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The General and his daughter: Rewriting the story of Dublin's Mr Big

After a brutal career in the criminal underworld, Martin Cahill was unlamented when he met a violent death in 1994. But a new book by his daughter has caused outrage by portraying him as a tender-hearted family man

A scene from the film The General (1998) starring Brendan Gleeson as Cahill
A scene from the film The General (1998) starring Brendan Gleeson as Cahill

By David McKittrick

Martin Cahill was one of the most fascinating, and bizarre, characters to come out of Dublin's dangerous criminal underworld.

Known by the grandiose nickname "The General", Cahill was a notorious gangster who carried out numerous armed robberies and was involved in several murders, and whose legend has been kept alive by three major movies.

Although it is more than a decade since he met his inevitably violent death, Cahill is back in the news again in Ireland with controversy erupting over a book by his eldest daughter Frances.

The charge against the book is that it presents too kind a picture of a major career criminal, ignoring the traumas suffered by victims. A state forensic expert, Dr Jim Donovan, who was twice injured by Cahill with booby trap bombs, reacted to its publication with the words: "Have you no shame, Frances Cahill? Her father had no redeeming qualities. He was not in the normal grade of human being. He was extremely sadistic and devoid of humanity. He was a very evil man and also a very wealthy man," Dr Donovan said.

Norma Smurfit, then wife of one of Ireland's richest men Michael Smurfit, has scoffed at its assertion that Cahill's gang called off a plan to kidnap her "because she looked so peaceful and content doing her needlework that she cut a melancholy figure."

Cahill also allegedly refused to become involved in a plot to kidnap the children of U2 frontman Bono, specifically because there were children involved.

The accusation is that this paints far too noble a picture of a figure who was by turns brutal, baffling and outlandish, who in his trademark armed robberies stole more than £40m in cash, jewellery and other goods.

He also plundered a Gainsborough, a Goya and a couple of Rubens paintings in a career which brought him into contact with both extreme Ulster loyalists and the IRA. The latter killed him.

He was an almost workaholic thief, carrying out raid after raid yet spending comparatively little and maintaining a comparatively modest lifestyle. His primary excess seemed to be not financial but sexual: he sired five children with his wife and four more with her sister.

One of his most eccentric characteristics was his deep-seated desire to humiliate authority in general and the Gardai – the Irish police – in particular, taunting them for their inability to curb his exploits. On one occasion he came out of court wearing a balaclava, sang a song and stripped off to reveal a Mickey Mouse T-shirt and boxer-shorts.

He once ordered his gang to dig up greens at a golf club frequented by police officers, later calling out to police: "Ye'd have no problem getting a hole-in-one at the Garda golf club because there's that many holes in it."

Yet while such activities might raise chuckles from some for cocking-a-snoot at authority, it was not so easy to laugh at some of his more savage actions.

At one point he resorted to crucifixion, nailing to the floor the hands of a gang member he suspected of stealing gold. He is also accused of helping extreme loyalists to kill an IRA member in Dublin: this was the reason the IRA cited for killing him when they gunned him down in 1994.

The idea of rehabilitating the memory of such a man would clearly be an uphill task, yet the movies based on Cahill's life, tend to present him as a man of light and shade, and a multi-faceted character. Kevin Spacey played him in almost Robin Hood terms in the An Ordinary Decent Criminal, released in 2000.

The films do not however portray him as a hero, but his daughter's book does. A mother-of-four who is currently studying for a law degree, she presents Cahill as a soft-hearted man, devoted to his family (or families), unfairly harassed by police, and determined to resist injustice and harassment from officialdom.

She denies that her father actually drove the nails through the hands of his associate, saying that another man did so while her father was questioning him.

She insists: "Anyone who knew my father knew the real story – he didn't nail anyone to anything. He could never even bring himself to cull his pigeons. He was always squeamish in my eyes – even a bit of a wimp sometimes. "

According to Frances: "We saw from a very early age exactly what our father was fighting against and from a very early age we have been proud of him. He stood up for what he believed in. He was a hero."

Actually, the crime lord's familial kindnesses are confirmed by the authoritative Dublin crime writer Paul Williams, who while describing Cahill as a conniving and dangerous criminal concedes that he also had "a warm caring side".

He is said to have cared deeply for his wife and then, later on, also for her sister. (He may also, it is said, have cared deeply for another sister.) He set the two women up in nearby houses, alternating between them in a ménage à trois, an arrangement in which all three were quite comfortable.

In appearance, he cut an unlikely figure both as a lover and an armed robber, being a short, tubby, figure: while he did not drink, smoke or take drugs he was fond of sweets and cakes. He had a "Bobby Charlton" hairstyle, combing long strands of hair across his head to hide his baldness.

He came from a large family – his mother was pregnant 18 times – with many brothers who also fell foul of the law. He started out as a small-time thief, active from the age of eight and receiving his first criminal conviction when he was 12.

He served time at a tough Catholic penal institution where he was set to work in the fields. He was later to say: "If anyone corrupted me it was those mad monks down in the bog." His family lived in Hollyfield, a complex of flats described as "the worst, poorest, smelliest, rat-ridden scum-pit in Dublin - a hovel, a filthy dump".

But to a few tough families such as the Cahills, it was not just home but a place which bred a sense of loyalty and an utter contempt for authority.

He held a deep belief that authority was to be opposed at all costs – he even led a campaign to prevent Hollyfield's demolition. He, meanwhile, carried out dozens of burglaries, serving a number of prison sentences.

By the mid-1970s he was a practised armed robber, assembling a gang which, through unusually detailed planning, successfully carried out raids which on several occasions netted up to £100,000.

The job which earned him the name of General was a meticulously planned raid at O'Connor's jewellers in Dublin in 1983, when he scooped £2m. That established him as a Mr Big, and the stuff of gangster legend.

He stuck to some strict rules, shying away from the lucrative and fast-growing Dublin drugs trade, which did so much damage in the Irish capital's poorer areas. He explained: "Drugs have ruined members of my family."

Instead, he strayed into more audacious activities. At one point he broke into the offices of the Irish Director of Public Prosecution and stole more than 145 files, thus terrifying potential witnesses. Sometimes when his men were carrying out robberies he would show up at police stations to give himself an alibi.

One of his most flamboyant acts was the theft of 11 old master paintings from the County Wicklow home of Sir Alfred Beit. Described as the second-largest art robbery in the world, the haul included a Vermeer valued at £20m.

Predictably, however, Cahill ran into trouble when he sought to off-load the artworks, eventually turning in desperation to loyalist paramilitaries in a vain attempt to sell them off.

He made a point of humiliating police, routinely intimidating and threatening witnesses and others. On several occasions, after neighbours annoyed him, he had his men damage scores of cars parked locally.

Such activities led the Irish police to mount unprecedented surveillance, with officers on patrol around his home day and night, sometimes sitting on his garden wall to exchange unpleasantries with him. This curbed his activities but did not stop them.

The extent of his illegality was exposed to public gaze in a television documentary in which journalist Brendan O'Brien confronted him in the street. Huge political impact resulted from the revelation that he drew the dole and had two homes – one a Dublin corporation house and the other an upmarket residence which he had bought with £80,000 in cash.

In a scathing attack in the Irish parliament a former justice minister declared: "I am not entirely clear why Dublin Corporation feel Mr Cahill needs two residences. Perhaps he needs two houses to gaze by day and by night at his collection of 17th-century Dutch Masters."

In the wake of the TV programme dole officials and taxmen called to interview Cahill: he explained that the houses were not in his name and that the cars and motorcycles he possessed had been left to him in a will.

When he received a formal letter informing him he would no longer receive dole money he tracked down the official who signed it, kidnapped him and shot him in both legs.

By this stage he was all over the papers, steadily increasing pressure for him to be brought to justice. Journalists such as Veronica Guerin – later shot dead on the orders of another gangster – kept the public focus on the underworld.

The dogs in the street knew that Cahill was Ireland's biggest criminal, a man simultaneously ridiculous and sinister, yet even the heaviest surveillance did not succeed in bringing him to justice and putting him behind bars.

His downfall eventually came not legally but violently. He had had occasional brushes with the IRA, which was said to have demanded some of the proceeds of his robberies. He refused, and quickly cut short any meetings with them.

The end came in 1994 when the IRA killed him, a gunman firing several bullets into his body in a cold-blooded assassination as he slowed his car at a traffic junction. They accused him of helping loyalist paramilitaries stage an attack on a Dublin pub in which an IRA member was killed.

Some accept the claim; others think the IRA may have become cumulatively exasperated by the fact that he refused to display any financial or psychological deference to them.

In the end, Cahill may have sealed his fate by regarding them as just another manifestation of the authority which, throughout his long and strange life, he could never bring himself to countenance.

Belfast Telegraph


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