An Gof was seemingly everywhere in 1980s Camborne, when I was growing up. I’m not, obviously, referring to the historical figure of Michael Joseph An Gof – who we shall touch on later – or local historical societies holding public meetings devoted to the events of his life, or even memorable school lessons on the subject of An Gof and the Cornish Rebellion of 1497. (Cornish history wasn’t taught in any of my schools.) No, I’m here referring to the graffiti that was somewhat ubiquitous in the town and elsewhere during those years. No crumbling piece of masonry, road sign, or long-closed mine building was complete without something like the following legend crudely sprayed over it:
I remember, at the time, giving some thought to what this slogan was supposed to mean, or signify. Free Cornwall: from what, or whom? Is Cornwall, and by extension the Cornish, imprisoned, or enslaved? And, more ambiguously, who the hell is “An Gof”? Are they the person to free Cornwall? Are they an organisation, more than one person? And, seeing as I’m Cornish, isn’t therefore An Gof’s incitement – to free Cornwall, thus freeing myself – something I ought to be endorsing too?
Problem was, Camborne’s elusive, shadowy An Gof never did manage to free Cornwall. All he, or she, or they, seemed to do, was daub brickwork with their emancipating mantra, and my interest waned. A few years later, when I was working (seasonally, of course) in a factory, a colleague confessed in the smokers’ room to knowing one of the An Gof graffiti artists. This workmate then proceeded to fill me in on the details of the genuine Michael Joseph An Gof (Cornish: “the smith”) and his rebellion. An Gof, he told me, had been a Cornish freedom fighter, and his pals had taken the name to represent their own, rather less mature, desires. Occasionally turning the “A” of An Gof into the symbol for anarchy had, they reckoned, given their calling card an extra dimension of revolutionary fervour. (I remember drawing on my fag and nodding sagely.)
But how serious was all this? I also recalled being warned, as a child, about glass in the sand when playing on Portreath beach, and that the same people doing the graffiti were probably responsible for that stunt as well. But was this the act of some bona fide revolutionaries? How is a gashed foot going to “free” anyone? A friend from Camborne described the glass on the beach as “f**king stupid”, and I’m inclined to agree.
Idiotic or not, the question about sincerity remained. What other acts have been attributed to, or claimed by, this An Gof over the years? Wanting a quick answer, I sought out the Wikipedia entry for the supposed An Gof movement and made a list. I then thought it might be a good idea to see if other people could recall the events on this list, to get a personal angle on my research. On October 12, 2021 I put the following post, with a request to email me with any information, on the Cornish History Facebook page:
I’m currently looking into the “An Gof” attacks of the 1980s. If anyone has recollection of, or connection with, the below events, please get in touch. Many thanks
The bombing of St Austell courthouse, 1980
The bombing of a Penzance hairdresser, 1981
Beacon Village Hall fire, 1984
Zodiac Bingo Hall fire, Redruth, 1984
Glass on Portreath Beach, 1984
Some of the comments I received were less than favourable:
I can tell you now that most of this is urban myth. And how strange that at a time when so many of us are working so hard to protect Cornwall, someone finds it necessary to drag up this utter rubbish again. Is there an agenda here?
It is interesting that the minute the Cornish movement starts becoming visible…there is this rake up of an anglo-myth of Cornish terrorism. If it isn’t an agenda, then it is at best poor timing.
And again, the alleged An Gof attacks were dismissed as:
…fantasy. The myth of Cornish terrorism rises every time the Cornish get up off our knees. It is tiring at best, and deliberate smears at worst.
So, before I’d written my blog or aired an opinion, my work was being tarred and feathered as propagating a supposed anti-Cornish myth that all Cornish nationalists are extremist cranks. And, as all this An Gof stuff was utter nonsense anyway, it didn’t deserve to be written about. Furthermore, my request was then linked in with another recent essay on Cornish nationalism that touched on the An Gof attacks. The person writing this comment on Facebook alleged that the publisher of this piece has decidedly left-wing, even Communist, sympathies. I took the inference to be that my outlook might be similar.
So, not only am I anti-Cornish in writing this post, I might be a raving Marxist too. Oh – and I’ve bad timing as well. At best, this is laughable; at worst, it’s insulting.
Thankfully, the above were the worst comments. Others responded to my request in a positive, even defensive, light. One or two others, outside of Facebook, have even agreed to speak to me as regards An Gof in the 1980s, and for that I am thankful. I’ve also been in touch with the Penzance Old Cornwall Society, asking if any of their members recall the events in early 1981. To date, no response. The St Austell Old Cornwall Society told me that none of their members were able to help, and their former chairman informed me by email that he was “not aware” of any bombing in St Austell in 1980.
All this served to tell me that, myth or not, genuine movement or not (the Wikipedia entry for “Cornish Nationalism” states that it’s “far from clear” if there ever was a movement), the subject of the events attributed to, or claimed by, An Gof, still upsets Cornish nationalists, even forty years on. Why get so worked up about something that’s mere myth, or fantasy? Finding the answer to this question might be worth writing about.
If I must have an agenda for this post, then let it simply be this: as someone who experienced, albeit somewhat remotely, An Gof in my youth, I have a desire to discover more about the subject, and report my findings. I also want to find out why my subject is, in some circles, taboo. As I have written rather a lot, I’ve broken my work down into four separate posts, the first of which is this introduction. The second post, Person or Persons Unknown, is a survey of all the alleged An Gof activities, from 1980-1990, and an analysis of the public’s reactions to them, as well as the reactions of Cornish nationalists. The third post, The Two An Gofs, discusses why many Cornish nationalists have such cultural cache in a version of An Gof totally at odds with the activities of those outlined in Person or Persons Unknown, and the problems inherent in their version. In the final post, An Gof Today?, I’m going to look briefly at An Gof’sactivities in more recent times, and what can be learnt from their history as a whole, as regards Cornish nationalism and the challenges facing Cornwall today.