Kavanagh, Mat, 1876-1954

Mat Kavanagh
Mat Kavanagh

A short biography of Mat Kavanagh, Liverpool-Irish class struggle anarchist.

Submitted by Battlescarred on May 20, 2008

“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

Mat Kavanagh was a life-long anarchist , one of the few who connected the generations of the Socialist League, and even before, with the new generations that emerged with the Spanish Civil War.

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.
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. According to Louis Adeane writing in Freedom for May 22nd 1954, Mat's only son Sean spoke regularly at an open air pitch on anarchism on the seafront there on most Sunday mornings and at the Southend Forum "a sort of club in a small, dirty room in a poor part of the town for a lecture and talk, with Mat as the speaker more than once". One of the great sadnesses of his life was to occur during the war when Sean, not yet twenty, was called up in the early years of the war and was to shortly die in the fighting. Mat regularly cut the hair of members of the Southend Community, a commune based at nearby Westcliff-on-Sea at 34 Retreat Road, and later at Oakwood, Brook Hill, Wickford. This had been set up in 1939. It appears that the Essex teenagers Norman and Donald Potter spent time at this commune and were introduced to the ideas of anarchism by Mat. Norman Potter became a famous designer, poet and furniture maker whilst Donald (who used the name Louis Adeane-see above) was a poet.
Now in his sixties, Mat 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.

Nick Heath



15 years 9 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by magnus on August 27, 2008

a fine article mentioning people i knew in the 50's but i just missed by 1 year it seems Matt but didn't miss Philip Sanson et al at opening of the 1st Malatesta Club.

in 1956 Philip, Rita et al held a meeting off the Charing Cross Rd..Londres which expanded to the
closing of the Road as this swelled peacefully and despite Miss Foyle's objections with Police permission.

without microphones... it was estimated that over a thousand passers-by stopped passing-by and stood Spellbound.

It might well be that many other of my memories of that period could Grace... (oops).... Bore your pages.


15 years 9 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by Battlescarred on August 28, 2008

Yes, that's documented in the article A Rose by Any Other Name- (a history of Manette Street) here on libcom

Inigo Montoya

15 years 1 month ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by Inigo Montoya on May 18, 2009

"In 1916 Mat went back to Dublin to take part in the activity initiated by Connolly and Larkin"

Is this a mistake?

Is the author actually referring to the The Dublin Lockout of 1913 which Connolly and Larkin were both heavily involved in, instead of the 1916 Easter Rising in which only Connolly was active?


15 years 1 month ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by flaneur on May 18, 2009

Considering the next sentence is "however, he was never under any illusions about Irish nationalism which finally triumphed over the original revolutionary aspirations of 1916", I would say it's in reference to the Easter Rising.

Inigo is right in saying Larkin hadn't anything to do with that though.


14 years 10 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by leokeohane on August 14, 2009

I'd like to thank Nick Heath for an extremely informative article. Mat (one t?) was obviously an extraordinarily interesting character - to think he had met Craig is absolutely fascinating. I would like to correspond with Nick because I am presently researching the life of Jack White for a doctoral thesis which examines his anarchist thinking and also with a view to writing a biography which is long overdue. The interest for me in Mat Kavanagh is the collaboration he was doing with Jack - this was supposed to be specifically to produce an anarchist's perspective on Connolly's "Labour in Irish History". I am convinced this book actually indicates an anarchist's outlook on the part of Connolly as well, although he would never concede that, i am sure. The second point is that I believe this book also corroborates the theory I have about White's anarchism which is far too long winded to go into here. Finally I would categorically state that Noreen Shanahan, Jacks' wife, did not destroy his papers - I have proof that she loved and admired him.


12 years ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by Battlescarred on May 22, 2012

Hmm- the photo of Mat Kavanagh seems to have vanished!!!!


12 years ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by Battlescarred on May 22, 2012

Freedom obit here

Red Marriott

12 years ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by Red Marriott on May 22, 2012

Photo reinstated - unfortunately at present all library images are blown up to same size, meaning smaller images like this one get blurry.


10 years 5 months ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by Battlescarred on January 5, 2014

I've made some additions and corrections to the above article on Mat Kavanagh, above all the correction aboout Mat's son, Sean, who died during World War Two and NOT WW1 as I wrote earlier, due to ambiguity of Hewetson's obit in Freedom.
The anarchist scene in Southend during WW2 deserves more research and I have added some additional information to the article which could be pointers to anyone willing to research


9 years ago

In reply to by libcom.org

Submitted by mbrodie_147 on June 18, 2015

I was reading a piece by Fintan Lane on early Irish socialism and noticed there was mention of an Arthur Kavanagh who was an anarchist in the Dublin branch of the Socialist League 1885-7, also a Myles Kavanagh who was in the gasworkers union in the 1880s and 1890s - any idea if they were any relation to Mat?

also I read some letters from Mat at the IISH which are addressed from Southend in 1934 when he seemed to be doing alot of propaganda work, but this says he moved there during the war - I couldn't say when he moved there just seems before ww2

the orwell reference is great - meltzer is full of cracking anecdotes!