White, (Herbert) Terence de Vere (1912–94), solicitor and writer, was born 29 April 1912 in Dublin, where his family lived at 61 Marlborough Road, Donnybrook. His father, Frederick Sutton Darley de Vere White, LLD, was then a junior solicitor employed by the Midland Great Western Railway at Broadstone Station and at 46 Upper Mount St.; he was related to the poet George Darley (qv); to the latter's brother, Professor Charles Darley (1800–61), clergyman and playwright; and, much more significantly for Terence, to their nephew Dion Boucicault (qv), patriarch of modern Irish drama. His mother Ethel (née Perry) was cousin to Mary Chavelita Dunne (qv), whose fiction was signed ‘George Egerton’, and whose letters Terence would edit with a biographical memoir in A leaf from the Yellow Book (1958), whose amateur methodology retained an atmospheric charm professionalism might have lost – as would generally characterise that editor's work.
A protestant father and catholic mother divided Terence White's loyalties from the outset, as his fiction would seem to stress. His autobiographical writings in any form made little mention of siblings, but he had at least two, Patricia and John. His education at St Stephen's Green School was cut short by financial stringency after his father's death when he was 15. His Irish catholic identity was deeper and firmer than later acquaintances would suspect, but he naturally followed his father's footsteps into TCD, whence he graduated BA, LLB, in winter 1931. He seems to have taken very seriously the ‘Red scare’ fomented by the falling Cosgrave government, and as auditor of the College Historical Society gave an inaugural attacking communism in 1932, with invited socialist speakers H. N. Brailsford and Maurice Dobb (whose communism did not prevent White's billeting him with Dr Lombard Murphy (qv), owner of the fiercely catholic capitalist Irish Independent). But White's attempt to use anti-communism as a basis for common ground between Irish catholicism and Trinity unionism fell foul of political sectarianism. G. K. Chesterton, in Dublin for the eucharistic congress, agreed to speak in support of White's paper, but withdrew when Aodh de Blacam (qv) announced in the Irish Press that he had been tricked into appearing in a college obnoxious to Irish national and catholic beliefs. But White made a useful friend in his other catholic speaker, the Scottish nationalist novelist Compton Mackenzie.
White's next twenty years were spent primarily as a solicitor, at first on his own (he began as an unpaid apprentice after leaving school). He built up a good practice, showed negotiating and ecumenical skills in client management and court work, and put his experience to good if unobtrusive use when later writing fiction. His ability to reproduce the language of Irish catholics of all classes was as good, if not better than, his ability to render the voices of the Anglo–Irish protestant descendancy with whom critics normally pigeonholed him. His sympathies were firmly Fine Gael, but only with its civil traditions: horror at the orchestration by Michael Collins (qv) of assassinations on Bloody Sunday, and disgust at civilians’ defence and celebration of such actions, would supply a leitmotiv for the greatest of his written work, and the best of his conversational mordant epigrams. His first major prose work, The road of excess, was a deeply sympathetic, if somewhat rueful, biography of a neglected constitutional nationalist leader, Isaac Butt (qv), published in 1945. His first published short story, ‘Wise man's son’, had appeared in The Bell (September 1942) portraying a boy's discovery that his mother had murdered his father. Its most obvious sources of inspiration were Sean O'Faolain (qv) and Frank O'Connor (qv). As a critic White seemed in the genteel tradition, but his fiction blossomed in wilder winds.
His rise in Fine Gael circles was shown in the access given him to private papers and cabinet recollections for a biography, Kevin O'Higgins (1948), but the refusal of permission to disclose details of O'Higgins's (qv) assassins resulted in fine fictional indictment of Irish concealment of political criminals, notably articulated by White in his novel The distance and the dark (1973). He won the plaudits of authoritative professional historians for these two biographies. The 1986 edition of O'Higgins included an afterword giving the names of the assassins, and the source, an article by Proinnsias Mac Aonghusa in the Sunday Press (but not the date of issue, 5 October 1985, omitted through carelessness rather than caption). One name, given by de Vere White as ‘Tim Murphy’, was in fact Timothy Coughlan (John P. McCarthy, Kevin O'Higgins (2006)).
He became legal partner to Alexis FitzGerald (qv), perhaps the finest mind among Irish solicitors of his time, and became a member of the council of the Incorporated Law Society till 1961, when he retired from McCann, White & FitzGerald (save as consultant) to become literary editor of the Irish Times. By then he had become a highly successful pseudonymous writer, his outstanding work A fretful midge (1957) being an autobiography of masterful diplomacy and atmospheric realism pretending to be the work of a (fictitious) Bernard Vandeleur. He was, however, embarrassed when his ferocious review (as ‘Sadleir Keogh’) in the Sunday Review, demolishing his own first novel, An affair with the moon (1959), met with genuine sympathy for its apparently injured author, notably from W. J. (‘Jack’) White (qv), his predecessor at the Irish Times. In fact Jack White was a much harder act to follow than Terence White realised, chiefly because Jack was first and foremost a journalist while Terence White despised journalists and undervalued his new colleagues, apart from his warm friendship with the dynamic editor Douglas Gageby (1918–2004). Even here there were strains arising from the Northern Ireland crisis, especially as Gageby, an Ulster protestant, became increasingly sympathetic to Irish nationalism and Terence White was revolted by the return of catholic violence, which in his work as part-time leader-writer he sought to denounce. He maintained his own review column for twenty-five years, although he resigned the literary editorship in 1977. His multiplicity of interests lessened his research and reading time, and his role as a man of letters reflected more the standards (good and bad) of the preceding half-century than the hardening scholarly austerity and anti-establishment frankness of the 1960s. His novels grew relatively more successful, in content and reputation, although his non-fiction grew slipshod. He became a generous and shrewd patron of younger critics and historians, and several major writers of late twentieth-century Ireland owed their initial success to his sponsorship.
His fictions continued to observe the Irish and English media he had known, and are thus excellent source material for cultural historians, but for all of their enjoyment of manners their awareness of violence is grimly perceptive. He was a member of London's Garrick Club, a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature from 1981, and a member of Aosdána from 1989. His last works were introductions to the works of Elizabeth von Arnim and to Anthony Trollope's (qv) The Kellys and the O'Kellys (1992), showing his capacity for atmosphere, nuance, charm, social analysis, and historical symbolism at its most inspirational. He died 17 June 1994.
He married (1941) Mary O'Farrell; they had two sons and one daughter. His entry in Who's Who acknowledged paternity of a daughter by Dervla Murphy in 1968 (the greatest Irish travel writer of her time). His first marriage was dissolved in 1982, when he married the Hon. Victoria Glendinning (biographer and novelist) and settled in England. His last address was Davis Cottage, Torriano Cottages, London, NW5. Who Was Who 1991–1995 contains a list of his works.