Anarchism in an Irish and Ulster Context


It was a great pioneer of labourism in the north, Hugh Gemmell, who once exhorted fellow workers here to have two chief loyalties - loyalty to yourself and loyalty to your class. Gemmell was about as far as any old Northern Ireland Labour Party man could be from anarchism, but his note on loyalty is a not inauspicious place to begin a discussion on anarchism in Belfast.

Loyalty to ‘king and country’ or ‘faith and fatherland’ has long been the only use of the word in an Irish context, but loyalty to the working class and to a politics free of tribalism and sectarianism has been hard fought for by various sections of the left. Anarchists in the north have been part of that fight since the nineteenth century, though as they were often active in an individual capacity they have rarely been credited with such. Moreover, the very existence of anarchists or those with anarchist sympathies has escaped even the trained eye of labour historians. Some research in recent years by Lane, and in a different way, by MacSimóin has begun to re-address this absence, and work by Jason Brannigan on Captain Jack White has drawn the attention of McGarry to his anarchist politics.(1) Aside from these few studies, however, there is precious little else to go on for those hunting the Belfast anarchists of yesteryear.

The left in Ireland has traditionally been relatively weak. This is a result of several factors but the primacy accorded the national question and the pace and character of industrialisation are probably the key reasons for this historic weakness. Paradoxically perhaps, trade unionism has been quite strong on the island north and south. Interestingly, many of the conditions suitable for anarcho-syndicalism in Catalonia – partial, textile-based industrialisation and a backward and conservative rural economy, though with a vibrant system of what the Marxist historian, Hobsbawm called ‘social banditry’, were also present in Ireland. The missing factor was a healthy tradition of anti-clericalism, and in fact, both Protestant and Catholic religiosity here has long been the bane of those keen to win people to freedom and socialism.

Despite the obstacles, socialism did take root in Ireland in the 1880s and developed, as in many other parts of northern Europe, into an authoritarian, party-based and power-seeking state socialism after the Second International’s endorsement of labour parties. An independent militant stream of trade unionism continued in Ireland and exhibited strong syndicalist ideas and activity. It was at its height in the 1917-23 period and took great heart and inspiration from the French syndicalists and the early example of the Russian Soviets, before its compromise and collapse in the face of conservative Irish republican opposition. It did, nonetheless, contribute to the rise of communism and enliven the entire trade union movement.(2)

The Third International’s endorsement of the Second International’s stance on the development of labour parties saw communism consigned even more to the margins and under constant attack by Protestant and Catholic confessional statelets north and south. Chasing electoralism the labour movement entrenched further into a moderatist and conservative ideology which would appeal alternatively to the nationalist or unionist voters in the north, or pursued the populist line of clientelist politics in the south. Independent working class activism continued in a number of different groupings and campaigns, which the growing number of post-war Leninist parties attempted to influence or control with greater or lesser success from time to time.(3) A nationalist-inclined republican left emerged occasionally, mainly in the south and found periodic support among a small section in its heartlands, while a unionist-inclined Commonwealth labour and socialist movement in the north tried to woo working class unionist areas over the years.(4)

The emergence of anarchism in Ireland took place in the 1890s primarily out of the growing international popularity of anarchist-communism since the Haymarket Tragedy of 1887, in which a number of Chicago anarchists were framed and executed, giving birth to the celebration of May Day as an International Day of Labour, and the international propaganda efforts of Peter Kropotkin. Irish-born anarchists, however, had been active for a considerable time outside of the country. We may, of course, see much of the spirit of anarchism in the non-hierarchical and direct actionist politics of the proto-trades union ‘combinations’ in late eighteenth and early nineteenth century Ireland, as well as in the many agrarian radical bodies that incorporated the social banditry model. These, however, did not define themselves as anarchist any more than the Cork radical and admirer of John Stuart Mill and Jeremy Bentham, William Thompson (1775-1833).(5)

As the Socialist League, founded in 1884, moved towards anarchism in the early 1890s, many of its Irish supporters did likewise, but particularly in Dublin. Derry had responded early to the appearance of the Socialist League and requested copies of its newspaper, the Commonweal, but things moved slower elsewhere in the north, and it remains unclear what support there was for the anarchist direction of the League in the 1890s. Belfast remained wedded to a mixture of the Independent Labour Party (ILP), land nationalisation and Christian socialist ideas around this time, while Lurgan had four separate outlets for the sale of the increasingly militantly libertarian Commonweal. (6) After the demise of the Belfast Labour Party in the later 1890s, a more radical body, the Belfast Socialist Society was formed and contained a small number of progressive individuals who rejected as overtly nationalistic, attempts by Connollyite republican socialists to win them over. Research into this grouping still needs to be done to see if it contained libertarians or anarchists, but existing evidence notwithstanding a communist breakaway around 1905, does not lead us to believe that it did.7 The Belfast Socialist Society, or more probably the Belfast Clarion branch, may have brought the Edinburgh anarchist John McAra to Belfast around 1906 or soon after, and by such means the city was introduced to anarchism. This brief episode came many years after anarchism had been preached and discussed in Dublin at an early Socialist League gathering over a pub on the corner of Foynes Street on Wellington Quay on 14 January 1886. That said, by the time McAra was standing on the Custom House steps in Belfast setting out the anarchist stall, anarchism had long since fell silent in Dublin. (8)

It’s not yet known to what extent anarchism garnered supporters in Ireland in the years after the First World War. The rise of militarist nationalism north and south mitigated against the development of a strong socialist current in spite of the great spirit and solidarity of the 1913 Lockout. This was in no small part due to the historic compromise of the Connollyite socialists with the republican movement and the reorientation of labour to the so-called national liberation struggle. As mentioned above, syndicalism did free-wheel out of the welter of nationalist politics between 1917 and 1923, but could not withstand the counter-attacks of the new Free State government and its trade union allies. Despite this, a strong OBU or One Big Union mentality, preserving much of the militant syndicalist idea, lingered on in some parts of the ITGWU and other sectors of the labour movement. Trade union membership did suffer a drop, though strike activity remained fairly constant, but it was with the unemployed, poor relief and Spanish revolution solidarity campaigns that libertarian socialism and anarchism again came to the fore in Ireland. (9)

The primary means by which anarchism emerged in the 1930s was through a conflict between individuals and the socialist-communist milieu in which they were involved, which led them from authoritarian Marxism to libertarian socialism and anarchism. It will take considerable research, however, before all such individuals can be traced, but initial evidence points to at least a few important examples. It was out of the housing struggle and debate with Marxist-Leninists in Belfast in the 1920s and 1930s that ‘Slumdom’ Jack McMullen developed his anarchism, and a similar process may have brought Val Morahan, the East Belfast Outdoor Relief activist towards libertarian socialism. (10) The experience of Spain was to move Jack White, organiser of the Irish Citizen Army, from what would nowadays be termed a lifestyle anarchism towards class struggle anarchism; while a transformation from Marxist to anarchist by an International Brigade member from Derry, James Campbell, led to his arrest and imprisonment by communists in Barcelona soon after the Stalinist counter-revolution of 1937. (11)

Currently, we have no other information about anarchism in Belfast until the 1960s and the rise of the global radical current and counter-culture of that decade, when interest in anarchist ideas re-surfaced in Ireland. This appears to have begun in the north centred on a group of Queen’s University students initially and then their non-student friends, and included John McGuffin, Jackie Crawford, Robin Dunwoody, though not James McCann, who claimed to be a direct actionist of sorts and spent some time in Crumlin Road Gaol for a bombing attempt before his escape in 1971. (12)  In Dublin, a similar, though more genuine, ‘deed propaganda’ type of anarchism emerged out of the Official or ‘Stickie’ IRA into such groups as ‘New Earth’ and the Dublin Anarchist Group, but these groups were clearly under heavy scrutiny from the state and were easily broken up after the Murrays were arrested and imprisoned.

The Belfast Anarchist Group seems to have had a more uninterrupted development setting up the ‘A’ Centre and Just Books, which incorporated Le Café Hideout and the print workshop, in the late ‘70s. The Just Books Collective remained a feature in Belfast until it closed its doors in the summer of 1994 after sixteen years. It succeeded also in inspiring other collectivist ventures in Belfast in the early ‘80s and 90’s, though like other anarchist collectives in Ireland it suffered from the emigration of activists and the isolation of its political activism. (13) It is unclear to what extent, if any, there is continuity between this group and the group of the same name that McGuffin, Dunwoody, Crawford and others were involved in.

From this brief and sketchy overview, it will hopefully be seen that anarchism had fairly consistently emerged in times of great historical change and upheaval on this island. It has also produced individuals, whatever their merits and failings, who were sincere and dedicated revolutionaries representing, as will be demonstrated, a wide range of libertarian ideas from individualist anarchism to anarcho-syndicalism. Some of them challenge the definition of ‘anarchist’, and some may barely appear to warrant it, but this is a difficulty for us who admit of anarchism its undogmatic and shifting analysis and ideas.

1. Fintan Lane, The Origins of Modern Irish Socialism 1881-1896 (Cork, 1997); and Alan MacSimóin, ‘History of Anarchism in Ireland’, in Workers Solidarity Movement webpage, (1996); and Jason Brannigan, The Meaning of Anarchism by Captain Jack White (Belfast, 1998); and Ferghal McGarry, Irish Politics and the Spanish Civil War (Cork, 1999).
2. Emmet O’Connor, Syndicalism in Ireland 1917-23 (Cork, 1988). 3. Mike Milotte, Communism in Modern Ireland: the Pursuit of the Workers’ Republic since 1916 (Dublin, 1984).
4. Henry Patterson, The Politics of Illusion: Republicanism and Socialism in Modern Ireland (London, 1989); and Graham Walker, The Politics of Frustration: Harry Midgley and the Failure of Labour in Northern Ireland (Manchester, 1985).
5. John Quail, The Slow Burning Fuse: The Lost History of the British Anarchists (London, 1978), pp.72-88; and Richard Pankhurst, William Thompson 1775-1833 (London, 1954).
6. Lane, p.112 and p.160.
7. Lane, pp.221-2; and John W. Boyle, The Irish Labour Movement in the Nineteenth Century (Washington, 1988), pp.320-1; The second Belfast Socialist Society was founded in 1905 by T.R. Johnson and suffered a breakaway Communist Club in 1908.
8. Lane, p.122.
9. Emmet O’Connor, A Labour History of Ireland 1824-1960 (Dublin, 1992), pp.116-36.
10. Malachy Gray, ‘Reminiscense: A Shop Steward Remembers’, in Saothar, No.11 (1986), p.114, note 5. Valentine Morahan was sentenced to 6 months in 1933 for sedition and 18 months in 1940 for having a CP manifesto urging class war, though this was reduced to 3 months on appeal. He was expelled from the CP for ‘ultra-leftism’ after he opposed the Party’s stance on war collaboration. Revolutionary Workers’ Group and CP leader Tommy Geehan from West Belfast was also to part company with the CP during the war.
11. McGarry, p.175, note 147. 12. Mícheál MacUileagóid, From Fetters to Freedom: The Inside Story of
Irish Jailbreaks (Belfast, 1996), pp.53-4. 13. MacSimóin.