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Going Back To The Start
A little less reverence for his subject might have made this a more realistic assessment
Review: Joe Cahill, A Life in the IRA by Brendan Anderson

Eamonn McCann • The Sunday Tribune

It can't be easy to write a boring book about Joe Cahill, but the former security correspondent of the Irish News has managed it. The main reason is that Anderson approaches his subject with reverence. The book has all the critical acuity of a Catholic Truth Society pamphlet on Mother Teresa. The genial Falls octogenarian surely deserves better than po-faced cult treatment of the type associated with devotees of the sinister Albanian.

That said, Cahill has obviously cooperated to the full with his obesient amanuensis. As much as half the text consists of direct quote from taped reminiscence. Most of the rest is Cahill rendered into the third person. Both men might have done better to dispense with the notion of Anderson as author and acknowledged him as duty-editor of Cahill's self-told story. The man himself might have been more colourfully critical of aspects of his own career and produced a better and politically more substantial work.

Presenting Cahill as a perfectly sculpted Republican saint, Anderson gives no impression of him as a irregular individual riven with the complications inevitable from half a century's immersement in a clandestine armed group which, for most of the period, imagined itself the legitimate government of the land. There is no indication here of his propensity for jovial irreverence about himself and, on occasion, for the Republican Movement's bumptious self-image. Reflecting ruefully on an operation he'd been involved in which hadn't gone entirely to plan, he was/is well-capable of remarking, "Jayshus, maybe they hanged the wrong man."

The reference is to the hanging of Tom Williams at Crumlin Road in September 1942 for the death of a RUC man, Pat Murphy, the previous Easter. A six-man IRA unit, including Cahill and with Williams as OC, had set out to divert attention from a banned commemoration parade. The job was botched. Murphy was shot dead and all six IRA men captured and sentenced to hang. Cahill and four others were reprieved 48 hours before they were scheduled to drop, following a huge international campaign. Williams, 18, was done to death as, outside, rage and grief erupted in Catholic areas. His death is commemorated in one of the most finely-wrought of Republican ballads..."Keep a memory of that morn'/When Ireland's cross was proudly borne/By a lad who lies within a prison grave."

By any standards, the story of the hanging of the devout Catholic teenager---he took communion and attended two masses on the morning of his execution and reputedly refused breakfast, saying that he wished to partake only of the body and blood of Christ on the day he was to meet with his maker---whether regarded as the useless waste of young life, or as due reward for a heinous deed, or as noble sacrifice in a grand cause---is tremulous with emotion and surely resonates with people of all Irish persuasions. It's also key to understanding Cahill personally and to explaining his stature and influence with the IRA and Sinn Fein. It may be harsh directly to deprecate the author's writing style, but his prosaic recitation of this sequence of events is inappropriate and wholly inadequate. It is hard to believe that Cahill recalls the experience in the flat manner recorded here.

Cahill crucially invoked the ghost of Tom Williams at the 1986 Sinn Fein Ardfheis when, arguing in favour of the McGuinness/Adams motion to drop abstentionism from the Leinster House assembly, he assured delegates that he still believed in the principles which he'd held "when I stood at the foot of the gallows." Martin McGuinness has said that without Cahill on-side, the Republican move towards constitutionalism might easily have been thwarted.

If Anderson was intruiged to discover how Cahill might reconcile his personal love and political reverence for Williams, who died in defence of the Republic, with support for a strategy of accomodation with partitionist institutions erected on the ruins of the Republic, there's no sign of it here. And yet there are clues casually strewn in the text, as fascinating as is the frustration that they aren't followed.

Cahill is quoted recalling that at a 100-strong Republican meeting in Belfast in the 1960s, with Tomas Mac Giolla presiding, his was one of only two votes for dropping abstentionism in the South. He tells that he always regarded Articles Two and Three of the Southern constitution as "just something on paper." As early as 1972, he suggests, "There was no great belief among the Republican leadership that Britain could be driven out of Ireland by force of arms alone." He confirms that by the same stage, contacts, "tentative and almost always deniable", were being maintained with, among others, the British and Irish governments. None of the alluring questions arising from these insights is pursued.

Similarly, there is a coy reluctance to probe too deeply, or at all, into the activities of the organisation in which the subject of the book spent a life. Despite an order to avoid civilian casualties in England, we are reminded that, "Many people were killed and back in Ireland a great deal of time was taken up with inquiries into operations that went wrong." This refers to Birmingham, Guildford, etc. Although Cahill was and is in a position to know the facts of all of these matters, that's as much as we learn---that "inquiries" took "a great deal of time." Journalistically, politically and in the perspective of history, this isn't good enough.

The flatness of the book is emphasised by a tendency to treat every encounter of Cahill's as equally important. Thus, Dame Ruth Railton, who apparently shared an interest in music---founder-member of the National Youth Orchestra of Great Britain, we learn---with the "enthusiastic and talented organist" Edward Heath, makes a cameo appearance As does Muammar Gaddafi---"Believing that he had seen his country safely on the right path, Gaddafi looked around for other causes to espouse." Etc.

Anderson appears to have proceeded on the basis that nothing in the book must ruffle a Republican feather. One wonders whether Cahill wouldn't have been better pleased by a less diffident approach.

There is no index, for which the publishers should be horse-whipped.


This article was first published in The Sunday Tribune and is carried with permission from the author.



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The man who lets a leader prescribe his course is a wreck being towed to the scrap heap.
- Ayn Rand

Index: Current Articles

10 November 2002


Other Articles From This Issue:


Managing the Strategy
Breandán ó Muirthile


Remembrance Day
Billy Mitchell


Going Back To The Start
Eamonn McCann


Suffer Little Children

Anthony McIntyre


Exposing Adams' Secrets To The Light Of Day
Jim Cusack


Pinnocchio, Oh, Oh!

Brian Mór


98th Death on Hunger Strike in Turkish Prisons


The Letters page has been updated.


7 November 2002


Our Community
Liam O Ruairc


Billy Mitchell


To The Beat of a Different Drum
Anthony McIntyre


Bring Back Stormont and Political Status

Brian Mór



Brian Mór


Pinnocchio Redux

Brian Mór




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