Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 29 July 2014

Gail Walker interview: Sisters apart - Eilis O'Hanlon, Siobhan O'Hanlon and uncle Joe Cahill, ex-IRA chief

EILIS O'Hanlon takes scathingly hilarious sideswipes at every political party in Northern Ireland in her newspaper column but undeniably some of her finest strikes land upon Sinn Fein.

EILIS O'Hanlon takes scathingly hilarious sideswipes at every political party in Northern Ireland in her newspaper column but undeniably some of her finest strikes land upon Sinn Fein.

Which is all rather fascinating. Because while many readers know they can rely on O'Hanlon's acerbic wit to give them a bellylaugh, many may be just a little more surprised to learn of the close family tie between her and a prominent republican.

For Eilis O'Hanlon's sister is Siobhan O'Hanlon, the former Provo bomber, confidante of Gerry Adams and member of the Sinn Fein negotiating team during the Stormont talks.

And, while sisters often disagree, the rift between Eilis and Siobhan certainly appears to be in a league of its own.

Eilis vehemently denies there is anything personal in her comments in her News of the World column - "I have a go at every one," she protests with a beatific smile - yet one can't help feeling she rather enjoys baiting republicans in particular.

For example, one of her finest offerings of late was when she got her boot firmly stuck into the West Belfast Festival.

"The 'cultural' events on offer every August in the backyard of Gerry Adams are about the only things that make the prospect of staying in to watch Fame Academy enticing," scoffed Eilis. "The Bobby Sands Memorial Cup? Lectures on Cuban, Palestinian and Venezuelan radical politics? The tour of Ballymurphy in a Saracen Jeep? Even Kojak would claim to be washing his hair to get out of going to some of these, er, highlights."

And, wrapping up by wondering why she hadn't been invited to the festival's literary evening to talk about her new novel, a thriller called The Dead, she demanded: "Was it something I said?" So, it's fair to assume relations between herself and Siobhan are, er, fairly strained?

"We don't bother with each other," Eilis replies, draining the remains of her cafe au lait, then adding for emphasis: " I kind of keep a distance. Never. The. Twain. Shall. Meet."

For someone who packs such a verbal dig in the chops, mum-of-three Eilis is disarmingly waif-like in the flesh.

But typically, though she admits she's uncomfortable discussing the 'family at war' scenario - "I don't want to upset my mother" - her journalistic professionalism means she plays fair with other reporters.

"I can understand why you find it interesting," she concedes unhappily.

The fall-out between Eilis and Siobhan began around 1993, after Eilis began writing for the Dublin-based Sunday Independent newspaper. Soon she was firing off excoriating criticism about Sinn Fein, and Siobhan was not amused.

"I really don't think I am any harder on them than on anyone else or that I write about them more than other political parties," says Eilis. "But because that is my background I suppose I know more about it and am more interested in it than, say, the UUP. Having said that, however, I'm bored with all politics in Northern Ireland."

But does she never think of what Siobhan might think when she's putting the finishing touches to another article?

"She does not enter into my thoughts at all."

For all the bluster, though, isn't there an emotional price in that kind of family split?

Eilis is unbowed. "No, not for me. Perhaps other people are different but it hasn't been a big thing for me.

"I mean, people say, 'why fall out over politics?' but I think politics is as good a thing as any to fall out over.

"Surely it's better that people fall out over something important rather than for people to fall out because someone has told the other person that they have put on weight, or something like that?"

One of a family of four sisters and two brothers, Eilis grew up in north Belfast. In a further interesting family twist, her mother is a sister of Joe Cahill, former IRA chief of staff.

The closest person that republicans have to a living legend, he was a skilled hand with the Webley decades before the Armalite and the ballot box strategy was conceived.

He was one of the six men sentenced to death for the murder of a Catholic police officer in the 1940s but he and four of his co-accused were given last-minute reprieves after Tom Williams famously took full responsibility for the murder and went to the gallows. The others had their sentences commuted to life imprisonment for murder.

Later, Cahill played a key role in the formation of the Provisionals and was convicted of running guns from Libya in the 1970s. In November 1987, days before the IRA's Enniskillen bomb, he was arrested in French waters aboard a trawler loaded with 150 tons of arms and explosives and bound for the Republic.

You could say he's the nearest thing the Provos have to Sir Cliff Richard - a man with a hit in every decade.

Eilis wasn't invited to the Belfast launch of a biography of Cahill last year - "was it something I said?" she grins again.

But, in truth, she has never had much contact with him.

"He's my uncle but I don't know him at all," she says.

She pauses, then admits: "I just don't think about any of it. It does not have any impact upon me.

"I certainly don't care that people know that she's my sister and that he's my uncle, but it's nothing to me.

"My attitude is that I'm not responsible for them nor are they for me. We're all grown ups, and do our own thing."

For Eilis, that meant leaving Belfast at 18 to do a politics degree at Liverpool University before breaking into journalism.

"This is really silly but I kind of thought I could get into journalism without having to do a job interview. I always hated the idea of job interviews, " she says.

But she found it tough to carve out a niche for herself. Moving to Dublin, she went in at what's considered the most thankless task in journalism, writing advertising features, for the Irish Times. But though she persuaded the editor to carry a few of her comment pieces, she had the feeling she wasn't going anywhere.

"There was a lot of office politics, as there is everywhere, and I'm just not any good at that," she says.

"Luckily someone at the Sunday Independent saw some of my comment pieces, liked them and asked me to work for them. I never regretted the move. People say, 'oh, but why did you leave the Irish Times?' but that attitude is just snobbishness. I didn't want to work in the Irish Times just because it was the Irish Times."

She began her News of the World column in August 1997 and two weeks into it underwent the sort of nightmare experience that has other columnists waking up drenched in sweat at the very idea of it.

On the morning that Diana, Princess of Wales, died following that car crash in the Paris underpass, Eilis's column hit the newstands carrying the unforgettable headline 'Bye, bye Di and Good Riddance.'

"Arghhhhh," says Eilish, scrunching up her face at the mention of it. "It was terrible timing. Diana had given this interview to Paris Match and I was having a go at her, and then, of course, she dies after the paper has gone to press.

"I got hundreds of letters of hate-mail. Some said, 'we know by your name you're a Fenian.' Others said, 'why don't you die in a car crash?'

"The following week my editor said 'you are going to have to apologise' and I said, 'yeah, but I didn't know it was going to happen.'

"But he said, 'well, you've only started the column and you'd better give your readers an explanation,' so that's what I did."

Mind you, she's well used to the ire of her readers. "A lot of people say 'I don't agree with all that you say but at least you have a go.' But there are others ... I once pretended that I couldn't remember Mark Durkan's name and referred to him as 'that guy who is head of the SDLP' and someone from his Press office phoned up and complained. You do think, 'Get a life.'"

Eilis and her partner, Ian McConnell, who's from England, settled in north Belfast in 1993. "I just always had this idea of coming home," she says. "Though we finally made it back a week before the Shankill bomb, so obviously we did wonder if we'd made the right move."

They have two daughters, aged eight and one, and a four-year-old son.

Her thriller, The Dead, has been published pseudonymously under the pen-name of Ingrid Black, but, in fact, it's a collaborative work between Eilis and Ian.

Ian, however, while happy to work on the book, warned Eilis he would play no part in publicising it, so she is guarded about giving any information about him. "I promised I wouldn't," she says.

The Dead is a pacy, classy tale about the hunt for a serial killer threatening to strike again, and they won a lucrative two-book deal on the strength of the first four chapters. It's set in Dublin, though the publishers obviously feel the book is good enough to do big things internationally.

Hence the Garda are known simply as the Dublin Metropolitan Police, and Eilis and Ian consciously avoided getting bogged down by Irish politics.

Eilis says: "The big American writers can set a murder investigation in Virginia without feeling the need to tell you all about the state politics there. Similarly we didn't want to deal with Irish issues - they'd just get in the way."

Already, however, she has been getting letters from correspondents about The Dead. There's a lesbian theme in it, which has rattled a few cages.

She rolls her eyes and adds: "One guy wrote in and said he reckoned I was a latent lesbian because I write about lesbians so well."



- The Dead, Ingrid Black (Headline, £10.99)

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