McAra, John, c.1870-1915

News report of Mcara's arrest after public speech at Customs House, Belfast 1908
News report of Mcara's arrest after public speech at Customs House, Belfast 1908

A short biography of John McAra, Scottish anarchist orator.

Submitted by Battlescarred on February 1, 2012

John McAra was the most persistent outdoor speaker in the Anarchist movement in Scotland, and as a literature seller had no equal.” Obituary in Freedom, 1915.

A cooper and cork-cutter from the village of Mid-Calder, near Edinburgh, where he moved to in the late 1880s. It was probably through contact with the local branch of the Socialist League that McAra first came in contact with anarchism, as that branch had strong anarchist leanings, numbering Andreas Scheu among its members.As Mat Kavanagh said of McAra in a Freedom article in 1934: ““Wee” McAra stands out in the history of the movement in this country as one of its quaintest and pluckiest members. To have known him and heard him speaking on his “native heath” The Meadows, at Edinburgh - where he was always at his best - was a memory which would last a lifetime.”

McAra was noted for his public speaking, which drew large crowds and for his shifting of large amounts of anarchist literature. He made speaking tours around Britain to propagandise for anarchism between 1900 and 1912 and his meetings were noted in newspapers in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Liverpool. He helped revive anarchism in Glasgow in 1909 after the high point there of the 1890s. He seemed unable to form a group around him, (although in Glasgow in 1909 he had the foresight to invite George Barrett up from London to help with public speaking and a new group subsequently emerged) and when he died, the movement in Edinburgh faded away. When the local authorities tried to restrict meetings on the Meadows, McAra took a stand for free speech. However, he was not invited to join the joint committee set up by the ILP, BSP, and SLP and he was referred to as “slum dweller” in the SLP paper. When the Committee suspended its meetings to await the decision of the Council, McAra continued with his meetings. He was summoned and fought the case without legal aid, finally winning in 1912. As regards this case Guy Aldred, that perfect anarchist, was to haughtily and dismissively remark: Anarchists have made much of the McAra case, ….But this was a case taken up by lawyers and argued by them professionally. McAra, however worthy he may have been, was a purely lay figure-a lawyer's dummy. He did nothing at all. He did not advise. He did not speak. His name was merely used to describe the case. Yet a number of Anarchists conceal this fact and write about the case as though he had challenged the law. …..To my mind, it is a most objectionable practice for Socialists and Anarchists to engage Counsel, and to have to take their place in Court absolutely silent figures, deprived of the right to speak.”

He was the first to publicly speak on anarchism in Belfast. In the course of one of these meetings, he was arrested for an inflammatory speech and sentenced to 3 months in Crumlin Gaol. This had a negative effect on his health, shortening his life. As Kavanagh notes: “He was ageing in years, and his life had been one of continuous poverty, which meant much privation, and his physical powers were no longer equal to the strain.” He died on December 11th, 1915 in Edinburgh after two operations in seven days, his daughter writing to Freedom that he had been conscious up to the last, expressing the wish that he could live a little longer to see the end of the war.

Nick Heath