I have no memory of a time when I did not know who Joe Cahill was. In the micro-group of Republicans holding firm through the fifties and sixties everyone was known to everyone else. As a child I was taken to Bodenstown, to Edentubber, to commemorations around the country and always on the buses there was great fun to be had, rebel songs to be sung and I got to know them all.
“Brave Tom Williams we salute you,
and we never shall forget, those who planned your brutal murder,
we vow we’ll make them all regret…”
We sang about Tom Williams on our journey from Brixton Prison to Winchester where we were to go on trial for having attempted to blow up symbols of the British Establishment.
“We vow we’ll make them all regret.”
The year was 1973, the day was the 2nd of September. Tom Williams was hanged in Crumlin Road Prison on the 2nd of September 1942. My father had told me of that day. How he and other Republicans inside the Crumlin jail had sat in stoney silence in their cells until the execution time came and went, then as one man they screamed and banged and vented their anger and frustration on anything to hand until eventually exhausted they wept. On the road to Winchester Prison I remembered all this and I remembered too the men who had been sentenced with Tom Williams to hang.
One was Joe Cahill.
“Tom Williams bravely claimed responsibility for the raid,” wrote one of the most virulently anti-Republican journalists in Ireland last Sunday. Joe Cahill did not have to die; who could blame us as children for looking up to this man with awe and respect. To us he was ‘The Unhung Hero’.
As I grew older and wiser Joe Cahill became a very ordinary Republican in my eyes. My aunt Bridie and her sisters had no time for Joe Cahill, but then my aunts demanded Olympian standards from anyone who called themselves Republican. I never asked the reason for their dislike, perhaps it was Joe’s claim to have “fired the fatal shot” that reduced him in their eyes, in Bridie’s case no eyes.
As regards the fatal shot comment my father often remarked “Why didn’t he tell that to the judge when he was in the dock?” My father was always direct and to the point.
I have studied the incident in detail and to this day and forever more it will remain unclear as to who fired the fatal shot.
I am reminded of the title of a wonderful book written by Ernie O’Malley, ‘On Another Man’s Wound’.
Over the years Provisional Sinn Fein have perfected the publicity stunt. Walking up the steps of Stormont, smiling “rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarb… ” walking down the steps of Leinster House, smiling “rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarb…”. Any old gimmick for a good shot (photographic, of course!).
The first stunt Joe Cahill was involved in was the press conference given in 1971 in Ballymurphy. Then the ‘most wanted’ man in Belfast he sat on the platform while the streets outside heaved with Brits. Joe duped them all and before the day was out he would be sitting safely in Dublin. We young ones loved it all, getting one over on the Brits.
Over the years and all through this phase of the struggle Joe has been produced like a rabbit from a hat. He the veteran I.R.A man, the elder of the tribe, the wise one, the one who knew the right way forward. Indeed, knew so much that he was able to assure us all that Tom Williams would be fully behind the Good Friday Agreement. Now if things had only been reversed in 1942 we could have heard Tom Williams say that for himself! Joe Cahill was still duping but this time it was not the Brits, it was other Republicans.
Speaking for the dead as Joe did must be the reserve of a very elite or gifted Provisional member. Gerry Adams speaks for Bobby Sands; Bobby, he told us, would be fully behind the Peace Process. I often wonder who would speak for me had my circumstances in Brixton Prison reached their expected conclusion? What praises would I be singing of the Good Friday Agreement?
My eventual and total loss of respect for Joe Cahill (the Oliver Plunkett’s head of Provisionalism) was the way he allowed his partially invented status to sell a ‘sell-out’ to the naive but sincere Irish Americans. Always keep the eye on the money, right boys?
“We have won the war… now let us win the Peace”, another off the cuff declaration by Joe.
Correct me if I am wrong but my understanding of winning a war is when the Victor accepts the symbolic sword of surrender from the defeated who then sits down to be told the conditions they will accept. No ifs or buts if you are the losers.
Why then if “we (Provisionals) won the war” are the Provisional Sinn Fein Party still begging the ‘defeated’ (Brits I suppose) for more talks, for the re-establishment of the British Assembly at Stormont, for money and, oh yes please, their jobs back! Not my idea of having won a war. Suppose they had lost the war, where would we all be today? Doesn’t bear thinking about!
In fairness to Joe Cahill who is now dead, I see a puppet master behind the way he was used, perhaps even abused by those more cunning than himself.
Had Joe lived longer then his necessary appearances to keep the doubtful convinced might have seen him driven about in a sort of ‘Provo Mobile’ amongst the flock (most of whom failed to turn up to his funeral despite a big drive by the ‘puppeteers’). He was a big asset to the Provisional Movement. He was “The Unhung Hero”.