Joe Cahill

Joe Cahill

Joe Cahill ( _ga. Seosamh Ó Cathail; ["Irish Republican Felons Association 1964-2004", p. 25.] 19 May 1920 – 23 July 2004) was a prominent Irish republican and former Chief of Staff of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA).

Joe was known for his comment,Fact|date=September 2008 "I was born in a united Ireland, I want to die in a united Ireland".


In May 1920, Cahill was born in Divis Street in West Belfast, Ireland where his parents had been neighbours with Irish revolutionary James Connolly.

Cahill was the first child in a family of thirteen siblings born to Joesph and Joesphine Cahill. Cahill was educated at primary level at St. Mary's Christian Brothers Primary School at Barrack Street. Cahill's father was a printer by trade and an Irish republican who was a former member of the Irish National Volunteers and would produce Irish republican related material at his print shop. [cite book | last = Anderson | first = Brendan | authorlink = | title = Joe Cahill: A Life in the IRA | publisher = O'Brien Press | year = 2002 | pages = p. 18 | doi = | isbn = 0-86278-836-6] At the age of fourteen Cahill left school to assist in the print shop after his father had become ill.

Soon after this Cahill joined the Catholic Young Men's Society who campaigned on social issues with a focus on eradicating working-class area's of Belfast from moneylenders who often charged extortionately high levels of interest rate. At the age of seventeen Cahill then joined Na Fianna Éireann, a republican orientated scouting movement.

Paramilitary career

The following year in 1938, at the age of eighteen, Cahill became a volunteer in the local Clonard based 'C' Company of the Belfast Brigade of the Irish Republican Army. He spent much of his life in fighting British rule in Northern Ireland and was sentenced to death for killing a police officer in the 1940s during the Northern Campaign.

However, he had his sentence commuted to life imprisonment due to pressure on the British government by the Irish Free State. The Pope also allegedly called on the Northern Ireland government to grant clemency.Fact|date=September 2008 Of the six men sentenced to death for the murder of Constable Patrick Murphy of Clowney Street, the Falls Road, Belfast - only one was executed. He was Tom Williams, the leader of the IRA unit that killed Murphy. Cahill was released in 1949.

During the 1950s IRA Border Campaign, Cahill was again arrested and interned. He was released in 1962, but during the 1960s he drifted away from the IRA, disillusioned by its increasingly left-wing politics.

Founding the Provisional IRA

In 1969, Cahill was a key figure in founding the Provisional Irish Republican Army. In the Northern Ireland riots of August 1969, Cahill along with Billy McKee, tried to defend the Catholic Clonard area from attack, but were unable to prevent Bombay Street being burned out by loyalists. When he subsequently tried to organise the defence of the Ballymurphy area, he was initially chased away by the nationalist residents, who were disgusted with the IRA's response to the events of August 1969.

Angry at the failure of the IRA, led in Belfast by Billy McMillen, to defend Catholic areas during this rioting, Cahill and McKee stated in September 1969 that they would no longer be taking orders from the IRA leadership in Dublin, or from McMillen. In December 1969, they declared their allegiance to the Provisional IRA, who split off from the leadership. The remnants of the pre-split IRA became known as the Official IRA. Joe Cahill served on the first Provisional IRA Army Council.

IRA career

In April 1971, after the arrest and imprisonment of Billy McKee, Cahill became the commander of the Provisional IRA Belfast Brigade. He held this post until the introduction of internment in August of that year. It was during this period that the IRA campaign got off the ground in the city. Cahill authorised the beginning of the IRA's bombing operations as well as attacks on British troops and the RUC. He based himself in a house in Andersonstown and toured the city, co-ordinating IRA operations. The day after the British Army mounted Operation Demetrius, designed to arrest the IRA's leaders, Cahill held a press conference in a school in Ballymurphy and stated that the operation had been a failure. He said, "we have lost one Brigade officer, one battalion officer and the rest are Volunteers, or as they say in the British Army, privates". Cahill himself however had to flee to the Republic of Ireland to avoid arrest, thus relinquishing his command of the Belfast Brigade.

In March 1972, Cahill was part of an IRA delegation that held direct talks with the British prime minister Harold Wilson.Fact|date=June 2007 However, although the IRA called a three-day ceasefire for the talks, no permanent end to violence was agreed upon.

On his return to Ireland, Cahill was arrested in Dublin by Gardaí and charged with IRA membership. However he went on hunger strike for twenty-three days and was subsequently released due to lack of evidence. In November 1972, Cahill became the IRA's chief of staff, he held this position until his arrest in the following year.

Cahill was then put in charge of importing arms for the PIRA. He liaised with the NORAID group in America and with the Libyan dictatorship of Muammar al-Gaddafi to this end. In March 1973 he was arrested by the Irish Navy in Waterford, aboard the "Claudia", a ship from Libya loaded with five tons of weapons. Cahill was sentenced to three years imprisonment by the Irish Special Criminal Court. Cahill stated at his trial that, "If I am guilty of any crime, it is that I did not succeed in getting the contents of the Claudia into the hands of the freedom fighters of this country". Upon his release, Cahill again was put in charge of arms importation and to this end went to the United States. He was deported from the United States in 1984 for illegal entry. (See Provisional IRA arms importation).

Cahill served on the IRA Army Council as late as the 1990s. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, he argued against proposals for Sinn Féin to stand in elections. However, in 1985, he spoke at the party's Ard Fheis in favour of republicans contesting elections and taking seats in the Irish Dail or parliament.

Peace Process

In his later years as honorary life vice-president of Sinn Féin he was a strong supporter of Gerry Adams and the Good Friday Agreement. In 1994 a controversial but central aspect of the IRA's ceasefire was the granting of a limited visa by then United States President Bill Clinton to Cahill, in the face of strident opposition by John Major's government. This was to facilitate a trip to the United States to win support for the new Sinn Féin strategy from Irish American PIRA supporters.

Cahill died as a result of being exposed to Asbestos while working at the Harland & Wolff shipyards in 1949. He and several other former shipyard workers later sued the company for their exposure to the dangerous substances but only won minimal compensation. He was 84.


* Richard English, "Armed Struggle - A History of the IRA", MacMillan, London 2003, ISBN 1-4050-0108-9
* Ed Moloney, "The Secret History of the IRA", Penguin, London 2002,
* Eamonn Mallie and Patrick Bishop, "The Provisional IRA", Corgi, London 1988. ISBN 0-552-13337-X
* Brendan O'Brien, "The Long War - The IRA and Sinn Féin". O'Brien Press, Dublin 1995, ISBN 0-86278-359-3

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