31 October 2002 Edition

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Celebrating a life of resistance


The plaque on the front of Belfast's Linenhall Library says: 'The Belfast Library and Society for Promoting Knowledge, founded 1788'. It is one of the oldest libraries in Ireland, has one of the finest collections of Irish history books and has played a not insignificant part in the literary history of Belfast and Ireland as a whole.

Leaders of the United Irishmen such as Henry Joy McCracken, hanged in Belfast's Anne Street for his part in the 1798 Rising, frequented the library as did Samuel Neilson, editor of the 'Northern Star', paper of the United Irishmen. Thomas Russell, 'The man from God Knows Where', hanged at Downpatrick gaol for his part in the Rising, was a librarian there.

It was, therefore, an appropriate venue for a gathering of republicans of much more recent vintage. The occasion was the launch of the book: 'Joe Cahill: A Life in the IRA'.

The launch attracted hundreds of people, some of them Joe's contemporaries but most of them republican activists and supporters who admire or have been inspired by Joe over the last 3 years.

The last time a republican gathering of this size was in the Linenhall Library was also a book launch; the story of the internment ship 'The Argenta' and the internees held there immediately after partition.

This particular story was a tragic tale of state terror, republican resistance and republican disillusionment. The great national liberation movement born out of the 1916 Rising, which had fought the rulers of Britain's empire to a stand, still lay practically in ruins by 1922.

The new rulers in both states were systematically mopping up republican opposition. By the end of the Civil War in 1923, republicans across Ireland were in retreat.

Those attending the 'Argenta' book launch knew well the bitterness of those times as they personally experienced it or were told it by their relatives.

The nationalist, republican and Catholic people of the Six Counties, particularly, were practically stateless at the stroke of a partitionist pen. They were corralled and confined into this territory and the entire military and political apparatus squeezed their identity, their culture, their religion, to the point where to express any aspiration brought the full weight of the state's local armed militias down on their heads.

It was illegal to fly an Irish tricolour; republican parades of any description were banned; 'Catholics need not apply' was the new state's ethos, an entire community was denied their economic rights. The intention to impoverish nationalists in the hope they would leave the Six Counties, thereby ensuring unionist one-party rule in perpetuity.

This was the reality that Joe Cahill was born into. It was a reality that he and many other republicans refused to accept. It was a reality he fought all his adult life. This led him to spend many years in gaol and on the run and on one occasion it led him to the foot of the scaffold.

Of course, that is only one side of the story. Involvement in the IRA is of course a huge personal challenge. Normal life ceases to exist, family life is fleetingly tasted, dodging arrest, steeling nerves for interrogation, learning the art of guerrilla warfare, risking life, limb and liberty, killing others, losing comrades.

On paper or indeed in a film, it may seem like an exciting lifestyle but those that have lived it know the truth of it. None more so than Joe, who was forced to live away from his beloved partner Annie for over 20 years. He was forced to watch his children grow up from a distance.

Without Annie's commitment to the struggle for Irish freedom, indeed her participation in the many campaigns in support of political prisoners, Joe's life would have been made much more difficult. In reference to Annie, Gerry Adams at the book launch said: "In front of every great man is a great woman."

There were many great men and women attending Joe's book launch. Some of them started out with Joe but stayed in the background, providing essential services for revolutionaries like Joe. There were many others at the launch who made the IRA the force it is today.

And that is the essential difference between the circumstances which led to the 'Argenta' being written and the immediate circumstances of the last 30 years which led to the making of 'Joe Cahill: A Life in the IRA'.

In the former set of circumstances, republicanism was under pressure; in the latter, it is strong and growing.

Joe and Annie Cahill are two very important people who made this possible.

An Phoblacht
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