The History of Anarchism in Ireland to 1996


Irish anarchism has no historical tradition, as a movement it is only coming into existence. We do not yet enjoy the popular understanding of and respect for anarchist ideas that can be found among thousands of militants in countries like Sweden, Spain, France, Italy or Korea. But that is not to say that we have no history at all. We are beginning to uncover forgotten events...

*The first mention of an Irish connection I have found is the Boston based Irish nationalist WGH Smart who wrote articles for a magazine called 'The Anarchist' in 1880/81. [source:'The Raven' no.6]

*'Five years later an English anarchist, Michael Gabriel, arrived in Dublin and moved to Bayview Avenue in the North Strand. He was a member of the Socialist League - a organisation whose best known members were the libertarian marxist William Morris and the anarchist Joseph Lane. A branch of the League was formed and it is known that anarchist publications were among those distributed by them. An article about this period has been written by Fintan Lane for the next issue of our magazine Red & Black Revolution. []

*Around the same time George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950) wrote the article 'What's in a name [how an anarchist might put it]' at the request of Charlotte Wilson for issue no.1 of 'The Anarchist' in 1885. Shaw had been taught French by the Communard Richard Deck, who introduced him to Proudhon. Later he was embarrassed by unauthorised reprints, and was never an anarchist (being a Fabian).

*Five years further on we hear of John Creaghe, an Irish doctor who was joint founder with Fred Charles, of 'The Sheffield Anarchist'. He took part in the "no rent" agitation before leaving leaving Sheffield in 1891. He went on to become the founding editor in Argentina of the anarchist paper, 'El Oprimido', which was one of the first to support the 'organisers' current (as opposed to refusal to organise large scale organisations).

*In this century the best know personality has been Captain Jack White, about whom there is an article in the current Workers Solidarity []

*In the late 1960s, as the civil rights campaign took off Peoples Democracy, before it became a small Trotskyist group, included some self-described anarchists such as John McGuffin and Jackie Crawford (who was one of the group who had sold 'Freedom' in Belfast's Castle Street in the late 1960s). There was supposed to have been an anarchist banner on the Belfast-Derry march. PD members, including John Grey who went to become librarian at the Linenhall Library in Belfast, contributed to special issue of the British 'Anarchy' magazine about Northern Ireland in 1971.

*In the early 1970s some ex-members of the Official IRA became interested in anarchism and developed contact with 'Black Flag' magazine in London. Among names used were Dublin Anarchist Group and 'New Earth'. Their existence was brief and not widely known, a number of jailings for 'armed actions' saw the group disappear. Two members, Noel & Marie Murray, were later sentenced to death for the killing of an off-duty Garda during a bank raid. Reprieved after an international protest campaign, they were released a few years ago. It must be said that, despite their intentions, they did little other than add to the anarchist=terrorist stereotype.

*Island Commune: Hippy commune in squatted house on Dublin's exclusive Merrion Road in 1970. Ended when one mentally disturbed participant tried to poison others. Some of them, including Ubi Dwyer of Windsor Free Festival fame, sold "Freedom" outside the GPO on Saturdays.

These were mere footnotes, isolated individuals and small groups who left little in their wake. The first steps towards building a movement came in the late-1970s when a number of young Irish people who had been living & working in Britain returned home, bringing their new found anarchist politics with them. Local groups were set up in Belfast, Dublin, Limerick and Dundalk. Over the next decade anarchist papers appeared, some for just one or two editions, others with a much longer life. Titles included Outta Control [Belfast], Anarchist Worker [Dublin], Antrim Alternative [Ballymena], Black Star [Ballymena], Resistance [Dublin] and Organise! [Ballymena]. Bookshops were opened in Belfast [Just Books in Winetavern Street] and Dublin [ABC in Marlborough Street].

All of these groups attracted people who identified themselves as anarchists. Beyond that they had little in the way of agreed politics or activities, and no organised discussions or education about anarchism. Because of this there were limits to what they could achieve, even to their continued existence. But a start had been made.

In 1978, ex-members of the Belfast Anarchist Collective and the Dublin Anarchist Group decided that a more politically united, class based and public organisation was necessary. Their discussions led to the Anarchist Workers Alliance, which was around from 1978-81. It only really existed in Dublin and then only just. Produced 'Anarchist Worker' nos. 1-7; documents on the national question, womens liberation, trade unions, and a constitution. Never really took off, as they knew what they didn't like but had not worked out a concrete strategy for making anarchism relevant to the issues and campaigns of the day. Nevertheless, this was the first time that such matters had been openly raised and the resulting debate introduced a more serious note into the embryonic anarchist movement.

Today anarchists are mainly organised in

*The Frontline Collective: Galway-based group formed in early 1995 by ex-supporters of the British Class War Federation. They produce a bulletin, Ainriail, and wish to create loose local anarchist groups - which are open to all sorts of anti-authoritarian ideas. They hope that the most committed people in these groups will move on to develop their politics and form national organisations. [This group no longer exists, its core members moved to Belfast - from where a few issues of Ainriail were produced in 1997/98].

*Organise! is an anarcho-syndicalist group, affiliated to the International Workers Association, who hope to organise a revolutionary workers union which will be influenced by anarchist ideas and can ultimately organise a general strike to overthrow capitalism. [Centred on Belfast, with a few supporters in other towns - almost all within the six counties]

*and then there is the Workers Solidarity Movement, which operates on the basis of what we call theoretical and tactically unity. This can be summed up in four points:

No.1, Theoretical Unity

Theory is what guides us along a particular path towards an agreed goal. Such theory should be common to all members of an organisation. That is, that we agree about what we want and how we can achieve it.

No.2, Tactical Unity

In our case it means concrete things like membership of the WSM is not open to those who reject work inside the unions nor to those who would see the IRA campaign as a god thing, because to include such views in our organisation would mean that we could no longer work together as an organisation. We would be little more than a group of individuals who came together to tell each other of the different and sometimes contradictory things we were doing. Not a lot of point in that. Instead we discuss, debate and then agree what tactic in a given struggle is best for that struggle and for anarchism. Having reached a decision we implement it, we use our strength and numbers as an organisation to give added effect to our activity.

No.3, Collective Responsibility

As the Ukranian anarchist Nestor Makhno put it "The practice of acting on one's personal responsibility should be decisively condemned and rejected in the ranks of the anarchist movement". No, this doesn't mean we have to be continually running off to some committee for permission to show a bit of initiative. It does mean that there should be no room for the self-indulgent egoists who treat politics as more of a hobby than a commitment. Our goal, our tradition and our means are profoundly collective (as opposed to the agressive individualist ethos fostered by capitalism).

Each member should be be responsible to the organisation for their political activity and, in turn, the organisation must be responsible to each member. There must be no division between leaders and led.

No.4 Federalism

The free agreement to work together in a spirit of free debate for agreed goals; afterall there is no point in making decisions if members are not going to carry them out.

The WSM was founded by people who had been through earlier groups and were making the first steps in founding an Irish anarchist tradition. Over the last few years we have built a stable organisation and developed a reputation among activists for being serious and committed.

The WSM is unlike any other political group in Ireland. We have little in common with the Trotskyists with their obsession with recruitment and slogan mongering, and almost nothing in common with the remnants of the reformist left. Although we commonly work alongside members of these groups on specific issues, our aims and methods are radically different.

We are also different from the other anarchist groups in Ireland. Principally this is because we place a high emphasis on the battle of ideas, we spend a lot of our time working out exactly what the bosses are up to and how to oppose them, what sort of society we want and how we can achieve it. We are determined to avoid the situation where we are divided into leaders and led. Anarchism is a developing set of ideas, not a dogma carved in stone.

The test of any anarchist organisation is in what it does and what it says. Many Leninist groups are happy to sit back and throw insults at each other, only popping out now and again for some token involvement. We see participation in struggle, even at the current low level, as the core of our politics. Participation alongside activists who do not share our views but with whom we have common aims in limited areas. The purpose of our involvement, pure and simple, is to win gains while at the same time demonstrating that anarchist methods are a sensible and useful means of struggle, and that anarchism is something well worth fighting for.

The trade unions are important to our politics. Not because we think they are revolutionary but because they represent a collective recognition of the class struggle. Unions exist because of a recognition that bosses and workers have different interests. WSM members have been prominent in all the campaigns against the con trick of 'social partnership' and in organising solidarity with groups of workers in struggle.

Although we see the unions and workplace activity as central to our politics we certainly don't neglect or undervalue issues affecting the wider community. A good example is our activity within the very successful anti-water charges campaign. Another example of what it is possible for a small group of revolutionaries to achieve was our work on abortion rights.

At the time the Dublin Abortion Information Campaign was set up we were the only far left group willing to get involved. Presumable the others did not see abortion rights as an immediate issue for recruitment and therefore of no use to them. They did not see anything beyond the immediate needs of their own organisations.

The Abortion Information Campaign leafletted in public regularly, giving out 'illegal' abortion information. When the X case occurred in 1992 this campaign was in a position to act immediately. It called a march for the following Saturday. This march saw some 15,000 participate; and arguably resulted in the overturn of the injunction and the subsequent referendum that won the right to travel and limited access to abortion information.

Anarchism is about ideas as well as action, in fact the two are interlinked. As well as our activity demonstrating the practicality of anarchist methods of struggle we also believe it is important to publicise anarchist history and theory. Small meetings such as these are one such forum, another is the publication of papers and bulletins.

With our present small numbers we have worked hard to publicise anarchism and to promote methods of direct action rather than dependence. For the first time we can talk about building a movement, in that there is now a core of activists (and not-so-activists) who know something of anarchism, who have seen us in action, and like what they see. A big problem we face is convincing them to join a small group, convincing them that revolution is not just desirable but that it is possible, convincing them to be among the people laying the foundations from which can grow a much bigger movement. We need to make the point, that if you like what we are saying and doing... with more members we could do a lot more.

This is the text of a talk given to a WSM meeting in 1996.