John McGuffin – A Tribute

By Eamonn McCann – Author “War & an Irish Town” et al.

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

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

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

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

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.

1 thought on “John McGuffin – A Tribute”

  1. Well written tribute to a seemingly very interesting man. I wish I had met him myself. I need to get my finger out and read his books. Well done Eamonn.


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