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Leaving aside the related tradition of syndicalism in Ireland, associated with figures like James Connolly, Irish anarchism had little historical tradition before the 1970s. As a movement it only really developed from the late 1990s – although one organisation, the Workers Solidarity Movement has had a continuous existence since 1984. Anarchists have been active in Ireland as far back as 1886, but these were short-lived groups or isolated individuals with large gaps between activity.
The first mention of an Irish connection to anarchism was the Boston-based Irish nationalist W.G.H. Smart, who wrote articles for The Anarchist in 1880 and 1881. In 1886, Michael Gabriel, an English anarchist, arrived in Dublin and moved to Bayview Avenue in the North Strand. He was a member of the Socialist League, an organisation whose members included libertarian Marxist William Morris and anarchist Joseph Lane. A branch of the League was formed and it is known that anarchist publications were among those distributed by them. 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, as he was a Fabian socialist, not an anarchist. Irish writer Oscar Wilde notably expressed anarchist sympathies, especially in his essay The Soul of Man under Socialism
Around 1890 John Creaghe, an Irish doctor who was joint founder (with Fred Charles), of The Sheffield Anarchist, took part in the "no rent" agitation before 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 1892 English anarchists visited Fred Allen at the Dublin independent offices to see if his Fair Trial Fund could be used for anarchist as well as Irish Republican Brotherhood prisoners. In 1894 at Trinity College Dublin's Fabian Society "over 200 students listened sympathetically" to a lecture on "Anarchism and Darwinism"
In the late 1960s, as the civil rights campaign took off, People's Democracy, before it became a small Trotskyist group, included some self-described anarchists such as John McGuffin and Jackie Crawford. The latter was one of the group who sold Freedom in Belfast's Castle Street in the late 1960s. There was an anarchist banner on the Belfast-Derry civil rights march. PD members, including John Grey, contributed to a 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, Marie and Noel Murray, were later sentenced to death for the killing of an off-duty Garda during a bank raid as part of a group called the Anarchist Black Cross (with no relation to the much older prisoner support group). Their sentences were commuted to life imprisonment on appeal. In 1970 there existed a hippy commune in a squatted house on Dublin's exclusive Merrion Road known as the Island Commune. Some inhabitants, including Ubi Dwyer of Windsor Free Festival fame, sold Freedom outside the GPO on Saturdays.
The first steps towards building a movement came in the late 1970s when a number of young Irish people who had been living and working in Britain returned home, bringing their new-found anarchist politics with them. Local groups were set up in Belfast, Dublin, Limerick, Dundalk and Drogheda. 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 but had little in the way of agreed politics or activities, and no organised discussions or education about anarchism. This imposed limits to what they could achieve and even to their continued existence – all groups were short-lived, had little impact and left no lasting legacy.
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 existed from 1978–81, although only to any substantial extent in Dublin. It produced Anarchist Worker nos. 1–7; documents on the national question, women's liberation, trade unions, and a constitution.
Some anarchist-inspired material can also be seen on Indymedia.ie.
Ireland has seen a relatively large comparative growth in Anarchist politics, in various forms since the alter-Globalisation movement of the 1990s and 2000s. Dublin now hosts numerous explicitly Anarchist squats, as well as regular social events facilitating for the Anarchist scene in various locations. Anarchist have been involved in activities from squatting, pro-choice, anti water charges to anti-fascist activity.
There are several anarchist organisations operating in Ireland: