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Good men must die, but death cannot kill their names.
- Proverb



John McGuffin


Eamonn McCann


The obituary cliche that "He didn't suffer fools gladly" was never more apt than for John McGuffin, which occasionally presented him with problems of an inter-personal nature, since McGuffin tended to regard a remarkably wide section of the earth's population as fools. Anybody who voted in an election ("It's wrong to choose your masters!"). All who had ever darkened the door of a church after reaching the age of reason. People opposed to cannabis. And that was just for starters.

One day in the late 1960s, when we thought we'd heard the chimes of freedom flashing, I drove to Dublin with McGuffin and the American anarchist Jerry Rubin. A mile or so out of Newry, McGuffin explained to the fabled member of the Chicago Seven that the town we were approaching was in the grip of revolution. The risen people had turned en masse to anarchism. We'd better barrel on through. If we stopped for a moment the fevered proletariat would surely engulf us...

Down were in the All-Ireland final that weekend. Every house, lamppost and telegraph pole was festooned with red-and-black flags. Rubin was agog, at risk of levitation when we passed under banners strung across the streets, reading, "Up Down!"

"These people really got the revolutionary ethic", enthused the ecstatic Rubin.

"As much as yourself, comrade", allowed the gracious McGuffin.

He turned up on the Burntollet march with an anarchist banner but couldn't persuade anybody to carry the other pole. He marched all the way with the furled standard sloped on his shoulder, managing to convey that this was sure evidence of his singular revolutionary rectitude, the easy-oozy reformism of the rest of us.

McGuffin was interned in August 1971, as far as I know the only Protestant lifted in the initial swoop. He wrote a fine book on internment afterwards, "The Guineapigs". He was later to publish "In Praise of Poteen", "The Hairs of the Dog" and, recently, "Last Orders, Please". He was a gifted, utterly undisciplined writer, eschewing the pedantries of structure and all strictures of taste. Various newspapers agreed to give him regular space, but it never lasted. Editors physically winced at his ferocious philippics. He said to me of this column a few months back, "If it's any good, why havn't they sacked you?"

For a time, An Phoblacht published his scabrously brilliant "Brigadier" column. Frequently, the Provos wouldn't print it because they thought their readers would find it offensive. They weren't bad judges.

I first became aware of McGuffin within a week of arriving at Queen's as a wide-eyed innocent from the Bogside. He erupted into a debate addressed by Sam Thompson, the former shipyard worker whose play, "Over The Bridge", had convulsed the Unionist establishment with rage. Thompson was the hero of the hour for Northern liberals. But not for McGuffin. The only achievement of "Over The Bridge", he raged, had been to enable a section of the useless middle class to feel good about themselves for having a night out at the theatre. "Meanwhile, Basil Brook is roaming the streets..."

He took off for California in the early '80s, where he practiced as a lawyer for 15 years, advertising his services under the slogan, "Sean McGuffin, Attorney at Law, Irish-friendly---No crime too big, no crime too small". He only did defences and preferred getting people off who he reckoned were guilty because that way it was more fun.

He was my friend for 40 years. The announcement of his end told that he died peacefully on the morning of April 28th after a long illness, and that two days before turning sideways to the sun had married his long-term collaborator, comrade and partner Christiane.

He was laid out in his coffin with a smile of final satisfaction on a face sculpted like a chieftain of old, in a black t-shirt with square red lettering, "Unrepentant Fenian Bastard".

Way to go, McGuffin.



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