A Wee Black Booke of Belfast Anarchism (1867-1973)

Tonight The Pensive Quill features guest writer Sean Matthews who reviews a book on the history of Belfast anarchism.

Irish anarchism is a movement 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 and the wider working class in countries like Sweden, Spain, Italy, South America or Korea. But that is not to say that we have no history at all. We are beginning to uncover forgotten events and this excellent pamphlet provides a small glimpse and snapshot in history of Belfast anarchism, a movement and tendency which still continues to grow spreading the gospel of radical working class direct action on the streets of Belfast.

Libertarian socialist tendencies can be traced throughout history but anarchism first emerged as a revolutionary political current and global mass social movement from the First International in the 1860s. Anarchists such as Bakunin and Kropotkin rejected the classical authoritarian Marxist strategy of the proletarian dictatorship as a means to destroy class society as this will lead to a new ruling class, a so-called revolutionary elite that would merely strengthen the class system and rule by the minority. In Bakunin’s eyes ‘the people will feel no better if the stick with which they are being beaten is labelled the people’s stick….No State….not even the reddest republic- can ever give the people what they want.’(1) Bakunin summed it up in a nutshell when he pointed out that ’socialism without freedom is slavery and brutality, freedom without socialism is privilege and injustice.’ Predictions I might add which were later implement by the various so- called ‘peoples republics’ in the last century. This was not merely the result of a ‘degeneration’ in the revolution or threat of invasion that some modern day socialists want us to believe but the logical outcome of statist and authoritarian politics as the means determines the end.

Instead anarchists involved themselves in the daily struggles of the working-class, spreading anarchist ideas and methods of struggle. Radicalising popular movements from below, moving beyond the passive parliamentary path by presenting an alternative in which the state and capitalism is abolished and replaced with libertarian communism, where industries, the means of production and distribution are commonly owned, and placed under the management of those working in them. Production being organised and planned by a federation of workers councils, not for profit but to meet peoples' needs.

Historian Mairtin O Cathain’s pulls together reports of anarchism in and around Belfast in the years from 1867 to 1973. With no local movement for much of this period, the pamphlet looks at some individuals whose political activity merited mention in the media of the time. O Cathain’s work stops before the emergence in the late 1970s of the groups from which contemporary anarchist organisations the Workers Solidarity Movement and Organise! can trace their roots.

As I write there is also research being conducted into Just Books which provided books and materials to prisoners.  Just Books was originally opened as a bookshop in June 1978, by the Belfast Anarchist Collective. It was, however, more than just a bookshop: the premises included a cafe and print workshop. It also provided a focal point for the collectives many activities until its closure sixteen years later in June 1994. Set up without any form of state subsidy or grant, money was raised through benefits, from interest free loans and donations from supporters. The location in Winetavern Street in the Smithfield area was significant and accessible, to point at the bottom of the Falls and Shankill. Since its closure in 1994, the Just Books Collective continues to exist, organising benefits and having stalls at the annual Mayday march and other book fairs. Last year it briefly acquired premises in Clarence Street but after a few months had to close down. While based in Lombard Street, Just Books expanded its range of titles and currently carry stock dealing with Irish history, labour history, sex and sexuality, global development and exploitation, progressive politics, current affairs and environmental issues. A small multi-lingual library has also been built up, designed to be of use to labour and community activists, which includes a broad selection of historical, progressive political, feminist and environmental publications.
Some readers will be aware of Captain Jack White who fought in the Irish Citizen Army and later became an anarchist after participating and witnessing the Spanish revolution in practice. Other names will be unknown to most mainstream historians and even anarchists including Bolton Hall and William Baillie who later emigrated to the USA. Hall was involved in communal experiments, propaganda, and union organising. Baillie was more of an individualist, though he still realised that “personal freedom was tied inexorably to collective and economic freedom.”

John McAra was a Scottish anarchist who came to speak in Belfast, where he was arrested and jailed for a few months. A small group emerged from his activity, but appears to have died away after the First World War. Jack McMullen was a public speaker with socialist with anarchist sympathies, who campaigned against slum housing and unemployment in the 1920s and 1930s.

Finally there is John McGuffin, a founder member of the Belfast Anarchist Group, he was involved in the early Peoples Democracy and the civil rights movement. From a Protestant background John was interned and later wrote a famous book based on his own experiences called ’The Guineapigs’ which exposed the torture against the hooded men from the British Government.

The pamphlet would not be completed without covering the impact of the nationalism and sectarianism on the marginalisation of the left. Although stopping relatively short in the early 1970s, the author touches upon these divisions amongst Irish anarchists with a small number such as John McGuffin becoming sympathetic towards the republican movement while others maintaining a devout opposition to nationalism and armed struggle.

In 1973 the Belfast Libertarian Group released a hard hitting small booklet called 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 cafĂ© 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’.

This is a genuine pamphlet covering an area of social history that is often neglected and smothered under the wheels of the politics of green and orange. However, the author acknowledges:

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.

Mairtin O Cathain’s Wee Black Booke’ on Belfast Anarchism from 1867- 1973 can be read online at http://www.wsm.ie/c/belfast-anarchism-wee-black-booke

The Just Books Collective can be contacted at justbooks@rocketmail.com.  They are interested in hearing from anyone who used the bookshop and their views.

1) Statism and anarchy, 338


  1. Sean,

    thanks for sending this to us. Pleased to carry it. A very informative piece.

  2. Sean,
    always find your stuff really interesting and I enjoyed reading this.
    I will not pretend to fully understand anarchism but I know my son would really enjoy this.

  3. Nuala,

    Funny that you should write that because when I was uploading it for Sean I thought of you commenting on your son’s politics and felt he might find the book interesting!

  4. Mackers,
    my son is of the belief that anarchism is a ideal which is totally misunderstood.
    I think I would find the book quite interesting and might actually learn something.

  5. The wee pamphlet is only useful in looking at anarchism from local context to the 1970s.

    The best online internet archive is Anarchist FAQ which examines every aspect of anarchist theory and practice.


    I also came across this guy a few years ago which is facinating

  6. Nuala,

    Tommy Gorman used to tell this story about the anarchists calling a meeting and anybody that turned up was suspended! I think your son in that regard is right. There is this image of anarchism as totally disorderly and anything goes. There is a strand to be found in Marx by some analysts which they call Libertarian Marxism and it deals with the principles of anarchism. Its basis ethos I believe is to prevent the concentration of power and control in the hands of any party elite. It would be highly anti-vanguardist.


    thanks for supplying that detail

  7. haha mackers,

    haha Ive been an anarchist since a teenager and never came across such meetings. You know what they say about stories and how they change and manipulated..... If there is one thing anarchism shares with 'dissident republicanism' is the bogeyman label(except in Ireland). I remember during the 2004 Mayday protests in Dublin where the lead article from the Daily Star I think it was, was on how anarchists plan to gas the citizens of Dublin.
    Yeah, we would certainly share much in common with the strand of marxism you mention, than what passes itself of as 'state socialism'. If your looking for a good book on anarchism the best I have came across is Black Flame: The Revolutionary Class Politics of Anarchism and Syndicalism (Counter-Power vol 1)- written by Lucien van der Walt and Michael Schmidt which deals with "the ideas, history and relevance of the broad anarchist tradition through a survey of 150 years of global history"


    'The man
    Of virtuous soul commands not, nor obeys:Power, like a desolating pestilence,Pollutes whate'er it touches, and obedience,Bane of all genius, virtue, freedom, truth,
    Makes slaves of men, and, of the human frame,A mechanised automaton.'-Percy Bysshe Shelley

  8. Organise!,

    I always found it funny but as you suggest an urban myth.

    I have so many books to get through, not all of them serious. But I will mark that one up for attention. Even where anarchism might not be thought applicable it is worthwhile alone for the critique it makes of power.

  9. Yeah , I think anarchism has a lot to offer in terms of a systematic analysis of power and class relations in society, which could be useful in an Irish context.

    Apart from yourself Mackers and the recent book published by Tommy Mckearney, there is little analysis of the Provisionals direction apart from one of merely sellouts and traiters.

    Eirigi, have made some attempts to address this, but whether their ‘lip service’ to bottom up decision making is of substance remains to be seen, especially given their uncritical support to the Chavez and Castro regimes, and the fact that they carry a lot of baggage from the Provisionals.

    I remember helping to organise meeting a few years ago in Belfast for ex black panther, ex Black Liberation Army member Ashanti Alston who was influenced by anarchism when in jail. He put the demise of the Black Panthers not just down to brutal state repression but also their internal organisational structure based on top centralised control, given rise to personality cults which stifled internal debate and discussion


    Sean( I need to work out how to change my username)