry answered an ad placed in the Derry Journal (as prearranged by the IRA) and moved out of Belfast to Altaghoney, where he lived as a “handyman” with two Republican sympathizers, Brigid, and Rose O’Kane. White was an accomplished musician, and while in the rural area of County Derry, he formed the Magnet Dance Band. Unknown to the revelers on the dance floor, White, the last free IRA GHQ staff member, strummed his banjo and played his fiddle in the Orange Hall at Tullintrain and other paying venues. He also took to barbering. One ever-returning customer was Sergeant Murdock of the RUC, who even helped him obtain some gelignite for blasting rocks and clearing his farmland. (Half of the gelignite shattered rocks in the field, the other half was sent to the IRA in Belfast) (All the Dead Voices by Danny Morrison, p. 40).

White made infrequent trips to Belfast where he “kept up the line into the prisons and oversaw an occasional limited issue of War News, but lost contact with Dublin” (The Secret Army The IRA by J. Bowyer Bell, p. 234.) Sometimes his sisters traveled to Derry to see him and returned with messages for the Belfast IRA.

On 20 October 1946, White was arrested by members of the RUC Special Branch at the home in Altaghoney (Harry by Uinseann MacEoin, p. 153). The premises were searched and the RUC found not just banjos and barber shears, but twelve handguns and two thousand rounds of ammunition! (All the Dead Voices by Danny Morrison, p. 41). White was taken to Victoria Barracks in Derry, then moved to Crumlin Road jail, where three days later he was released. But his freedom wings were soon clipped! At the gate, he was rearrested and handed over to the Special Branch officers of the Dublin government and charged with the murder of Detective Mordaunt in the shootout in Dublin four years earlier in October 1942.

Through the efforts of his defenders, Sean MacBride, Con Lehane, and Noel Hartnett, White avoided the death penalty, which had been handed down on 3 January 1947. On appeal, his sentence was reduced to twelve years, but fortunately, he did not have to suffer through a dozen years behind bars. He was freed from Portlaoise prison by the Clann na Poblachta government on 9 March 1948.

In the early 1950s, White married a County Kerry woman, Kathleen O’Callaghan of Caherina, Tralee, the birthplace of Charlie Kerins. They settled in Santry, Dublin. Nothing but the Irish language was spoken in their home. They both became members of the Renovation Committee for Kilmainham gaol. When the Troubles broke out in 1969, he helped smuggle guns to the North and later supported the Provisional IRA when it split from Goulding’s socialistic policies in 1970 (All the Dead Voices by Danny Morrison, p. 43).

Although White breathed his last in 1989, his family’s presence lived on in the Republican Movement. His nephew, Danny Morrison, flourished the pen that promulgated the Provisional IRA’s position toward the Peace Process of the 1990s. Editor of Republican News in 1975 and An Phoblacht/Republican News in 1979, Morrison inherited the genetic code for rebelliousness against any foreign government that lay claim to any part of Ireland as its own.

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* An extract from Echoes of Their Footsteps, Volume III, by Kathleen Hegarty Thorne and Patrick Flanagan.

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