Ruán O’Donnell reviews Joe Cahill: a life in the IRA by Brendan Anderson, O’Brien Press £16.99 (25 euros), hbk
BRENDAN ANDERSON’S preface commences with an admirable admission that his biography of Joe Cahill ‘has been a difficult book to research and write’.
An active republican since the 1940s, when sentenced to death with Tom Williams in Belfast, Cahill has reputedly featured at virtually every level of the highly secretive movement after his gallows reprieve in 1942.
He was active in the IRA’s border campaign and provided Anderson with important insights into the problematic position of Belfast in the years 1956-62.
Unconvinced by the leftward push within the Goulding faction of the IRA, Cahill gravitated into the National Graves Association before returning to the cutting edge of republicanism as the crisis of the late 1960s mutated into bitter conflict.
He was a founder member of the Provisional IRA and is credited with mentoring a young family associate, Gerry Adams.
Inevitably, given the recent nature and controversial character of events in which Cahill participated, this book is not a definitive account of a key player. It is simply impossible to source or research in depth much of what presumably occupied the subject on a day to day basis, let alone when functioning as chief of staff of the IRA.
For many years Cahill personified ‘armed struggle’ and his reputation in this regard was evidently an important asset when the Provisionals decided to move into electoral politics and sought to bring with them an unconvinced element of their support base in Ireland and the United States.
Comparable in influence to the late John Joe McGirl and J B O’Hagan, Cahill had the good fortune to reach his eighty-second birthday and was therefore present at the onset and endgame of the current phase of unrest.
The story is punctuated by several dramatic and significant episodes; fresh information on the Claudia gun-running enterprise and the Mountjoy jail break make interesting reading.
Anderson has also availed of the photographic archives of An Phoblacht, Colman Doyle and others to illustrate the book with striking and rarely seen images. The O’Brien Press have been generous in this respect if unaccountably remiss in failing to provide a detailed index in a book with a complex chronology.
Anderson has moved from his Irish News and lecturing duties to the role of biographer with considerable success. The lack of source notes will frustrate historians and political scientists even if understandable in the context of the project.
More positively, the fruits of innumerable interviews are apparent. One hopes that a second even more forthright and fully sourced edition will appear as soon as the aftermath of the inter-generational conflict that has framed Cahill’s life recedes into history.
Connolly Publications Ltd, 244 Gray's Inn Road, London, WC1X 8JR
Copyright © 2003 Ruán O’Donnell