Patrick White: A Clareman's Tragic Death on Spike Island

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 CrossIn 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.


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Tags: Cobh, Fort Mitchel, Patrick White, Spike Island

Heritage Partner
Comment by Totally Irish Gifts on June 26, 2016 at 11:23am

Great piece!  While holidaying in East Cork in 2014 we went to Cobh for a day trip to discover boat trips to Spike Island and spent a very interesting afternoon there. Well worth the visit!  When I was a child I knew of Spike Island but only as the place where the bold boys were sent for stealing cars and joyriding. I was amazed to learn the Island had such a long and varied history.

Thanks for posting,


Comment by DJ Kelly on July 3, 2016 at 9:16am

Does anyone know anything more about Private Whitehead?

Comment by Gerry Regan on July 6, 2016 at 3:56pm
Denise, you asked about Private Whitehead, the murderer of IRA Volunteer Patrick White.

Fascinating circumstances here when I consider Joe Gannon’s post about Patrick White’s murder.

I do recall, Kieron, that you identified an online database containing info about virtually each and every British soldier (or perhaps limited to those KIA). That was about 10 years ago, when you wrote the series on ‘The Forgotten Ten.” 

Two stories on WG have references to “Private Whitehead,” one on Kevin Barry ( and, of course, Joe’s post.

Although two soldiers stated that they had witnessed Barry shooting Private Harold Washington, the soldier who had died at the scene of the ambush, Kevin was actually charged with the murder of Private Marshall Whitehead who had died while undergoing surgery for stomach wounds at King George V Hospital. 
We don’t off-hand know the first name of the Private Whitehead who murdered Patrick White. Clearly it is not Private Marshall Whitehead, who died in the IRA’s ambush at Monk’s Bakery in September 1920.
But what if Private Whitehead, the murderer of Patrick White, was a brother or cousin of Marshall Whitehead. The shooter’s motive may have been revenge. 
I further note that Kevin Barry won plaudits for his bravery and alacrity during a June 1, 1920, raid. A year later, Private Whitehead murders Patrick White. Coincidence? Likely, but a fascinating one all the same, I feel.
"On June 1st, 1920, the "picked-men" of the 1st Battalion raided the King's Inns, which was being used as an outpost of the British garrison based in the North Dublin Union. At a critical moment of the operation, it was Barry who led the rush into the guardroom, where the military was overpowered. This highly successful raid netted 25 rifles, two Lewis guns, a large quantity of ammunition and resulted in the capture of 25 British soldiers. It is worth noting that on this occasion, as on many previous IRA attacks, all of the prisoners were released unharmed. “ — The Forgotten Ten: Kevin Barry: ‘Just a Lad of 18 Summers’

“On June 1st (1921) 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."
                      —  Patrick White: A Clareman’s Tragic Death on Spike Island

Comment by DJ Kelly on July 7, 2016 at 12:41am

That would indeed be a fascinating connection and would provide a strong motive for such a cowardly act.

Comment by Kieron Punch on July 8, 2016 at 8:03am

Hi Ger,

I've looked everywhere I can think of to find some additional information about Private Whitehead but with no luck. Of the few contemporary newspapers which bother to mention the case several do not mention his name at all, and the few that do just provide his surname. There are several databases that provide lists of British military casualties but none that I know of that supply service records for soldiers who were not casualties - a limited number of WW1 service records and medal cards are available on databases such as but the majority of such pre-WW2 records were destroyed during the Blitz in 1940. Besides which, without a first name it would be very difficult to establish which Private Whitehead was the correct one.

The Private Whitehead guilty of the Spike Island murder was not a brother of Marshall Whitehead. I found him listed in the census records for 1901 and 1911 and he only had a sister, Miranda. His mother's name was Alice, and she came from Kidderminster, in Worcestershire, and his father was Harry and he came from Bradford, West Yorkshire. I could not find any record of Alice and Harry's marriage, nor any other record's that might establish whether, or not, Harry had any brothers who may have had sons who could have been cousins of Private Whitehead. The death record for Marshall Whitehead mentions that he was the son of the LATE Harry Whitehead, so I looked for British casualties of the Easter Rising with that surname, but again found nothing.

Comment by Gerry Regan on July 8, 2016 at 6:49pm

Might we look in and around Marshall Whitehead's hometown -- recruits often came from the same neighborhood as well as the same families). We might also look over the rolls of Marshall's regiment(s) during the Great War as well as in October 1920. I remember the Pals regiments recruited early in the war, and imagine even though these units gave way to the exigencies of the war, many 'pals' and family members still managed to stay together. What does anyone know about the origin of the surname Whitehead. Bradford, West Yorkshire -- wasn't Dowton Abbey set in Yorkshire? I gather Marshall was not from the aristocracy -- what'd he do for a living before duty called?

Comment by Kieron Punch on October 5, 2016 at 1:45pm
I managed to find out some more information about Private Marshall Whitehead's family. His father, Harry, was born in 1871 and the census for that year shows that he had 3 sisters and 1 brother. One of the sisters was called Miranda, after whom Harry named his own daughter, and his brother was called Marshall, after whom Harry named his own son who would die during the fight with Kevin Barry.
This brother, Marshall, was the only one of Harry's siblings (other than himself) who could have passed on the Whitehead surname to his children, if he had any. It was only his children who could possibly have been 'Whitehead' cousin's of Private Marshall Whitehead, yet I found records which showed that Marshall senior, died when he was only 19 years old and before he had married and had had any children. The Private Whitehead involved in the murder on Spike Island could not, therefore, have been a cousin of Private Marshall Whitehead.
The surname, Whitehead, does not originate from any particular area of England but is common throughout the whole country. The English and lowland Scots did not begin to adopt surnames until the 1200s-1300s as the population expanded (before the Black Death) and it became necessary to differentiate between the 4 or 5 people with the name John, or William, or Thomas living in the same village. Many surnames were derived from occupational descriptions, so one John would have become known as John the Baker, another as John the Fletcher (arrow maker), another as John the Cooper (barrel maker), and another as John the Smith etc, Some surnames were locational descriptions of a feature of the land where a person lived, such as Hill, Pond, Brook, Wood etc, while other surnames referred to a person's father, such as Johnson (the son of John), Davidson, Thomson, Robinson, Harrison etc. Nicknames were also used as surnames, with Robin Hood's sidekick, Little John (resulting in the surname Littlejohn) being a famous example, and other examples being Short, Long, Brown (referring to a dark complexion). The surname, Whitehead, would have referred to someone with either blond, or grey hair, or else having a fair complexion.

Comment by Joe Gannon on May 21, 2017 at 12:13pm

RTÉ's Colm Flynn visits the notorious 'Spike Island' prison just off the coast of Cobh in Co. Cork.

In the last 1300 years Spike Island has been host to a 6th century Monastery and a 24 acre Fortress that became the largest convict depot in the world in Victorian times! The island's rich history has included monks and monasteries, rioters and redcoats, captains and convicts and sinners and saints.

Today the island is dominated by the 200 year old Fort Mitchel, the star shaped Fortress which became a prison holding over 2300 prisoners. Take the scenic ferry ride from Kennedy Pier, Cobh, and get captured in the history and mystery of this magical island.


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