A short biography of Mat Kavanagh, Liverpool-Irish class struggle anarchist.
“For the young anarchists of the 30s, of whom I was one, and right until the 50s, Mat was our link with the traditional working class Anarchism of the past and our mentor as no other” - Albert Meltzer
He appears to have been born in Limerick in Ireland in 1876. He came to England via Dublin and became involved in the anarchist movement in his early youth, being active in Liverpool in the years before World War One. He worked with Kropotkin, Malatesta and Rocker on a number of occasions. Rudolf Rocker who spent some time in Liverpool in 1898 working with Jewish anarchists there, was to note that the English speaking group was really active at the time, and had three “good, popular speakers” which alongside Kavanagh, included O’Shea and Despres. They spoke every Sunday morning at the Monument in central Liverpool. Anarchist pamphlets and papers sold well there.
Later in 1907 Kavanagh was one of those who set up the Liverpool group of the Industrial Union of Direct Actionists, founded by Guy Aldred, John Turner and Charlie Lahr. The Liverpool group had 15 members and Mat appears to have been its most active member. The Liverpool group was to invite Guy Aldred up from London to speak and conduct a campaign in June of that year. Aldred was accompanied by his girlfriend, the anarchist Rose Witkop. Mat assumed that they were already living in free union, and offered them a double bed, much to Rose’s outrage and Mat’s subsequent embarrassment! The Liverpool meetings attracted large audiences and were noted in the local press.
When Jimmy Dick and Lorenzo Portet set up a short-lived Modern School in 1908 in Liverpool, based on the ideas of the martyred Spanish libertarian Francisco Ferrer, Mat was to lecture regularly there. Among other topics he talked on the subject of the Paris Commune.
He was one of the anarchist speakers at Trafalgar Square in 1912, alongside James Tochatti , Carl Quinn, etc speaking against the deportation of the celebrated Italian anarchist Malatesta.
Like most British anarchists, Mat took a clear anti-militarist stand during World War One. One of the great sadnesses of his life was to occur during the war. His only son, not yet twenty, was called up in the early years of the war and was to shortly die in the fighting.
John Hewetson in his obituary of Mat in Freedom was to remark that Mat was “imprisoned no less than 9 times, always on revolutionary issues and could discourse most entertainingly on the prisons of these islands”.
In 1916 Mat went back to Dublin to take part in the activity initiated by Connolly and Larkin. However, he was never under any illusions about Irish nationalism which finally triumphed over the original revolutionary aspirations of 1916. Mat’s ideas proved to be unacceptable and he returned to England.
Mat was, with his wife Leah, one of those who contributed to work on the Whiteway anarchist colony near Stroud in Gloucestershire, which had been founded in 1897.
During the years after Freedom ceased publication in 1927 Mat was one of the few that kept the ideas of anarchism alive in Britain. He spoke at the first open-air meeting of the newly-invigorated anarchist movement in Paddington in 1936, an attempt to start a series of mass meetings. It came under attack from the fascists who were successfully driven off.
From 1937 Mat met up with Jack White of Irish Citizen Army fame, who had rallied to anarchism as a consequence of the Spanish revolution. They worked together on a survey of Irish labour but this was irretrievably lost when White died in 1940 and his heirs burnt his papers.
During the war Mat moved to Southend. Now in his sixties, he was interned under Regulation 18b with other members of the local anarchist group and the Independent Labour Party and pacifists, when Southend was declared a danger area by the authorities. Mat organised these together and demanded to see the Commandant of the internment camp. He requested that the anarchists, socialists and Jews interned there be separated from the Mosley fascists who had also been rounded up. Eventually the authorities backed down and released Mat and co, realising that the so-called anti-fascist war they were pursuing would be questioned if obvious anti-fascists were being imprisoned alongside fascists.
Mat contributed to the pages of Solidarity, the paper of the Anti-Parliamentary Communist Federation, which appeared from 1938 and continued throughout the Second World War.
Mat had to move up to London where he found work as a barber. He had worked most of his life on the building sites and advancing age had meant his seeking of alternative employment. Albert Meltzer tells us that he was not a very good barber, but had the honour of shaving George Orwell, who wrote him up in an article calling him a “an old Irish IRA (!) Anarchist hairdresser” who “used to cut my hair in Fleet Street”.
George Woodcock mentions him in his memoirs as a: “a leprechaun of a man with a glowing red cyst at the end of a long pointed nose”.
Mat contributed a series of articles on anarchist figures of the past to the anarchist papers Freedom and War Commentary from the 1930s until the mid-1940s. Among those remembered were James Harrigan, John McAra and George Barrett. In fact as Hewetson noted: “Just how far back his personal memories went was illustrated by his anecdotes about old Edward Craig whom Mat knew at the end of his life, and who, in his early manhood had been the inspirer of the Owenite Commune at Ralahine in the years 1830-33”. Ralahine is in County Clare, Ireland.
After the war Mat was to be one of the founders of the London Anarchist Group along with Ronald Avery and others and was to be active in the Union of Anarchist Groups (UAG). He spoke for the UAG at an international anarchist congress in Paris in 1948, “characteristically making new friends among some of the younger French comrades” (Hewetson). He was probably the most regular speaker in the London anarchist lecture series and at Hyde Park.
Towards the end of his life Mat moved to the Whiteway colony. In 1953 he moved from there to the cottage in the Wye Valley owned by the anarchist Tony Gibson. He died there on Friday, March 26th 1954.