On our vacation in Ireland in June 2015 we took the boat trip out to Spike Island in Cobh harbor in Co. Cork. Cobh is famous as last port of call of the Titanic. Spike Island is most often mentioned in Irish history as a place where many Irish political prisoners were held over the years. Cobh was a major port and as such a possible military target of the enemies of the British occupiers of Ireland.
The British first built an extensive fortress there, called Fort Westmorland, in the late 18th century and enlarged and improved it in the early 19th century. In 1847, during the Great Hunger, the British turned it into a prison in addition to its military function. It was, in fact, the largest prison British prison in the British Isles.
The most celebrated inmate of that prison was Young Irelander John Mitchel in the 1840s. The fort has now been renamed Fort Mitchel in his honor, but it was used as a prison by the British right through the Irish War of Independence in the 1920s. As many as five hundred members of the IRA were held there during the War of Independence until it was turned over to the Free State government after the truce. Because the Irish Volunteers were so active in the southern and western parts of Ireland, the Crown forces there needed a large and secure facility to hold them, and Spike Island fit that bill perfectly.
(Below: The main gate at Fort Mitchel)
While we were taking the tour of the fort / prison we came to two plaques on one of the inner walls. One was a stone tablet, with the text in Irish, and obviously quite old, and the other more modern and in English (right), but both memorialized the same man, Captain Patrick White of the East Clare Brigade IRA. The newer one included picture of him. Not surprisingly for someone who made the decision to defy the odds and put his life on the line trying to free his county from the world’s greatest empire, he is an earnest looking young man.
Patrick was a carpenter in his hometown of White’s Cross, Meelick, just north of the Clare – Limerick border in Co. Clare. He was also a good athlete, being a member of the Meelick hurling team that won the Co. Clare intermediate championship in 1917. Patrick was also the captain of the Meelick company of the East Clare Brigade of the IRA.
In January 1921 Patrick and his neighbor Thomas Ringrose were captured by Crown forces in a raid and taken to the RIC barracks on Williams St. in Limerick. At the time the British were using IRA prisoners as “human shields” in their military and RIC convoys. Ringrose recalled that they had orders to execute their hostage if they were attacked. Before White and Ringrose were sent off to prison both of them spent many weeks being used for that purpose. Ringrose said he was “lucky,” because he was placed with a British military unit, unlike White, who was placed with a group of the ill-disciplined and vicious Auxiliaries. When next he saw Patrick at a barracks in Limerick, his face had been marked and scarred by the brutal treatment to which he’d been subjected.
The two were separated again but in May Ringrose was sent to the Spike Island and was happy to find that Patrick White had survived his ordeal with the Auxiliaries and was there. On seeing Ringrose, White came to him to shake his hand, the two celebrating that they had “gotten through,” i.e. they had lived through their inhuman and criminal treatment after capture and would now survive the war. So it would have seemed, but it was not to be for Patrick.
(Below: A view of Cobh from Spike Island.)
As the only two Claremen in the prison, they became closer, often walking the grounds inside together. On June 1st Thomas Ringrose (right) was reading a two week old borrowed newspaper when Patrick came in asking about going for their daily walk. When Thomas said he wanted to finish reading the paper first, Patrick made what turned out to be a fatal decision, grabbing a hurley stick and went out to knock the sliotar (hurling ball) around with the Cork lads while waiting for Thomas. "I will go out and hurl," he said, "come out after, with the news."
When the sliotar was accidentally hit into an area that was “off limits” to the prisoners, White asked a British sentry, Private Whitehead, to retrieve it. Whitehead told him to go and get it himself. When he did, the soldier shot and killed him. Thomas heard the shot and ran out of the building to find his friend lying in a pool of his own blood. As Ringrose held his dying friend in his arms, White looked up and weakly exclaimed, "What will my poor people do."
One can only imagine the anger of Ringrose and the other prisoners at this treachery, but they were powerless do anything about it. The commander of the prison, Colonel Higginson, called the murder "crass stupidity" but as was usually the case in such murders by British troops in Ireland, it was deemed "justifiable." It was yet another case of "shot while trying to escape." There were many irrational killings by Crown forces during that tragic period in Ireland, but White’s was surely one of the cruelest and most senseless. White's body was taken home and buried at the republican plot in White's Cross. In June 1957, the first plaque (below, left) was unveiled on Spike Island to mark the spot where Patrick had been killed. Sean Moylan, who had lead the I.R.A.’s North Cork Brigade during the War of Independence, gave the oration honoring him.
“The man who we honor here today," said Moylan, "was one of those, associated from his early years with patriotic endeavor, a pioneer Volunteer, Captain of the Meelick Company of the East Clare Brigade. Here where his body fell, we of the Cork Brigade pay our tribute to his memory. His spirit has gone back to Corca Baiscin, to the Stony Hills of Clare, to become part of Clare’s tradition. That tradition that ensures that in the nations need, Clare will stand in her defense as stern as the Cliffs of Moher, as strong as the Shannon, as enduring as the sea.”
In addition to the two commemorative plaques in Fort Mitchel, White is also commemorated on a monument that was dedicated in his home town of White’s Cross in 2014. Patrick White, like so many other young men in the period in Ireland, put his life on hold to fight to free his country. In a perfect world he would have simply been remembered locally as a carpenter and a good athlete. Instead he is commemorated as a martyr to the freedom of his nation.
Limerick Post: War of Independence hero was a victim of treachery
Clare Herald: Monument to be erected in memory of Meelick man