There was widespread sadness across Donegal and beyond this morning with news of the death last night of Jim White, Ballyshannon.
The 76-year-old head of White’s Hotel Group passed away, following illness, at the Mater Hospital in Dublin.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny, showe visited Jim White in the Mater on Sunday, paid tribute to the former businessman and who he described as “ahead of his time”. He spoke fondly of his former party colleague and said he would be greatly missed.
To mark the passing of a man who, according to Dinny McGinley TD, “did more for tourism in Donegal than any person I can remember”, we are reprinting an exclusive interview that Mr White gave to Matt Britton of the Donegal Democrat in 2008.
“I was born back in 1938 the Rock in Ballyshannon and at the time we would have been regarded as a relatively ‘well to do’ family. My parents sent me and indeed all the family to school out in Bundoran. At the time Bundoran N.S. was suffering from a decline in numbers and in an attempt to keep the school open, we were all dispatched ‘out the road’ to make up the numbers.
“The family had a grocery shop and a bakery in Ballyshannon and we all enjoyed a relatively comfortable lifestyle. However things were to change pretty dramatically when my father died suddenly when I was just thirteen. Families being families, some wanted to realise some of the assets, with the result that the bakery was sold. My mother was left with what would have been considered a massive debt at the time. But thankfully, our circumstances changed dramatically,” he said.
“Things were to get even worse, however, when my mother died just two years later leaving us parentless or in simple terms, ‘We were orphans’. That put an end to my formal education at Portora in Enniskillen and I came back to live with an old aunt in Ballyshannon and help out in the grocery shop.
“In life when you finally achieve a bit of success, people tend to think it was always like that. In my case it was far from true, I can assure you. Times where extremely tough. This was the mid 50’s, post-World War II, things were not at all good in this country. Every penny, in fact, every half-penny was counted.”
Eventually Jim went off to Findlaters in Dublin and later Liptons in London to serve his time.
“I was just your normal ’Joe Soap’ shop boy. In these days the word ‘supermarket’ had not been invented - we had just large grocery shops. Circumstances changed yet again at home. The manager resigned and of course ‘Jim will fix it’ had to come back to take over the reins. To be perfectly honest I hadn’t a clue how to manage a shop but had no choice.”
Fortunately, he continued, things went from strength to strength for him.
“We had a branch in Sligo, Ballyshannon was expanding and we purchased a prime premises in Donegal Town for the princely sum of IR£6,000. At this stage, grocery shops were slowly developing into supermarket style shops. The selection was vastly increased but the personal touch was very much still alive. Now I must mention that I had 20,000 hens and 5,000 turkeys parked up in Ballyshannon on a poultry farm. Those were the days when turkeys and hens had feathers and didn’t come in plastic bags!”
Being such a busy man, where did the interests in politics come from?
“Surprising as it may seem now, I had no political affiliations whatsoever in those days. I woke up one morning to find a well known Fianna Fail activist was setting up a supermarket next door to me in Ballyshannon. Of course, we all know that this man was my now great friend, Sean McEniff and he even had the cheek to call it ‘Macs’.
“I was seething and I immediately phoned Fine Gael HQ and asked them how could I join. All I had to do was go down the street and pay the late Mick Melly ten bob. That’s how it all began, so Sean Mc Eniff was inadvertently responsible for creating a strong Fine Gael seat.”
Six months later in 1965, a general election was called and Jim was nominated to stand.
“I knew nothing about politics at all, but had a bit of marketing experience. We decorated all our delivery lorries and vans with ‘Vote White No.1’ and they traversed the county getting the message across. I lost out by just 500 votes to the late Cormac Breslin. Eventually in 1973, I secured the seat for Fine Gael in Donegal South West.”
As a Presbyterian, did he find any bias in a county populated by a large Catholic population? “With my hand on my heart I can honestly say, not at all. “In fact, I found it a distinct advantage. Many of my own persuasion rallied around and of course Ballyshannon badly wanted a representative at national level. I had no strong feelings one way or another about the religious ‘label’. I was elected by the people of Donegal to serve all the people of Donegal irrespective of colour or creed.”
Politically he served as Deputy, during what were tense times in Northern Ireland with Hunger Strikes, widespread violence, indiscriminate bombings.
As the only Presbyterian TD in the Dail did he experience any animosity ? “Yes and no. Feelings were running very high at the time and you will find extremists everywhere.
I did get death threats, I did get intimidating letters but I just carried on as normal.
“I must emphasize that most of these would not have come from local people. The people who elected me were more than happy with me representing their views.
“Perhaps my greatest achievement in political was topping the poll with 11,000 votes. Donegal was a five seater then and the competition was pretty stiff with Blaney, Harte, Connaghan and Brennan in the field. To top the poll running against such high profile candidates was indeed a great personal achievement and this number of votes has never been achieved since. It is a record waiting to be broken. I was also responsible for setting up the ‘clinic’ system which now exists throughout the country. I had a total of fifty one clinics which kept me very much in touch with the grassroots.”
With such a strong political machine behind him, why did he not continue in politics ? “It’s as simple as this. I felt that I had given total commitment both to the people of Donegal and Fine Gael. I had been front bench spokesman for foresteries, fisheries and defence, topped the poll and was a serving TD for nine years. Fine Gael, under Garret Fitzgerald came back in to power in 1991 and when I was not awarded a portfolio, I just said ‘That’s it. I’m going to focus on my business’. I will have to confess that I was deeply disappointed at the time and felt that I and the people of Donegal deserved a seat at the cabinet table.”
On a personal basis, Jim has a great love of horses and rides out as often as he can. “I also do a lot of walking but my main hobby is the hotel business. It’s the human contact with people that still gives me the buzz.”
He’s also a trojan worker for cancer services. He explained why. ”As practically everybody knows by now, I was diagnosed with cancer some time ago and developed a great interest and passion in attempting to enhance the facilities for sufferers.”