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the democracy of the dead all men at last are equal.
Death of An Anarchist Writer
The road to Roselawn Crematorium has always struck me as being possessed of an ethereal quality. Sweeping in from the west of the city across the Knock Dual Carriageway, replete with its heavy greyness, the swing right onto the Ballygowan Road quickly brings you to that strange intersection where two worlds meet, like billiard balls, and then bounce off into their own separate orbits. The joints that link them, at the same time forcing them apart. A deep calming green replaces the grey of the city.
The approach to Roselawn is quite unlike any other. The only other thing that I can compare it with was the first parole from the H-Blocks in 1989. I walked out of the Long Kesh colourlessness, got into my friend Tommy's car, drove a few hundred yards and then the green hit us. I noticed it, he did not. I only ever experienced that green once. Each parole after that declining to produce the same effect. But Roselawn never fails. In terms of atmosphere and setting it is as far removed from West Belfast cemeteries as it is geographically. Milltown Cemetery is so situated in the centre of urbanity that attending funerals there always engenders feelings of having just stepped into a wet field, rather than a place reserved. The unruly state of our modern day burial site conjures up images of a human disposal ground rather a cemetery where dignity and serenity have their own exalted place.
Yesterday afternoon we made the surreal trip yet again. Tommy Gorman and myself arrived at Roselawn shortly prior to 3 o'clock for the cremation of John McGuffin, who once described himself as an intellectual hooligan. John was not religious, neither was his ceremony. Joe Quigley explained, while he made a short address, that out of the many categories of fools that John regarded as making up the world, there was a special place for those who believed in religion once having attained the age of reason. Another category was made up of those who vote - it wasn't right, in his view, to choose our masters. The coffin, draped in the anarchist flag, was carried into the building by a number of his friends. As Bernadette McAliskey remarked during her address it was good to see John McGuffin holding up both ends of the flag himself as he had at Burntollet all those years ago.
Due to the difficulty encountered by some Derry mourners in negotiating the Belfast roads to Roselawn, not everyone arrived on time. This upset the flow of the proceedings somewhat as included among those who had yet to arrive was the main speaker, Joe Quigley. Des Wilson, who first met John McGuffin in America, was asked if he could open up with a few words. The first captured the essence of the man about to be cremated and set the tone for the remainder of the ceremony. 'John would have been quite pleased to see that everything did not go right'. Des went on to compare him with some of the great historical figures of resistance writing. Bernadette McAliskey in her tribute said of the man whom we had gathered to honour that he was a cross between Marx, Machiavelli and Monty Python.
John McGuffin who died on Saturday night in Altnegevin Hospital after a period of illness was a prolific writer. Amongst his publications ranked Internment; Guineapigs; In Praise of Poteen; and The Hares of the Dog - A Celtic Conspiracy. Upon hearing of his death I felt downhearted and dejected. I never grew to know him very well, only having met him for the first time a number of years ago while he stood on Gravaghy Road, still opposing injustice as he did throughout his entire adult life. And those occasions when I met him after that were by chance, typical for his anarchistic nature, at a protest somewhere, perhaps in a pub or on a street in Belfast or Derry when he would invariably be accompanied by his partner Christiana. And occasionally we kept in touch over the internet. Like so many others who recoiled at the official version of events I regularly received his 'Dipatches'. But, know him well or not, his character was, in that clichified way, larger than life. He was a beacon in the North West where there are so few others. A star that stood out in a galactic darkness, always a source of reassurance and comfort when the oppressive forces of conformity bayed for obedience. And now he was gone. A void took his place, a vacuum that was not going to be filled easily. Few deaths, outside of family, have that impact.
And so it was a major relief to attend his cremation and listen to those who spoke, Des Wilson, Bernadette McAliskey, Eamonn McCann and Joe Quigley. It was totally uplifting. To see so many there - whom one speaker described as 'no gooders and misfits, the type John loved' - who, like John McGuffin, needed no one else to think for them, made me feel that had Pastor Niemoller lived here rather than Germany there would always have been somebody left who would speak out. The Fuhrer would never quite succeed in murdering us all.
It is not the done thing to burst out laughing at funerals but many did and the rest didn't mind in the slightest when Eamonn McCann relayed a conversation he once had with John McGuffin about books. The anarchist was a voracious reader and he told Eamonn that he was doing his best to get through so many books that he felt should be read but 'there's still bastards writing more'. I laugh now even as I write.
In many ways John McGuffin's independence had more than the usual amount of obstacles to cross. He was of a Protestant background and his uncle had been a Labour Unionist MP. John attended Campbell College, the home of Rugby and all that. But never a team player - there would always be some captain eager to have everybody play only his way because he thought he knew more and better than the rest of us - he ran with the ball himself. And in an age when it has become fashionable to kick for touch and deny ever having had the ball, John McGuffin never let his drop. Holding it came with a price and he ended up being interned. But he managed to turn that dark era into one of victory by writing The Guineapigs, exposing the torture underwent by the 'hooded men', and embarrassing the British Government in the course of doing so.
In the worldview of John McGuffin there only was one world; this one of darkness. His presence here ensured that light would shine into the dark corners where the dirty work of the establishment churned out repression. As we left for the drive back to West Belfast, my dejection had gone. The vibrancy of John McGuffin had shoved it off stage. And to end our day Tommy Gorman reminded me of what quite easily could have been a 'McGuffinism': what is the point in voting? - sure the government always gets in.
Oiche Mhaith, John.
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