MacWhite, Michael (1883–1958), soldier and diplomat, was born 8 May 1883 at Reenogreena, Glandore, Co. Cork, eighth among nine children of John White and Mary McCarthy. He was educated at national school at Reenogreena and Andfield. On leaving school aged 17 in 1900, the year his father died, MacWhite sat the British civil service entrance examinations in Dublin; during this visit he met Arthur Griffith (qv) for the first time, and the meeting marked the beginning of an enduring friendship. MacWhite passed his examinations, but went to London as a bank clerk. His interest in Irish nationalism developed while in London; in 1901 he became the secretary of the Irish National Club, and in 1903 president of Cumann na nGaedheal in London. He left London in 1905, and travelled to Denmark to study Danish agriculture and the Danish co-operative movement. On his return he reported back to Arthur Griffith, and in 1908 returned to west Cork to set up branches of Sinn Féin in Skibbereen and Dunmanway with Seán Mac Diarmada (qv). Griffith would remain a strong influence on MacWhite.
MacWhite began a career in journalism and by 1911 was a continental correspondent for several European newspapers. He could reputedly speak seven languages and travelled widely. He reported on the second Balkan war and travelled through Turkey and Armenia. On return from the Middle East he joined the French Foreign Legion in 1913 and fought at Arras, at Gallipoli, and in Macedonia during the first world war. He was twice wounded and received three citations for gallantry, winning the Croix de Guerre three times. During 1918 the much decorated MacWhite visited the USA with the French military mission in aid of the Liberty Loan. MacWhite's last military duty was escorting camel convoys across the Algerian desert.
At the end of the war he retired from the Foreign Legion at the rank of captain and returned to Ireland. He was in Dublin shortly after the 1918 general election and became involved again in Sinn Féin politics. He was appointed Dáil Éireann representative to Paris, where he served from 1919 to 1921. During this time he was also Paris correspondent for the United Irishman newspaper (1918–21). MacWhite then became a full-time diplomat, being appointed Irish representative to Switzerland (1921–3). When Arthur Griffith was winding up the debate on the treaty in the dáil, he paid tribute to MacWhite's preeminent contribution to developing the Irish cause on the Continent.
In autumn 1923 he was appointed Irish Free State representative to the League of Nations, preparing the groundwork for Ireland's admission to the League on 11 September that year. He remained in Geneva till March 1929 and was a key figure in developing the Free State's independent position in the League of Nations in the 1920s. In particular, he paved the way for its election to the council of the League in September 1930.
From 1929 to 1938 MacWhite was Irish Free State minister to the USA. His task was to improve the reputation of Irish diplomacy in Washington, where he enjoyed the friendship of many prominent Americans and was a popular lecturer and public speaker. He is reputed to have visited forty-four of the forty-eight states during his posting to Washington, and when he left for Europe (1938) he and his wife had contributed greatly to increasing Ireland's prestige in the US.
MacWhite's final appointment was as Irish minister to Italy (1938–50), where he protected the lives and property of Irish citizens during the second world war. As was practice, MacWhite kept his distance from the Irish minister to the Holy See, forming tolerable relationships with W. J. B. Macaulay (qv) and T. J. Kiernan (qv); but he did not always get on well with Joseph Walshe (qv). MacWhite was given the personal rank of ambassador in 1950 just before his retirement. When Éamon de Valera (qv) left the department of external affairs (1948), he singled out MacWhite for his ‘great services to the state during the difficult years through which we have just passed’ (NAI, DT S9735B/1).
MacWhite was a fellow of the RSAI and of the American Geographical Society, and a member of the American Society of International Law and of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. In 1953 he became a Commander of the French Légion d'honneur and was awarded an honorary LLD by the NUI. MacWhite also held the Italian Grand Cordon of the Order of the Crown of Italy, presented to him by King Umberto, an honour normally reserved for prime ministers. Michael MacWhite died 12 November 1958 in a Dublin nursing home and was buried in Glasnevin cemetery, Dublin.
He married (1921) the Danish painter Paula Asta Gruttner Hillerod, whom he first met in Paris; they had two children, one dying in infancy. Their surviving child, Eoin (qv), later served in the Irish diplomatic service.