Belfast anarchism in the Later Twentieth Century


If Captain Jack White DSO, CNT, was the first of the great individual characters of northern anarchism, those that followed soon after into the later twentieth century were every bit as unique. ‘Slumdom’ Jack McMullen and John McGuffin were not merely products of their time and social circumstances, but transcended the context into which they were born and the politics of their generation. They were in every sense truly dynamic libertarians whose politics speak to us of a far greater and more diverse political culture in Belfast than we have hitherto been led to believe. They also have in common a type of writing whose style approximates to a combination of Emile Zola and Spike Milligan. This makes both individuals fascinating to read though at times perplexing, and it is their writing which marks them out as much as their activism.

McMullen and McGuffin, however, were not entirely isolated individuals. They operated in a context with specific political, social, economic and cultural facets and interacted with a variety of other people on different levels. A significant gap separates the two, but anarchists may yet be found who were active in the Belfast of the 1940s and 1950s. Until then, our focus must rest on the 1930s and the late 1960s, early 1970s, both periods of important change and upheaval in Belfast and across the north.

As has already been indicated, a majority of anarchists from the island of Ireland were active in countries other than Ireland in the period in question. By the 1930s, many of the British-based anarchists who hailed from Ireland originally were approaching old age. They included figures such as Louisa Conroy, Wilf McCartney in south London, and Mat Kavanagh in Liverpool, all of whom had long lives of activism in the British anarchist movement. Ironically, the younger generation, a number of who were also based in south London, were forced by increasing socio-economic hardship to migrate for a second time, and Meltzer records that many left for Australia.(1) Among the few remaining who had Ulster roots were John Taylor Caldwell, the long-term comrade and collaborator of Glasgow’s leading libertarian socialist, Guy Aldred, who had been brought up in Belfast, and Albert Meltzer himself, who had family in Ballymena.(2) There may well have been others, though their ‘national origins’, as anarchists would have been of little or no relevance to their politics or their activism, and helps only insofar as it demonstrates that most anarchists from Ireland north and south, in common with many other progressive and artistic voices, had to ‘choose’ exile in order to live their lives and pursue their ideals. This makes those who remained behind and developed an anarchist or libertarian socialist politics all the more remarkable.

In the 1930s and the 1960s, conditions existed to produce such people, though in the former it was the severities of a worldwide economic depression and the rise of the right, while the latter years had contributed to the emergence of radical libertarianism out of a combination of increased economic and educational opportunities, expanding communications and the post-war media and baby booms. Isolated as Ireland was in many ways, from the main currents of anarchist thought and action (both in the ‘30s and the ‘60s), activists here had to develop their own, often idiosyncratic, modes of anarchism. Occasionally, contacts were made with anarchists elsewhere in Europe but mostly, and with little knowledge of or interaction with earlier generations of northern anarchists, the assembling of an anarchist critique was a lonely affair. However, as stated above, this did not make our anarchist voices of the later twentieth century loners, they were in every sense fully part of the wider movements for social and economic revolutionary change.

Jack McMullen (1874-)
Ten years after the Belfast anarchists had rippled the waters of the labour movement, another figure emerged with the anarchist ideal emblazoned on his fiery and indomitable personality as much as his political activity. ‘Slumdom’ Jack McMullen was born, in his own words, ‘in this generous and hyper loyal city’ in 1874 or 1875, and his life-long hatred for landlords and slum housing from which he earned his nickname was nurtured in infancy when a landlord demanded extra rent from his mother for the inclusion of his cot, counted presumably as a second bed.(3) Thereafter, Slumdom became a virulent opponent of the atrocious housing conditions that prevailed in post-war Belfast, conditions that for some time surpassed the cities of Glasgow, Dublin and Liverpool for overcrowding and sheer degradation. He became a socialist and joined the Belfast Independent Labour Party (ILP) branch, even being selected as a candidate in the January 1926 Corporation vacancy in the Court Ward of the city.(4) As in many cities, however, the ILP contained a wide range of political opinions and shades of socialism, and many of these realigned themselves after the party disaffiliated from the British Labour Party in 1926, forming themselves into the Socialist Party of Northern Ireland (SPNI).

In 1930, the communists had founded the Revolutionary Workers Group organisation, but the libertarian socialist spirit in parts of the ILP, which carried over into the SPNI probably appealed more to McMullen. He appears to have drifted from membership of any particular party or grouping after the ILP disintegrated, but remained an active independent speaker and agitator with ‘anarchist leanings’, as Amalgamated Transport and General Workers Union shop steward, Malachy Gray remembered.5 McMullen was to be found holding forth in Corporation Square where the ILP had held its meetings, and regularly every Sunday afternoon on the Custom House steps, where ‘wee McAra’ had first preached the anarchist word. It was at the latter location in 1934 that Malachy Gray first heard him and was drawn into the labour movement as a result of McMullen’s advice that ‘you will live in bug incubators for the rest of your lives unless you stand up and fight for decent homes and jobs’.(6)

Slumdom appears to have been a fiercely independent character whose speeches could offend the sensibilities of his hearers as well as enliven the hearts of those tired listening to the hackneyed exhortations of the labour establishment. Northern Ireland labour historian, Andrew Boyd, remembers some shipyard workers who found Slumdom’s analogies quite ‘lewd’ and offensive. For example, his Sunday afternoon speeches once proclaimed that some men would be more comfortable in bed with a razor blade than with their emaciated starving wives’.(7) Others, however, such as Belfast revolutionary socialist John McWade evidently had great respect for McMullan’s politics and articulacy, noting that he was an expert on the great liberal John Stuart Mill despite being ‘as deaf as a bloody post’.(8)

Of all the propagandists of the 1920s and 1930s, communists included, Jack McMullen appears to have been the most consistently and explicitly anti-religious, and this additional factor may have contributed to his controversial image. McMullen viewed himself and the working class movement as at war with religion and Christian morality in his time, every bit as much as with capitalism and the state. He wrote that ‘the worker...after the educational system has done with him and the nice pulpit chaps have succeeded in getting into his napper a quantity of dope sufficient to last a lifetime, all the powers of heaven, hell and earth are totally inadequate to open his eyes to the true state of his relationship’ (with the economy and the state). This set of circumstances meant that ‘when followers of the lowly Carpenter of Nazareth teach the people that poverty serves a useful purpose, it is hard to get the thousands who have been denied the right to work, to realise that nothing outside efficient working class organisation will ever succeed in effecting their economic freedom in this world’.(9)

Despite this, Slumdom remained up-beat and saw his job as a ‘propagandist in this super-sensitive city is to bore a hole into the rock of superstition, bigotry and class ignorance, and get in the dynamite of socialism, and blow up the rougher elements of industrial democracy and free them from all dope-manufactured influences’. Such a bombastic tone probably reflects McMullen’s reading, and his writing style is often merely a flow of consciousness, it would seem, employing very colourful and often completely obscure language. An example of such, relative to his optimism of overcoming the ‘superstition, bigotry and class ignorance’ and building a revolutionary class consciousness is contained in an amusing memoir of his father. He wrote, in 1926, ‘long before my dad, who was a blissfully ignorant biped, had any intention of ‘kicking the bucket’, he slipped me the following piece of philosophical advice in a dirty little boozer in a soul- destroying street...Said the pater, ‘Jack, my lad, when you have rubbed your back against as many corners as this chicken, you will wake up to the discovery that there is something fundamentally out of order in this system of society; but after viewing things from the corner of most streets my sincere advice to you is this: no matter where you go keep up your heart, should your belly trail on the ground. We have but a short time to live, and no mathematician can figure out how long we are likely to be dead. So, Jack, my lad, if owing to depressing economic and soul-disturbing conditions, you feel disposed to grow melancholy, try to remember that the grave is the proper place in which to grow fat on the marrow-bones of misery and melancholy’.(10)

Outside of his propaganda activities, McMullen appears to have been an earnest campaigner involved in both housing and unemployed workers’ struggles in the 1920s and 1930s, and his continual advocacy of self- organisation and militant direct action by the Belfast working class seems to have earned him an ‘anarchist’ reputation. How much of an anarchist Slumdom Jack McMullen actually was is another question. We have no record of him aligning himself in print or in public speeches with anarchists or anarchism. He does, however, merit consideration as a libertarian socialist by his political philosophy, activism and independent critical mind. Most of McMullen’s contemporaries are now dead and it will require some intensive research to establish his political convictions outside of a general independent anarchist-leaning leftism, as well as delving further into his activism.

John McGuffin (1942-2002)
There is an amusing and completely unbelievable story related at the time of John McGuffin’s funeral of his hosting the well-known American ‘Yippie’ Jerry Rubin when he visited the north in the late 1960s. Passing through County Down on their way to Dublin through districts swathed in the Down Gaelic football colours of red and black, McGuffin informed his guest of how the whole area was in the grip of anarchist militants. Roadside signs emblazoned with ‘UP DOWN’ further convinced Rubin of the inspired libertarian revolutionary ethic sweeping south-east Ulster.(11) It was, of course, a time of great social and political ferment and this may have made McGuffin’s legendary sophistry all the more believable. Like Rubin, McGuffin was a veteran of that ferment and an anarchist of a very particular colour. Throughout his life, he made no secret of his qualified support for Irish republicanism and centred his politics around issues relative to the state and its powers. Despite his early years in People’s Democracy (PD) and its libertarian socialist focus on issues such as jobs and housing, McGuffin showed no real interest in workplace or industrial struggles and although recognised widely as an anarchist, he along with a number of others moved ideologically further away from anarchism as the 1970s progressed. This was part of a wider trend as sectarianism entrenched, violence increased, and genuinely radical politics withered under the onslaughts of the state and paramilitaries.

John Niall McGuffin was born into a relatively wealthy middle class Presbyterian family in 1942. Despite this, he had a degree or taint of socialism in his background through his uncle, the MP for Shankill ward from 1917 to 1921 and then for north Belfast, the Freemason and first speaker of the Stormont Parliament, Sam McGuffin, a ‘Labour Unionist’. He was sent to the exclusive Campbell College in Belfast and proceeded from there to Queen’s University where he received honours in history and psychology and then took up a lecturer’s post at Belfast Technical College. This throws up a second contradiction in terms of McGuffin’s hostility towards academia and a possible career therein despite his great mind, his academic prowess, and the quality of his written, analytical and oratorical skills. He was never able to quite overcome his intellectual rigour despite continued attempts at pastiche and ridiculous hyperbole, at which he was no less adept, and McGuffin’s writings are often as academic and thorough as any available. Perhaps this is ironic given McGuffin’s distaste for academia or perhaps that distaste is merely reserved for the much vaunted and completely illusory ‘impartiality’ of the universities. Either way, his early anti-intellectualism exhibited a healthy disdain for such institutions and a recognition of their role in the sustenance of class privilege and the power of ruling elites common to many anarchists.(12)

It was, however, within the confines of Queen’s University that McGuffin first came to prominence as one of the leading militants of People’s Democracy (PD), which emerged from among the student body after a frustrated civil rights march and short sit-down protest in Linenhall Street on 9 October 1969. He had already been chairman of the Queen’s Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) from 1964-65 and a member of the University Labour Group before joining PD. The group contained a significant number of very articulate, and in some senses, very naïve radical students from broadly Trotskyist, Left Republican and Anarchist backgrounds, but from the outset was a markedly non-sectarian, internationalist and libertarian civil rights movement.

It was open to all and had no written constitution, its main aims being
(1) One man, one vote;
(2) Fair (electoral) boundaries;
(3) Houses on need;
(4) Jobs on merit;
(5) Free speech; and
(6) Repeal of the Special Powers Act.

Although the body later became a more rigid organisation with a Trotskyist programme, libertarians and anarchists, such as McGuffin, argued strongly for the open and accountable democratic principles on which the group was formed, and which had attracted him to it initially, to be maintained.(13) This, however, suffered its first major blow after just a few months when an earlier, albeit conservative, majority decision was taken to cancel the planned ‘long march’ from Belfast to Derry but was subsequently overturned by a minority of Young Socialists, including Michael Farrell and Cyril Toman. They held a meeting at Queen’s after most of the students had left for holidays in December 1968, unsatisfied with Prime Minister Terence O’Neill’s assurances of addressing the grievances of the civil rights movement, and vowing to carry on with the march where PD had failed. McGuffin did not agree with this tact of usurping the broad democratic will of the students and PD, although he decided in the end to take part while still arguing his politics.(14) 

It was during the ‘long march’ and savage attack on the demonstrators at Burntollet by police and Paisleyites, that McGuffin was written into history for having an anarchist banner on the march. Much mileage has been made out of the story that McGuffin allegedly carried the banner on his own at times throughout the march, though it is something confirmed only in some memoirs of the events and finds no verification in the major studies of the protest and period. What actually happened, according to a Belfast Anarchist Group member, was that McGuffin phoned him to bring the banner for the last stage of the march into Derry, and after the Burntollet ambush, these members joined with McGuffin and marched with the banner into Derry. However, at Irish Street in the Waterside the march was attacked by another group of Paisleyites. A Belfast Anarchist veteran takes up the story, ‘I remember sticking my pole into the face of one attacker before I was punched and kicked and the banner snatched away. The attackers must have had lighter fuel with them for only a few moments later I looked back to see the banner well alight’.(15)

It’s not in doubt, of course, that McGuffin did indeed carry the banner, but not all the way from Belfast and certainly not on his own as a demonstration of his political righteousness. Such apocryphal tales may entertain but they rarely enlighten, and they permit those who are not anarchists (though they may even be patronisingly sympathetic), to portray anarchism as a political eccentricity – the last refuge for the impractical and the whimsical on the left – of those convinced but unable to convince.

McGuffin’s embrace of anarchism began in 1967 and he, with Robin Dunwoody and others, was a founder member of the Belfast Anarchist Group (BAG). However, McGuffin was not present for the Group’s first meeting on 5 October 1968. He had gone off to Derry in company with a 40-strong group of Young Socialists from Belfast for the ill-fated civil rights march in Duke Street, which had been banned and was brutally beaten and broken up by the RUC, and therefore missed the initial meeting in a candlelit room above a restaurant in Upper Arthur Street. At these early meetings, a member named Roland Carter brought along anarchist books and pamphlets possibly supplied from Freedom Press in London.

The difficulty, however, was that events were moving faster than could be anticipated and ‘the need for new members to have space to grow into a proper understanding of anarchism was pushed into the background by the need to respond to the rapidly-developing situation on the ground’. Nevertheless, the BAG, with some 20 or so members had displayed some good early successes. Up to 200 copies of the London Anarchist paper, Freedom were sold in Belfast at one stage, and the Group, mostly composed of young unemployed men and women, and some former students, was meeting regularly in the city and then, at a later stage, at Queen’s as student activism took off. Some members were still at school and through an interest in the Free Schools movement in England, got copies of a leaflet on the radical anti-authoritarian campaign, which they distributed in a number of Belfast schools. This led to some expulsions and a front-page article in the Belfast News Letter, which carried a copy of the leaflet in question and a photograph of a picket on one of the schools where disciplinary action had been taken.(16)

People’s Democracy march with Belfast Anarchist Group banner, January 1969

By March 1969, McGuffin was in Manchester as a speaker to the Revolutionary Socialist Students Federation (RSSF), fresh from the Burntollet march and seems also to have appraised anarchists in England of circumstances in the north and events to come. He was a principal organiser for the next major PD march from Belfast to Dublin in April 1969, which was attended by many English socialists and some 40 anarchists. Numerous anarchist flags were carried on the march and some women members of the BAG made a number of anarchist neck-scarves, ‘a typically sexist job allocation’, as one BAG member recalled. This splash of anarchist colour, however, even led some journalists to label it an anarchist march. The march was plagued by difficulties from the start, beginning with a violent confrontation in Lurgan (where it actually set off from after problems in Belfast), and ending with divisions between PD and some of the southern left- wingers.

McGuffin and BAG members decided at one point if they could get the numbers they would disrupt the Irish state commemoration of Easter 1916, using the opportunity to attack both states, though the tiredness of the marchers and the internal dissensions prevented this. There was also a minor clash with republicans over their insistence people march in military formation, though PD and the anarchists both resisted this. Possibly on this march or another about this time, one Belfast anarchist remembers some marchers even sang the republican anthem, ‘take it down from the mast’, to which the anarchists responded (to the tune of the ‘Red Flag’) –
‘The people’s flag is red and black, and you can fuck your Union Jack;
When you’re out of work and on the dole, you can stick the Tricolour up your hole!’
Some leading PD members quickly suggested this anarchist sing-a-long be abandoned. McGuffin, nonetheless, felt the march to have been a success even if this was only inasmuch as it further raised international awareness of the struggle for civil rights.(17)

Soon after the Dublin march PD talk of electioneering caused much argument between them and McGuffin, and he was cast again in the role of the main opposition to such reformism. He took a lead in opposing Bernadette Devlin’s electoral bid, as an anarchist, but also partly because PD did not officially back her and because she was standing, in his words, as the ‘pan- papist candidate’. The two were lifelong friends but the tension between her and McGuffin (as between McGuffin and many people), never entirely dissipated, even in the days before his death in 2002.(18)

When the north erupted again in August ’69, McGuffin was in far-flung Morocco and unable to return until September. When he did so PD was advancing steadily towards a more authoritarian structure and an expressly Connollyite aim, though McGuffin still contributed to the Free Citizen newspaper of the group and Belfast anarchists played their part in selling it in the city. Radio Free Belfast was broadcasting regularly and McGuffin was heavily involved in the running of it behind the barricades in West Belfast. He also continued to argue for libertarian ideas and methods within PD and outside of it, though difficulties continued to arise in relation to breaking out of the student ghetto and addressing and supporting workers. McGuffin conceded this in an interview in the early 1970s, saying, ‘To a certain extent we would accept that we haven’t had an industrial policy. Our best policy would be to make shop-floor contacts but we can’t succeed there as long as the sectarian divide remains’. This was despite leafleting forays at factories in and around Belfast, such as Courtaulds, ICI and Rolls Royce.(19)

John McGuffin was picked up in the first internment scoop on 9 August 1971, and held until 14 September that year, initially at Girdwood Army Barracks and then Belfast’s Crumlin Road gaol. His internment was to have a profound impact on his politics and his later writings and may have been akin to the transformation it inspired in fellow PDer Michael Farrell. Arguably, both men left their fellow internees with a more pronounced sympathy for Irish republicanism, scepticism about the tactics of the civil rights movement in the face of mounting state repression, and a stronger sense of anti-unionism. Within a few months both men had also come to support the Northern Resistance Movement (NRM), founded as a rival to the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association, and which developed what Arthur has called a ‘curious symbiotic relationship’ with PD and the Provisional IRA.(20) 

It was within PD, however, that McGuffin maintained what he called ‘an anarchist wing’ with his two closest comrades, Robin Dunwoody and Jackie Crawford, a former student of McGuffin’s at Belfast Tech who was also interned briefly. However, at a time when PD’s Free Citizen newspaper became the more pointed, perhaps more cynical, Unfree Citizen and expressed an increasing level of equivocation over IRA atrocities such as on ‘Bloody Friday’ in Belfast on 21 July 1972 when 9 people were killed and 130 injured in a city centre bombing spree, McGuffin was among the few (possibly the only PD member) to speak out publicly. He wrote in Internment, ‘Twenty-two bombs in the heart of a crowded city in broad daylight are bound to kill people no matter what warnings are given, and the Provisional IRA must bear the full responsibilities for these murders’.(21) It should also be noted that while McGuffin and his comrades were drawing closer politically to one side of the widening sectarian divide, and he personally was discovering an empathy and admiration for many individual Provisionals, they do not appear to have engaged actively in the armed campaign of the Provos or in solidarity with that campaign.

Since about 1971, the BAG had been meeting irregularly, and some members had even drifted away or been subsumed into PD activism. Differences of opinion with regard to the armed campaign of the IRA had also started to emerge. The break finally came in 1973, when police in London alleged that local anarchists were aiding the IRA. A BAG meeting of about a dozen members or so got together and decided to draft a statement and send it to all the local papers refuting this. It read: ‘the Belfast Anarchist Group refutes accusations from the English police that the Provisional IRA are being aided by Anarchist Groups. Anarchist groups, both here and in Britain, have continuously refused to support any group that hasn’t the interests of the ordinary people at heart, but instead keeps itself in existence through authoritarian means and nationalist ideology (whether Irish nationalists like the IRA or Ulster nationalists like the UDA). Anarchists support the struggle of ordinary people to control their own destiny, whether Protestant or Catholic, white or black. And while we realise that social and political conditions make the rise of such groups as the IRA and the UDA almost inevitable, nevertheless although these groups rise from the people they can’t be considered to be fighting for the people. The conditions that divide the working class are perpetuated by these groups through their inability or refusal to escape the trap of nationalism and sectarianism’.

This statement enraged McGuffin, who felt that not only should they not be attacking the IRA, but, he insisted, they couldn’t issue such a statement without the full participation of all BAG members. The BAG, of course, hadn’t been meeting as often and rarely with more than a few members present, but the criticism of McGuffin persuaded 4 members of the Group to leave and form the Belfast Libertarian Group, a move that had been coming for some time. This led to the collapse of the BAG, and none of McGuffin’s supporters sought of resurrect it thereafter.(22) The degeneration of a potentially revolutionary situation and the sectarian entrenchment that had been increasingly apparent since the start of the 1970s, contributed in no small measure to this anarchist split. It had arisen out of the need for anarchists to provide an alternative (class) analysis to the nationalist and sectarian ones gaining in potency, and as a result of the theoretical support extended to republicans by some anarchists, rather than as an attempt to deal with practical anarchist support for the IRA’s ‘armed struggle’.

There was, on the other hand, one particular incident early in the Troubles occasionally cited as evidence of direct anarchist violence complicit with or sympathetic to the ‘war’ of republicans. The involuntary participation of at least one genuine anarchist and one who merely claimed for himself the label ‘anarchist’, has drawn the criticism of McGuffin himself, but remains an episode which needs clarification.

The story of a bomb plot against Queen’s University hatched by a German anarchist, a New York photographer, a Belfast journalist and an unemployed salesman in the bar of the Wellington Park Hotel was, from the start, an unlikely tale. It did, however, prove a salacious one for a continually salivating media hungry for even a glimpse of the mad anarchist bomber bogeymen as a new angle on, or alternative to the grinding predictability of nationalist and sectarian violence. Step up James Joseph McCann, with a petty criminal past in Belfast and England, a slightly unhinged quality and a talent for invention. As a self-proclaimed ‘anarchist’, McCann had been hanging around the revolutionary tourist set based in the Wellington Park, close to Queen’s from around about 1970. This had included, most famously, Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman of the American Yippies (Youth International Party), and the singer and poet, Phil Ochs. McGuffin and his comrades had also spent some time in the august company of these ‘friends of the revolution’, as McGuffin called them, and also knew McCann, of who he had a very poor opinion.(23)

The basic bones of the story are that McCann in the company of Felix de Mendelssohn, Joseph Stevens and Peter McCartan, all working in one way or another as journalists, met him at Queen’s on the promise of an exclusive, or perhaps after some drinks and goading from McCann. They were then treated to the spectacle of a Molotov cocktail attack on Queen’s Common Room, a chase by a passing plainclothes RUC patrol and an armed standoff, before McCann surrendered his sawn-off shotgun and the unlikely quartet were arrested and remanded to Crumlin Road gaol. After some pre-trial theatrics and four months inside, McCann, who spent his term informing his Provo cellmate that the jail hadn’t been built which could hold him, he broke out of the prison by sawing through the cell bars. The escape was the first since December 1960 and gained McCann some, largely self- generated, notoriety as the ‘green’ or ‘shamrock pimpernel’ and the original ‘border fox’. McCann’s subsequent escapades are well-documented by dope dealer Howard Marks in his autobiography, Mr. Nice, but basically he took up cannabis-smuggling and re-used a proportion of the profits to send arms and explosives to the Provisional and/or Official IRA, and was allegedly involved in the bombing of a British Army barracks in Germany in 1973.

None of this, of course, amounts to ‘anarchist’ activity and McCann was quite rightly seen as simply a fellow-traveller of the IRA who used libertarian ideas to justify a private business enterprise labelled criminal by the state.(24) His fellow-accused in 1971, Felix de Mendelssohn (who was acquitted with the others), had been a genuine anarchist involved with a group in Oxford in the early 1960s, and remembers Jim McCann as ‘anarchic’ but certainly no anarchist, merely ‘a psychopath who used political labels where they suited him’. De Mendelssohn is now a professional psychoanalyst so can speak with some expertise in the area of McCann’s mental make-up, and while he was impressed with McCann’s escape, this does not affect his overall assessment of him as ‘one of the craziest and most dangerous men I have ever met’.(25)

After his arrest in 1979 and beating from the IRA prisoners in Portlaoise prison for the embarrassment of being caught with a large marijuana haul, McCann moved on to involvement in various capitalist ventures across the globe and has continued to evade conviction to the present day.(26) It is unclear how McCann became identified or associated with anarchism and in many ways it doesn’t really matter, but the appearance of such maverick characters claiming to be anarchists has occasionally occurred over the years and caused no little damage to anarchism. It may well yet occur, and although other crude adventurists and crackpot dictators have claimed the socialist mantle from time to time, anarchism often appears to be judged more harshly whenever freelance lunatics attach themselves to it.

Despite John McGuffin’s disdain for Jim McCann and his activities (he claimed that McCann only managed to smuggle in 4 handguns), some of his own comrades entered upon a ‘criminal’ career as anarchist expropriators. His former student and fellow internee Jack ‘the whack’ Crawford, was allegedly involved in the 1983 robbery of the Allied Irish Bank branch in Dun Laoghaire, which netted IR£8,500 for himself and possibly, the anarchist movement. Crawford, who had sold Freedom in Belfast’s Castle Street in the 1960s, worked with McGuffin (like Jack White), as a lumberjack in Canada in the mid- to late 1970s, died sometime in the late 1990s, aged just 47. However, as with many of McGuffin’s chequered memoirs it’s unclear how much of this story is fiction and how much fact.(27)

Neither is it clear who or how many of McGuffin’s comrades were involved in this direct actionist expropriation in Dublin. There may also have been a tie-in between these individuals and the Murrays, Noel and Marie, who were involved in a similar activism at a slightly earlier stage. At least one contemporary anarchist who was also active in a different capacity in the 1970s feels that the Murray case did little other than ‘add to the anarchist=terrorist stereotype’. This, however, pays little or no heed to a period of inveterate state reaction and right-wing repression throughout Europe as a response to rising working class and anti-fascist militancy, particularly in Spain and Portugal. The Murrays and others were part of this European, and indeed, international wave of militancy and their activism, although occasionally foolhardy and perhaps even naïve, was nonetheless sincere, heroic and a legitimate aspect of the ongoing class struggle. They furthermore, received the full vengeance of the state in a manner far beyond that even reserved for Irish republicans, even though the violence employed by the anarchists was largely discriminate and accidental in a period when both loyalists and republicans, as well as the British state, were engaged in very deliberate, calculated and frequently indiscriminate acts of violence.(28)

After his internment, John McGuffin appears to have concentrated on writing for a time and it was in this area perhaps that he really excelled. His exposes of internment without trial and state-sponsored torture and systematic human rights abuses catalogued expertly and with great wit in Internment (1973) and The Guinea Pigs (1874) have stood the test of time. They are classic anti-state critiques written clearly from an unabashed libertarian perspective, and are among the very best books written about the north in the last thirty to thirty-five years.

It was also at this time that McGuffin moved from an anti-statist anarchist position more towards republicanism. His nephew, the journalist Paddy McGuffin, records this transformation in McGuffin and his comrades from ‘pacifist beliefs’ as and towards becoming ‘fully-fledged members of the Republican movement’. As a contemporary of McGuffin’s remembered, a number of anarchists mostly from ‘nationalist areas’ retreated into the wider republican family after the Falls Curfew of July 1970 in solidarity with the nascent armed campaign and/or response of the Provisional IRA. Some even went on to join Sinn Féin convinced in some way that the republicans were genuinely anti-statist and libertarian revolutionaries.(29) McGuffin himself became a columnist for the Provisional movement’s newspaper, An Phoblacht/Republican News writing under the pseudonym, ‘the Brigadier’ from 1974 to 1981, although his acerbic pen was not uncritical of republicans themselves on occasion.

He also sat on an international committee investigating the deaths in custody of Red Army Faction members in Germany, and strengthened a long-standing friendship with various left-leaning German radicals, communists and sympathisers of Irish republicanism, while taking time out in 1978 to write the brilliant In Praise of Poteen, celebrating the ingenuity, talent and anti-authoritarian spirit of the poteen-makers as well as their historic concoctions. McGuffin’s later travails saw him re-locate to San Francisco where he became a criminal defence and human rights lawyer, before returning with his German partner and comrade, Christiane Kuhn, to settle in Derry in 1998. McGuffin’s political associations and activity then centred around his internet-based ‘Dispatches’, reporting and critiquing various political developments in the north and far beyond it. He was a supporter of the Garvaghy Road Residents in their campaign against Orange marches and travelled to Portadown to take part in protests there during the marching season. He also supported the calls of the Foyle Ethical Investments Campaign (FEIC) for the removal of defence industry giant, Raytheon, from Derry, and found time to write for the Derry News mainly in a satirical and at times libellous manner. He also produced another two valuable books, one a largely autobiographical collection of apocryphal tales and the other a biography, with Joe Mulheron, of the Derry IRA man, seafarer and general adventurer, Captain Charles ‘Nomad’ McGuinness.(30) In all, McGuffin produced nine books, a number of which were solely in German, he finding few publishers in Britain or Ireland willing to print the works of a man described by many as ‘an intellectual hooligan’.

At the time of his death in 2002, John McGuffin was remembered by most as an anarchist, though he described himself as an anarchist- republican-Guevarist, and in Derry took his place in a tradition of anarchist republicans or republican anarchists stretching back quite a few years. For a self-confessed ‘Lundy’ this may be explicable but the association of anarchism with one side of the sectarian divide in the north is far from revolutionary, besides the fact that most anarchist republicans are, in fact, more often republican (and indeed, nationalist) than anarchist. They also proceed from the mistaken assumption that Irish republicanism is more progressive and/or less reactionary than Ulster loyalism, despite their shared bourgeois roots, their ingrained confessional nationalism and their repeatedly sectarian language and violence. It is a tradition which led the class struggle anarchist Albert Meltzer to declare that although the north had produced a number of anarchists over the years they had generally ‘got caught up’ in the nationalist and religious tensions.(31)

This was not the case, however, for the small circle who broke away from McGuffin and co. and formed the Belfast Libertarian Group. In 1973 they produced the booklet Ireland, Dead or Alive? in which they criticised groups on the left who ‘in the excitement and action that the Irish political scene engenders’ have occasionally been swept along with the flow of events. They said this left-wing delusion was because they naturally supported those fighting the state and were lulled into the belief that the IRA were socialist and ‘working for the freedom of the people, not only in the colonial sense, but in the social and economic sense’. They went on then to ask how socialist freedom could mean ‘the blowing up of a café because young people were in it smoking dope’ or if it meant ‘beating up youths who take soft drugs’, or ‘tarring and feathering of girls just because they didn’t see much wrong with going out with ordinary soldiers’. These were hard questions for those who gave succour to republicans and purported to be anarchists or libertarian socialists, and the response of the republicans was to threaten Belfast Libertarian Group members that they would be kneecapped. Not to be outdone, loyalists made similar threats to the Group a short time after, and it eventually folded.

Such an outcome had been building for some time ever since the release and distribution of Ireland, Dead or Alive? and in spite of the fact that it was and is quite an insignificant and naïve publication in parts that was produced by a very small leftist organisation, with few credentials besides a sound anarchist analysis of a complicated and violent political morass. Having that point of view was not enough though, and the Group’s own swansong was written in to the last page of its heroic little pamphlet: ‘Nothing is new or radical in Irish politics...Northern Irish politics are the politics of the dead. No organisation offers real hope to the working class in Ireland. No organisation can until nationalism is taken right out of politics’.(32)

1. Albert Meltzer, The Anarchists in London, 1935-55 (Orkney, 1976), p.20. Other Irish south London activists included Tom (Paddy) Burke, Bill Maguire, Patrick Monks and Kitty Lamb. Wilf McCartney should not be confused with CPGB and International Brigade leader Wilfred McCartney, who was wounded (some say by the Stalinists themselves) soon after the British Battalion landed in Spain.
2. John Taylor Caldwell, Severely Dealt With: Growing up in Belfast and Glasgow (Brighouse, 1993). Caldwell grew up on the Mountpottinger Road in Belfast.
3. Joe Keenan (Ed.), The Labour Opposition of Northern Ireland (Belfast, 1992), p.148.
4. Keenan, p.85.
5. Emmet O’Connor, A Labour History of Ireland 1824-1960 (Dublin, 1992), p.183; and Malachy Gray, ‘Reminiscence: A Shop Steward Remembers’, in Saothar, No.11 (1986), p.114, note 3.
6. Gray, p.110.
7. Letter from Andrew Boyd to the author, dated 29 January 2004.
8. Ronnie Munck, Bill Rolston, Belfast in the Thirties (Belfast, 1987), p.137.
9. Keenan, p.184. McMullen had a habit of responding to fundamentalist Christians who implored him to be ‘born again’ that he’d be glad to, so long as he had no stomach the second time around with which to feel the pangs of hunger.
10. Keenan, p.147.
11. Eamonn McCann, McGuffin obituaries,
12. Máirtín Ó Catháin, McGuffin obituaries,; and John McGuffin, Book Review, ‘Civil Society?’,
13. Paul Arthur, The People’s Democracy 1968-1973 (Belfast, 1974), pp.30-1.
14. Arthur, pp.36-8; and Bob Purdie, Politics in the Streets: the origins of the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland (Belfast, 1990), p.235; For an anarchist interpretation of the PD, see J. Quinn, ‘No Surrender: History of the Early PD’, in Anarchy, 2nd Series, Vol.1, no.6 (1971), pp.14-21.
15. Alan MacSimóin, ‘History of Anarchism in Ireland’, in Workers Solidarity Movement webpage @ (1996); and Eamonn McCann, and Anthony McIntyre, McGuffin obituaries,; and Arthur, p.39; and Correspondence from founding member of Belfast Anarchist Group, 23 September 2004. The mistaken story of McGuffin carrying the banner himself appears to have originated with Bernadette Devlin or her ghostwriter (see Bernadette Devlin, The Price of My Soul [London, 1969], p.125 & p.142).
16. Interview with and correspondence from founding member of Belfast Anarchist Group, 3 & 5 September and 15 October 2004; and Belfast News Letter, 18 January 1969. The occasion when 200 copies of Freedom was sold was quite unusual, most of the time the Group only sold 20 to 40 copies.
17. Arthur, pp.52-5. Correspondence from founding member of Belfast Anarchist Group, 13 October 2004.
18. Arthur, p.58; and Máirtín Ó Catháin, McGuffin obituaries,; and Máirtín Ó Catháin, ‘Obituaries – John McGuffin’, in Saothar, Vol.28 (2003), p.18. A few days before his death, which he knew was inevitable, McGuffin sent a note to Bernadette Devlin, which merely said ‘Goodbye’, something that enraged her and brought her to Derry to see him.
19. Arthur, p.92. Correspondence from founding member of Belfast Anarchist Group, 15 October 2004.
20. Arthur, pp.111-13; and John McGuffin, Internment (Tralee, 1973), chapter 1, ‘It Happened Here’, is McGuffin’s personal account of his own internment experience.
21. John McGuffin, Dispatch 250 – June 17, 2001,; and Arthur, p.114 and p.149, note 10.
22. Correspondence from founding member of Belfast Anarchist Group, 13 October 2004.
23. John McGuffin, Dispatch 263 – August 28, 2001,; and Peter Marshall, Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism (London, 1992), pp.542-4. McGuffin said McCann, the ‘Shamrock Pimpernel’ was ‘more sham than shamrock and more pimp than pimpernel’. On one occasion in Ochs company, McGuffin and Robin Dunwoody were returning from a party, and apparently had a handgun on them. Ochs had signed Robin’s guitar and the group were in good form, when they came across an RUC patrol, and they narrowly escaped being stopped after Ochs started to shout abuse at the policemen.
24. Belfast Telegraph, 31 March and 14 June 1971; and Irish News, 1 & 2 July 1971 and 27 August 1979; and Mícheál MacUileagóid, From Fetters to Freedom: The Inside Story of Irish Jailbreaks (Belfast, 1996), pp.53-4; and Howard Marks, Mr. Nice (London, 1998). McCann had claimed in a 1971 edition of the counter-cultural magazine Friends, edited by Alan Marcuson and others, and which interviewed him after his escape, that he was part of a no-doubt imaginary libertarian republican group called ‘Free Belfast’. He tried to get some of the people around Friends, mostly inoffensive and well-meaning hippie types, to return to Belfast and take part in the ‘revolution’. He even said they’d fight in the sewers, and one woman who actually went to Belfast said it was only when she arrived that she discovered that Belfast had no such sewers, only gutters and they were about 3 foot deep. (see Jonathon Green’s book, Days in the Life: Voices From the English Underground, 1961-71 [London, 1998]).
25. Private information supplied by Felix de Mendelssohn, 18 & 20 September 2004. De Mendelssohn’s main memory of incarceration in Crumlin Road was reading Seán Edmonds’ book, The Gun, the Law and the Irish People (Tralee, 1971), as he walked around the exercise yard. Joe Stevens aka Captain Snaps, went on to become the Sex Pistols photographer.
26. Tim Pat Coogan, The IRA (London, 1987), p.536.
27. John McGuffin, Last Orders, Please! (Derry, 2000), pp.174-80; and Alan MacSimóin, ‘History of Anarchism in Ireland’, in Workers Solidarity Movement webpage @ (1996).
28. Albert Meltzer, I Couldn’t Paint Golden Angels (London, 1996), pp.256 -260; and Alan MacSimóin, ‘History of Anarchism in Ireland’, in Workers Solidarity Movement webpage @ (1996); and Jurgen, McGuffin obituaries, McGuffin campaigned with others to have the Murrays death sentence for the accidental killing of a Garda commuted.
29. Máirtín Ó Catháin, ‘Obituaries – John McGuffin’, in Saothar, Vol.28 (2003), p.18; and Pádraig McGuffin, McGuffin obituaries,; and Interview with founding member of Belfast Anarchist Group, 3 & 5 September 2004.
30. Jurgen, and Anthony McIntyre, and Máirtín Ó Catháin, and Garbhan Downey, McGuffin obituaries, The books are Last Orders, Please! (Derry, 2000), and with Joe Mulheron, Charles John ‘Nomad’ McGuinness (Derry, 2002).
31. Meltzer, Golden Angels, p.256.
32. Belfast Libertarian Group, Ireland, Dead or Alive? (Belfast, 1973), pp.18-19 and pp.23-4.