14 August 2003 Edition
Father Brown in the States
In the second part of his interview with JOANNE CORCORAN, republican stalwart Joe Cahill discusses his adventures in the United States, his brother Frank's trojan efforts in building community enterprises in West Belfast, his thoughts on the upcoming young crop of republicans and the role of An Phoblacht today.
AP: Joe, you've had a lot of involvement in the US. Can you tell our readers something about that?
JC: My involvement in the US started in 1970. There had been different groups coming over from all over the place and the organisation of it was very scattered. They wanted to help, and we were also sending individuals over to get help, but everyone was confused about who was raising funds for who, was it the Provisionals or the Officials. One or two had gone out before me, but I said there was a lot of support out there and that it needed to be organised. At an army council meeting it was decided that two would go out, Leo Martin and myself.
We went to the consul in Belfast to get our visas, and of course they asked had you been to jail. Well, Leo had been interned and I'd been sentenced to death, but we told your man it had been political and he said "there's nothing in the rules that says you can't go", and issued us with visas.
So we went off, legally, and we went to New York first. We met with a group called the Thursday Committee, so called because they met on Thursdays, and it was proposed at that first meeting that we start up a nationwide organisation. That was how Irish Northern Aid, or Noraid, was formed. Leo and myself travelled extensively through Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, Philadelphia, and everywhere we went we set up branches of Noraid.
That was my first involvement, and we'd get reports back and forth of how things were going.
Then internment came and the PM of the North at the time, Brian Faulkner, gave a press conference, saying that the IRA had been wrecked, internment had been a success, and that they had picked up lots of volunteers.
So the IRA decided to hold a press conference in Belfast, or at least to have people get a message out for them about what has really happened. See, we'd had prior knowledge of internment so it hadn't worked that well for the government We'd been able to warn volunteers the night beforehand, so most of the volunteers who had been picked up were older ones or inactive ones.
What happened then at the press conference has gone down in history, but it wasn't intended, it was never meant to happen. There were a lot of telly crews and reporters at the conference, and mostly civil rights people. Paddy Kennedy, who was an MP at the time, was there and a councillor, John Flanagan.
It was a bit of a damp squib for the best part, until one of the reporters asked the question was Faulkner right saying the IRA had been squashed. Well, Flanagan replied and said, "I can't answer that because I'm not in the IRA, you'll have to ask the OC of Belfast there" - and he pointed at me.
Immediately the room was electrified, and the questions were flying. I told them that we had known about internment and the rest of it. They asked would the IRA be continuing campaigns and it struck me that this was an opportunity to get a message across to all the volunteers out there, because I probably wouldn't be able to contact them for a while after that. I said that we would be carrying out a shooting and bombing campaign for 48 hours, and that after that we'd be going back to guerrilla training. It was a perfect way of getting the information out, because I knew I wouldn't be able to move after that.
While this was going on, a few of those in the room had gone outside to get me arrested and I was instructed to leave Belfast very quickly and get down to Dublin.
HQ had decided the best thing I could do then for the movement was go back over to America, and I was happy to do that. I got on a plane and headed off. Then, as I was getting off the plane in America, a stewardess from the ground came up to me and said "Joe you're wanted in one of the offices".
I assumed it was our people and I went in, but of course it was immigration control. Your man asked for my passport, and as soon as I gave it to him he stamped it 'null and void', handed it back to me, and said you're now in America illegally.
I was kept there for several hours and eventually brought to a holding centre. We got lots of publicity out of it. Noraid would be ringing me up and saying, "Stay there Joe, don't get out, you're worth million dollars a day to us locked up." My name became very widespread through America then.
After that, I went many times illegally, doing tours and such. I was generally known as Joe Brown when I travelled about the States. There was confusion once, when I got the nickname of Father Brown, and Annie, my wife was over with me. We were being introduced as Fr Brown and his wife!
Between '71 and '94, when I officially got a visa, I was probably in America eight to ten times. Once in that period I was arrested again with Jimmy Drumm. He was deported immediately but I was brought to court. I was on remand but I got bail. I had to report to a probation officer every Monday. Luckily, he was an Irishman and he was a neighbour of the house I was staying in and also a great Gaelic man. I went to report to him and he said to me 'Your health is not the best, is it Joe?' And I said to him 'no'. So he told me just to ring in on Mondays. For three months then, I travelled around the States on bail, raising money until I was eventually deported, making sure I rang in every Monday.
AP: Can you tell me about your brother Frank's involvement?
Joe: Frank was a lot younger than me and he was first interned when he was 17 years old. That was around '42 or '43. He had been fairly active and he still would have been active when he got out, but he got involved in community work, particularly after he got married.
He went to live in Ballymurphy and decided he wanted to better the position of the people living there. It wasn't just Ballymurphy either, he was using that as a pilot scheme.
Frank was very far-seeing, even though a lot of people would have disagreed with him. His community work was very successful and he set up a lot of small projects, like picture framing and knitwear. He took a lot of his ideas from Fr Dwyer in Donegal, but he had fantastic ideas of his own.
He became greatly involved in the Conway Mill in West Belfast. It was up for sale and a small committee came together to talk about it. Frank was one of the big pushers behind this. The Mill was practically in ruins and it is still a long way from the way they envisioned it. When the idea was put forward first, people thought they were mad, but he was very far-seeing. I disagreed with him on a lot of things, but I respect all the activities he became involved in. We wouldn't have been human if we didn't disagree.
AP: Do you ever think that my generation is the one that will sell out?
JC: That's something I never thought about. I've always been a great believer in youth. I don't think that they'll sell out or break. I think it was Martin McGuinness who said 'we have the most politically educated generation ever' and I have complete confidence in them.
I know when I speak to young people, they know everything that's going on, they are happy to be part of the struggle and they have no intention of giving up.
AP: Any regrets?
JC: No regrets. Absolutely none. People have asked me this several times and the answer is always no, but that's in my professional life. I have regrets in my personal life, particularly being a married man with seven children and not living constantly with them. I missed all that natural life, but I suppose the one thing that compensated was the support I received from my family, particularly from Annie. I left her to rear seven kids and she did a damn good job.
AP: How do you see the role of An Phoblacht today?
JC: I think a lot more work needs to be put into the sales of the paper but I think it's a great political paper and a great forum for debate. I still enjoy reading it, but I have discovered that sales aren't what they used to be.
We depend on it, we always did, but some of our members think that they are above it. But I see the paper as incredibly important in spreading the gospel, if you like. We need to wise up and make sure it's getting out to the public.