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7 November 2002 Edition

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Book review

Until that certain day


Joe Cahill, A Life in the IRA
By Brendan Anderson
O'Brien Press
Price €25/£16.99

Joe Cahill, A Life in the IRA, is an authorised biography of arguably Ireland's longest serving republican activist. Born in 1920 into a strong Belfast republican family, Joe Cahill joined the Republican Movement in 1935 and remains to this day an active republican. Joe served in every phase of the republican struggle throughout the last 67 years and as portrayed in this biography, has been one of the most enthusiastic supporters of the emphasis on politics that emerged following the Hunger Strikes of 1980/1. He is currently an Honorary Vice President of Sinn Féin.

The main attraction of this book, for both republicans and those interested in the evolution and modernising of republicanism, is that it charts the developments through the eyes of someone who was a driving force of and invariably at the heart of those developments. A biography, it provides a personal, as opposed to an historical, context of events. Author and journalism lecturer, Brendan Anderson, has succeeded in chronicling the life of, what was to other than his closest associates, a previously mysterious figure in a very readable style.

The book gives a clear insight into the thinking behind what motivated Joe Cahill to involve himself in each phase of the republican struggle since the 1930s at the expense of tremendous personal and family hardship. Military resistance, prison protests, hunger strikes, community involvement, political bridge building and electioneering, was, quite literally, Joe Cahill's life.

In the course of a series of interviews, Joe Cahill, talks frankly with Brendan Anderson about his lifelong activism: of his youthful involvement, his death sentence, his re-involvement with republicanism after imprisonment in the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, and the effects of Bloody Sunday.

Of particular interest will be his frank explanation of republican thinking on participation (or non-participation) in electoral politics that characterised republicanism for much of his involvement prior to the mid-1980s. Whilst Cahill himself was more open to electoral engagement as a tactic, it was his belief that the then leadership was running down the IRA, concentrating too much on politics at a time when northern nationalists were most vulnerable that led to the only break in his involvement with the Republican Movement, when in the 1960s, he resigned for a short period of time.

He says it was when his worst fears were realised in the Belfast pogrom in 1969, when nationalists contemptuously scrawled, IRA - I Ran Away, on gable walls in the city, that he set himself the task of redeeming the IRA in the eyes of Belfast nationalists. For a man who had already given almost 30 years of service to Irish republicanism, it was a bitter pill to swallow. It in some ways illuminates the anxiety many republicans, particularly '69 republicans from Belfast, felt about the emerging peace process in the '80s and '90s.

Strange as it may seem, for someone who was central to the establishment of the Provisional IRA, Anderson shows that Cahill was not wedded to armed struggle as the only tactic to be used in the struggle for Irish national self-determination. In fact, he was also a pivotal figure in, and influential promoter of, the Irish peace process. When a steadying influence was needed to sell the first IRA cessation to supporters in Ireland or abroad, it was Joe Cahill who was normally sent for. As someone who had been sentenced to death by a British court, who had occupied the most senior positions in the IRA and whose life had been devoted to unifying Ireland, his republican credentials could not be questioned.

But despite more than half a century of active republicanism, it was his arrest in 1942 for his part in an IRA operation in which an RUC man was killed that looms largest throughout the book.

Joe Cahill was one of six IRA Volunteers arrested and sentenced to death. Eighteen-year-old Tom Williams, having accepted total responsibility for the action, was the only one of the six not to have that sentence commuted. The execution of his friend and comrade has clearly had a profound effect on Joe.

It is clear that much detail had, "of necessity", to be left out of this book, a point that Brendan Anderson confirms. But it is tremendously valuable for the insights it privides into the thinking of perhaps the most respected living republican, together with the rationale that has motivated a lifetime of struggle. For anyone with an interest in understanding the thinking of a committed republican, this is essential reading.


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