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
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.
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."
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
is no index, for which the publishers should be horse-whipped.
article was first published in The Sunday Tribune
and is carried with permission from the author.
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