Introduction to the wee black booke

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Had the tabloids been taken at face value, many would have us believe that ‘anarchy’ reigned in Belfast on a regular basis over the past thirty to forty years. Unfortunately, that was not the case. However, the equation of anarchy with violence is nothing new and the word continues to be misapplied in almost every context from the chimpanzee house at Belfast Zoo to the streets of Iraq. Partly this is ignorance, partly laziness, and partly deliberate and malicious misapplication by politicians and the media.

Of the more cogent explorations of labour history and politics here in the north, the picture is scarcely less misleading. Few writers and historians have given acknowledgement of the existence of anarchists and anarchist movements in Belfast though perfunctory references to small anarchist groups and publications such as the Belfast Anarchist Collective and Black Star have sometimes escaped into mainstream publications over the years. This short introduction does not claim a popular but suppressed mass appeal nor even a historical continuum for anarchism here. We freely acknowledge the marginal status and relative unpopularity of the movement, though people’s misconceptions about anarchism have long been a difficulty in popularising it. It nevertheless has attracted a number of extraordinary people over the years from the late nineteenth to the late twentieth century, and the message, method and spirit of anarchism has rang out in the streets and halls of Belfast at times of great social radicalism and in periods of inveterate reaction.

This booklet concentrates on the lives of five individuals, only two of whom have achieved any measure of ‘fame’ on the island of Ireland: Captain Jack White and John McGuffin. Of some interest, is the fact that three of the five are from Ulster Protestant backgrounds and in some cases, from fairly staunch loyalist backgrounds, a heritage that appears no less than the Irish Catholic and republican traditions and probably more so, to have engendered a libertarian spirit of revolt and the challenging of orthodoxies and privilege that gave birth to anarchist ideas. It is also a matter of some pride to the author that one of the five was a Scot who travelled to Ulster and brought his anarchism with him, and who may have been the first to publicly preach its word in Belfast. Unfortunately, none of the individuals recorded here are women, though some reference will be made to Agnes Henry in the text and hopefully in the fullness of time, a number of Belfast women activists will emerge from ongoing research.

This booklet is only meant as a beginning and the focusing on individuals merely a useful way of outlining and highlighting a chronological development of anarchism in Belfast. It does not seek to be either the final or the definitive word and is based on limited source material, which happily will not detract from its usefulness to contemporary anarchists, libertarians, communists, socialists and historians, or indeed, to anyone else interested in the subject.

My thanks are due to Michael Hall, Emmet O’Connor, William Gary Kline, Felix de Mendelssohn, and Andrew Boyd who all supplied materials and knowledge, Fintan Lane and Alan MacSimóin who have done the Irish anarchist groundwork in different ways, and Jason Brannigan, Joey O’Dowd and Al Sneddon, all fellow travellers in anarchist history. I’d also like to thank Anita, Jimmy Jones, and Fraz and Amanda.

This work is dedicated to my friends and comrades in Organise! past and present.

Máirtín Ó Catháin, Derry/Londonderry/Doire, Irlande du Nord.