Mat Kavanagh was a Liverpool-Irish anarchist who, in a lifetime of political activity, worked alongside such well known revolutionaries as Peter Kropotkin, Rufolf Rocker and Ericco Malatesta.
This obituary was published in the British anarchist paper, Freedom, in 1954.
Born in Limerick in 1876, he moved to Liverpool and became involved in the anarchist movement in his teenage years. A good public speaker, he often spoke at the Sunday morning anarchist meetings at the Monument in Liverpool’s city centre.
In 1912 he was chosen to be one of the speakers at the mass rally in Trafalgar Square against the threatened deportation of the celebrated Italian anarchist Malatesta.
Like the vast majority of anarchists, he took a strong anti-militarist stand during World War One. One of the great sadnesses of his life was to occur at this time. His only son was conscripted and died in the fighting.
John Hewetson in his obituary says that “in 1916 Mat went back to Dublin to take part in the activity initiated by Connolly and Larkin”. However, we have found no confirmation of this. The accuracy of Hewetson’s account is questionable as Jim Larkin was in America at that time and was not involved in the preparations for the rising.
As the Spanish civil war brought new interest in anarchism, Kavanagh 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.
The following year Kavanagh met up with Jack White of Irish Citizen Army and Republican Congress fame, who had moved to anarchism as a result of his first hand experiences whilst fighting Franco’s fascists. They worked together on a survey of Irish labour but this was lost when White died in 1940 and his papers disappeared. According to Leo Keohane, who researched White’s politics for a doctoral thesis, their intention was to “produce an anarchist’s perspective on Connolly’s ‘Labour in Irish History'”.
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”.
James Connolly wrote about this in his Labour in Irish History. Ralahine is close to Newmarket-on-Fergus in Co. Clare.
In a short biography of Kavanagh at libcom.org, Nick Heath adds:
“During the Second World War Mat moved to Southend. Now in his sixties, he was interned under Regulation 18b with other members of the local anarchist group, 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, in his autobiography ‘I couldn’t paint golden angels’, 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”.