- 08 Apr 01
For close to twenty years, MARTIN CAHILL led the forces of law and order a merry dance. Known as the General, he was suspected of masterminding virtually every major crime committed in Ireland – but for as long as matters, the Gardai had been unable to pin anything on him. And when he was brought to court on petty charges, he posed outside for press photographers, dropping his trousers to reveal a pair of Mickey Mouse boxer shorts. Last week, however, the game was cut brutally short when Cahill was blown away within 100 yards of his South Dublin home by an IRA hit squad. Report: NEIL McCORMICK.
Cahill (Dublin) - Aug. 18th 1994. Martin, beloved husband of Frances, Swan Grove, Ranelagh: deeply regretted by his sorrowing wife and family. Funeral arrangements later.
Death notice that appeared in Dublin papers.
All they that take the sword shall perish with the sword.
Well, we’ve all heard that before. But no one said anything about a Magnum .357, the weapon used to blow holes the size of golf balls in Martin Cahill. Whoever shot him wasn’t taking chances. Five bullets, at close range, from a dirty great handgun powerful enough to bring down an elephant. They left him slumped across the front seats of his black Renault 5, blood streaming from his neck, soaking his shirt. Motorcycle courier Niall Keogh, the first witness on the scene, was in no doubt about what he saw. “I looked into the car and he was brown bread,” he told reporters. The Dublin rhyming slang would seem callously inappropriate at most murder scenes. But not this one. It was the kind of joking colloquialism Martin Cahill would have appreciated. Brown bread. Dead.
News like that travels fast. It was buzzing across the police radio within minutes. “Tango One is down. We can confirm that the Number One man is down. Get everyone down here...” The voices could barely contain their excitement. This was the best news they had heard in a long time. “Other alarm calls will have to be put on hold . . . Tango One is down and must get priority”.
The cops called him Tango One. Everyone else called him the General, Ireland’s most notorious crime boss. And they didn’t even have to bother using the word alleged anymore. You can’t be sued by a corpse.
I wonder was he surprised? Did he have time to look up and think, ‘this is it’? He had long suspected that was the way he would go, although I doubt he could have guessed whose finger would be on the trigger. His own, often-remarked opinion was that the police would engineer a situation where they could shoot him dead in a stakeout. And then there were other gangs, and victims with grudges, and maybe even up and coming hoodlums looking for his top spot. But when it came, it was from a source few would have predicted, as two Republican terrorist groups vied to claim the prize, circling the corpse like vultures to add the last strand of farce to Cahill’s surreal story.
The INLA were the first off the mark, although they later retracted, making the excuse that they had been planning to kill him soon and had mistakenly thought their team had moved in early. When the IRA subsequently claimed the killing, they found themselves in the curious position of not being taken seriously. They had to keep ringing back radio stations with further details of the crime to convince sceptical police and journalists that they really had been responsible. I feel sure Martin Cahill would have appreciated that, too. He’d have probably found the whole thing a laughing matter, if it hadn’t had to be him at the wrong end of the gun.
He was known for his precise planning and attention to detail and his killers, too, left little to chance, even carrying out a dry run the day before. The two men were seen standing at the bottom of Oxford Road in Ranelagh, just around the corner from Cahill’s Swan Grove council house, for several hours on Wednesday the 17th. The lookout was dressed as a motorcycle courier. The assassin wore a yellow, Dublin corporation jacket and pretended to be noting down car registration numbers. They had watched Cahill drive past, and then got on their motorcycles and left.
But they were back the next day, this time with only one motorbike between them, a powerful Suzuki 500, and a more lethal purpose in mind.
At around three p.m., Martin Cahill left his house and got
into his car. He paid no attention to the motorcycle courier consulting a map at the bottom of Swan Grove, but then, even if he had noticed the stakeout, he would probably have assumed it was the police. The were usually lurking about somewhere.
Police and press speculation was that Cahill was on his way to a meeting of leading Dublin criminals to plan a spectacular heist. According to which report you gave more credence to, he was either considering another high-profile kidnapping or robbing the Beit paintings again, just for fun. Others had him drawing up a master plan to steal the Book Of Kells, which might be impossible to sell but would have at least impressed his guests if he left it around on a coffee table. But the police and press always had Cahill planning major crimes, like some half-insane criminal workaholic. His family say he was taking back a video, which makes sense to me. Cahill liked watching videos.
But he never got as far as the video shop. The motorcycle courier climbed on his bike, overtaking Cahill and alerting his accomplice, who was standing at the Stop sign at the junction of Oxford Road and Charleston Road. When Cahill slowed down for the Stop sign, the man in the Corporation jacket stepped forward, a shiny silver magnum in his hand and fired two shots, shattering the driver’s window and hitting Cahill in the head and neck. Cahill slumped forward, foot against the accelerator, and the Renault ran diagonally across Charleston Road, crashing into a telegraph pole. The killer ran alongside the car, pumping three more bullets into Cahill’s body. He was almost certainly already dead, but you don’t take chances with a man like that. The motorcyclist picked the shooter up, and the two sped off towards Rathmines.
And so the General was dead. Shot down by a bunch of self-appointed vigilantes in cold blood. And the INLA and IRA were bickering about who would take credit, the public were gathering around the corpse in morbid fascination, the Gardai were doing their best to keep straight faces and saying things like “it couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy,” the press were looking for angles, his family were swearing vengeance and way beyond all this interference, somewhere in another pale, the banshees were howling. You better believe it. I could hear their wails and screams all the way down my phone line, when a friend rang to tell me the news. They were keening for the death of one of their own. And I hung up the phone and stared into space, thinking ‘murdering bastards!’
Oh, I know he probably deserved it. I know he had done a lot
of bad things in his time. But Ireland needs its villains as well as its heroes, and Martin Cahill was a villain par excellence. What other culture could have invented him, a serial joker, a gangster who delighted in publicly outwitting the police, a godfather in Mickey Mouse shorts? Crime in Ireland has occasionally taken on a surreal, semi-farcical dimension all of its own. There was the case of the heroin dealer in Dublin who was thrown from the roof of a block of flats by an over-excited group of concerned parents. He emerged from his ordeal with a broken back but, although confined to a wheel-chair, continued to ply his trade. The paraplegic pusher was know to local junkies as ‘Deals On Wheels’ . And in January, 1990, there was the terminally embarrassing incident in Athy when two branches of armed Garda surrounded a bank during a raid. In the ensuing western style shoot out, one robber was killed and two gang members, a bank official, three innocent bystanders and three Garda officers were wounded. On arrest, it was discovered the villains had not actually returned fire. The police had done all the shooting.
But these stories pale into insignificance next to the tale of Martin Cahill. Here was a man who had been at the centre of Ireland’s most highly publicised, intensive and expensive police operation, who, when arrested for a breach of the peace and sent for psychiatric evaluations, appeared outside court in a white night-shirt with the words One Flew Under the Cuckoo’s Nest hand-written on his chest and back, wearing a mask topped off with a bird’s nest strapped on his head. Questioned by the press as to whether he really was Dublin’s leading criminal, he responded by blowing a duck decoy, asking a photographer if he was a chicken, pointing to a bicycle and asking if it was a boat, mounting it and pedalling off down the street (but not before enquiring whether it was the River Liffey).
Openly accused in the media, interviewed on TV, denounced in the Dail and discussed in the pub, Martin Cahill achieved a status normally reserved for pop-stars, top politicians and soap opera actors: he was a household name. America had Al Capone, the personification of suave, swaggering organised violent crime. England had the Krays, brutal and trendy. And Ireland had the General, a gang leader with a sense of humour, a hugely successful professional criminal better known for his off the wall taste in boxer shorts (which he was always ready to expose in public) than his face (kept well hidden behind balaclavas and ski masks).
We can see his face now. In death, he had been robbed of his disguises. Suddenly the papers are full of his round, smiling features. He doesn’t look much like a crime boss. With his balding head and slovenly dress, he looks more like Rab. C. Nesbitt. Could this really be the man who led the police on such a merry dance for 14 years? He looks so, well, harmless.
But there were plenty for whom the story of the General was no laughing matter. In May ’89, a senior Social Welfare official, Brian Purcell, due to testify at a hearing to discuss Cahill’s social security status, was kidnapped and shot through both legs. A Get Well card by his hospital bedside joked ‘The General prognosis is good’. Similarities were drawn to the unsolved attack on Dr. James Donovan, the head of the State Forensic Laboratory, in 1982. He had been working on a case thought to involve the General when he had his foot blown off by a car bomb. And then there were the oft repeated rumours of him peeling the skin off an informer’s legs, and nailing a suspected betrayer to the floor . . .
It was thoughts like that that were at the forefront of my mind
the day in 1991 when I called to the door of his second home, an impressive red-brick house in Cowper Downs, just a few hundred yards but considerably upmarket from his place in Swan Grove. I had been writing a piece about him for British GQ, and thought I should at least attempt to give him the opportunity to put his side forward. But my hands were shaking as I opened the garden gate. I was not encouraged by the sight of a solemnly threatening sign, ‘Beware The Guard Dog’, featuring an ominous silhouette of a vicious looking rottweiler.
The barking started immediately, loud and agitated. I advanced across the messy garden, silently praying that the dog was safely locked up. I had just about reached the front door when I caught sight of it; hurtling towards me, teeth bared, it couldn’t have stood more than six inches tall, a tiny black puppy that all but rolled over and wet itself when I reached out to pat it.
The door was opened by a spotty, teenage boy. “Is Mr. Cahill in?” I enquired. My hands were shaking, so I stuffed them in my pockets, but I couldn’t do much about the tremble in my voice. “Dad!” he yelled, before disappearing back inside. The figure who appeared at the half-open doorway did not conform to any popular image of a major-league criminal, short and portly, dressed in well-worn trousers and a stained T-shirt, a few long strands of hair clinging hopelessly to his bald pate. The air of physical disrepair was not helped by his bent, yellowing teeth.
He watched me closely as I introduced myself, and when he smiled his whole face seemed to light up. “Are you nervous?” he asked, softly spoken, his thick Dublin accent shading his words with lilting reassurance. He reached out to tap my arm. “You don’t believe everything you read now, do you?”
Well, do you? A lot of crap was written about Martin Cahill as he became Ireland’s most visible criminal. In the eighties, every serious crime committed was attributed, for a while at least, to the General, including the Ben Dunne and Guinness kidnappings. They called him a Godfather, and talked in terms of an organised criminal network. But in person, any ideas that you were meeting a Mafia don were soon put away. He lived a frugal lifestyle, with an upper middle class income, and working class ideals.
The phrase ‘drug trade’ is often mentioned in reports, but Martin Cahill was never convincingly linked with drug crime, and in interviews marked by their candour, was clear about his disdain for drug abuse. He was a robber who shocked the nation with spectacular heists but would still commit an ordinary burglary just for kicks. He was at the centre of a loosely knit team of criminals, put there by his willingness and ability to organise a crime down to the last details. “There is no leader”, he told me. “You can’t have a leader with these kind of men. It’s just different people getting together and discussing things. Some people are better at some things than others.”
Cahill’s talent was for organisation and he demonstrated he had the ruthlessness to follow through. But despite the dramatic nature of some of his crimes, it is extremely doubtful whether he amassed much money. His biggest robbery, of the Beit paintings valued at £30 million, was undermined by his inability to sell the stolen art-works. Press speculation is rife about what has happened to his loot, with whispers of a multi-million pound empire. But last year the Gardai were talking of his involvement in a battle to control Leeson Street’s hot dog stands.
I’m sure there’s money in hot dogs, but you would have to be a better businessman than Martin Cahill to retire on it. Not that he probably wanted to retire, despite the stories of his planning one last job. Martin Cahill loved crime. He was a natural game player, who plainly enjoyed pitting his wits against the police. “Crime is a way of life for some people,” he told me, leaning forward, touching my arm, adding his perennial catchphrase, “D’y’ understand?”
I’ve been listening to that voice coming back like a poor ghost from my tape recorder. It’s a friendly voice, always modulated, with humour lurking behind most things he says. I met him twice, and he spoke to me for hours, talked until my head was reeling, guiding me carefully through his versions of events, with a nod and a wink lest anything he said be taken down and used in evidence against him. And like I said, I know he’s done a lot of bad things. But that’s no reason not to mourn him. He was nice to me.
For when the One Great Scorer comes
To write against your name,
He marks - not that you won or lost -
But how you played the game
- Grantland Rice
“You don’t want to talk to me about crime, do you?” Martin
Cahill asked me, his perpetual smile lending his words a gently mocking air. On our first doorstep encounter he had cautiously enquired if I was bugged. His standard ripostes to questions on crime were that “unemployment is a crime” and “the wages they pay young people is a crime.” What went on between cops and robbers, on the other hand, was more like a game, although one fuelled by mutual loathing. He described it as “a grudge match” between himself and the police. What particularly riled him was that that side of the law and order did not play by their own rules. “Everyone of them is a liar and a perjurer,” he insisted. Of his own background he would only say that prison was his school, his high school and his university.
Until a national furore broke out in 1988, Cahill quietly collected almost £100 unemployment benefit and child support every week, giving his address as the modest council house in Swan Grove. It was there we conducted a lengthy interview, in a small front room, sparsely decorated (most notable were children’s drawings of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles on all the walls) and over-furnished (two imposing red leather chairs and a couch that someone was using as a bed).
Cahill insisted that this was his only residence, although it was widely known that his sister-in-law, Tina Lawless, and her family lived there while Cahill’s wife, Frances, and their family could be found in the somewhat more luxurious surroundings of the Cowper Downs estate, in a house that was purchased outright in 1986 with an £80,000 bank draft. Operating in a bizarre menage à trois, Cahill moved between the two homes, and had children with both sisters. He had just become a father again, with Tina, a week before he was shot.
Both houses are within a stone’s throw of the now demolished Holyfield slums where Cahill grew up, “the worst, poorest, smelliest, rat-ridden scum-pit in Dublin,” as it was described by an elderly but animated local. In the forties, fifties and sixties, Holyfield was the shame of the city, the place where Dublin Corporation housed people which the Corporation itself had evicted for failure to pay rent. It was the last step on the way to homelessness, the last refuge for Dublin’s hard luck cases: alcoholics, gamblers, debtors, long-term unemployed.
And their families. Cahill had already been in trouble with the law when his family were moved there in 1965. In 1958, aged 9, he had been fined five shillings for interfering with a bale of hay (he and his friends had moved it so that they could jump onto it from a wall) and in 1960, he was given probation for housebreaking. But it was in Holyfield that the two central characteristics of his complex personality appeared to have been moulded: a fierce loyalty to family and friends, and a virulent disdain of authority.
“What they never counted on was that we’d like it,” he said of the move to Holyfield. Despite its dismal reputation (it was demolished in 1980) he was openly nostalgic for the intense sense of community that developed. As in most ghettos, the bonds were forged along anti-authoritarian lines and criminal activity flourished. Shops in the neighbourhood, suffering from intensive pilfering, banned children from the estate. Holyfield school was regularly burned down. Cahill and his four brothers were amongst the wildest of the Holyfield children, and at 16 he received his first custodial sentence, two years for housebreaking. On release, he married Frances, who lived six doors away in Holyfield and worked, for a short while, making cardboard boxes for Smurfits. Barely literate, with a criminal record, Cahill’s prospects of prospering in the straight world were not good. But there is always crime, and it will always be seen as the most viable option by many on the bottom rung. By 1970, he was back inside, on a four year sentence for receiving stolen goods.
Cahill’s early years as a criminal were not a spectacular success. He spent over a third of the sixties and the seventies in jail. Many of the police who were later to expend so much effort attempting to bring Cahill to justice had their first run-ins with him during this period. It was Cahill’s opinion that his position as a Dublin crime lord was inflated by these policemen, as they rose to prominence in the force. The late Detective Inspector Ned Ryan, of whom Cahill spoke with complete disdain (continually referring to him as Kerry Baby, after Ryan’s most notorious case), was posted to Rathmines Garda station in 1973.
This was a time when there were rumours of a ‘Heavy Gang’ operating in the Garda, with a small group of policemen extracting confessions in any way they could. Cahill claims he was regularly “battered” in police stations, and fitted up for crimes he had not committed. On their first meeting, Ryan told Cahill that his days as a petty criminal were numbered, and he would be reduced to robbing grannies. This evaluation proved a little optimistic. The following year, Cahill is believed to have led the gang that stole £94,000 from a Securicor van in Rathfarnham. He was arrested in connection with the robbery, but had already developed his own interrogation technique, which he called blanking. “You just pick a spot on the wall and stare at it,” he explained. Simple enough. But Cahill could do it for days on end, driving his interrogators to distraction.
He was classed as a major criminal by the age of 24, although the degree of antipathy the Gardai held for him probably had as much to do with his style as his crimes. He developed his own peculiar courtroom routine, where his trials would be interrupted by people from the public gallery screaming abuse at him (in an attempt to get the jury discharged and have the trial aborted) or confessing to the crime. But this wasn’t just professional brinkmanship, Cahill was a practical joker, a mischievous personality whose delight in making life hard for the authorities was clearly obsessive.
It is a little-publicised aspect of Cahill’s story, that he ran an hilarious, virtually one-man campaign against the demolition of Holyfield out of sheer begrudgery. He was serving three years, for auto-theft, at the end of the seventies, when moves were first made to tear Holyfield down. Cahill began battling the Corporation from his cell, advising his wife and neighbours on how to avoid eviction. On his release he moved back into his first floor Holyfield tenement flat and stayed there while all the adjoining flats were demolished. “There was a balcony going nowhere,” he recalled, in tones of good-humoured outrage. “You could step out the front door into mid-air.”
Even when his wife and family were rehoused, he stayed on, sneaking back to Holyfield in the early mornings before the wrecking crews arrived. Eviction proceedings against him ground to a halt when, after a lengthy legal battle, they discovered the flat was not actually in Cahill’s name. He related with undiminished glee the occasion when officials pleaded for him to go and live in the house they had given him. “That’s my wife’s got the house, the bitch!” he responded. “She kicked me out! Youse can go and live with her. I’m staying here!” Meanwhile his wife refused to pay the high rent demanded of her, on the basis that her husband was unemployed. The Corporation complained that she had only been given the property because she had filled in forms stating she was married to a highly paid engineer. “That’s what he told me he was,” said Frances Cahill. “All these years he’s been going out every morning and coming in at seven at night! How was I to know?”
When he arrived at the site one morning to discover his flat had been demolished, Cahill fashioned himself a shelter out of the rubble. When the rubble was removed he installed a caravan. When the caravan was burned down he put up a tent. “I’m stubborn,” he admitted, laughing. He even had a meeting with Ben Briscoe, then Mayor of Dublin, who tried to persuade him to back down quietly and let new houses be built. Cahill took the view that he was a little guy fighting city hall, he knew he wouldn’t win but he could certainly have some fun at their expense. “They split up that community and put people all over the city,” he said. “I know people who have had nervous breakdowns after being cut off from Holyfield and their friends. I wanted to stay in the neighbourhood. And here I am.”
At the beginning of the eighties, Cahill may have been
increasing his reputation as a thorn in the side of authority but there are no further entries on his criminal record. Another figure appeared on the Dublin criminal scene. A tough, well-organised and extremely successful character known only as the General.
A lucrative series of armed robberies have been attributed to the General and his gang. All are noted for being carried out with almost military precision. The most devastating was the O’Connor’s jewellery raid in Dublin on 27th July 1983, when a team of men equipped with guns, smoke-bombs, walkie talkies, vans and motorbikes cleaned out Ireland’s largest jewellery factory. The haul amounted to close to £1.5 million. O’Connors, who were only insured for £900,000, were eventually bankrupted.
It was after this raid that the General gained his reputation as a handyman with an unpleasant bent. Gold from the robbery, about to be sold to a fence in London, went missing. The story is told that, suspecting one of his gang, the General nailed the hapless individual to the floor. “I’ve heard the story,” Cahill admitted when I brought it up. “I can only say there might be some truth in it but I wasn’t there at the time.” Loquacious on most subjects, he was guarded on his own involvement with crime. He developed a curious way of talking about things in the third person, like an expert giving his opinion, but always the answers came wreathed in knowing smiles.
“I hate liars,” he’d say, “but sometimes I have to lie. D’y’understand? He suggested blame for the incident should more properly be laid on some over-enthusiastic and undisciplined gang members. The gold was later dug up by a dog in a garden in Terenure. It was the only part of the O’Connor’s haul ever recovered and according to sources close to the gang, its location pointed the finger of suspicion elsewhere, at two middle class students who had been set up to deliver the gold to London in a car, before stumbling across the hidden haul and deciding to keep it for themselves. The General, it was said, laughingly admitted he nailed the wrong man. “I think there was some misunderstanding,” was all Cahill would say. But there was that smile again.
“You want to know if there’s something nasty underneath this smile?” he asked me, then shrugged his shoulders and smiled again in response. “You’ve got to see the funny side,” he said. “Crime is a way of life. What’s important is that there is no evil intended with the crime. Sometimes something bad will happen when you do the crime. But don’t intend it.”
Yet the stories were unavoidable, of an informer who was tortured by having the skin sliced off his thighs, of kneecappings, bombings and intimidation. There can be little doubt that Martin Cahill held the propensity for extreme violence, and that his violent reputation helped him in his trade but to understand it, you have to put it in the perspective of his idea of the game. There were rules to play by, and if you broke the rules, all bets were off. He commented that torture was fair treatment for anyone who would talk to the Gardai. “People remember pain,” he said.
Discussing the wounding of Social Welfare official, Brian Purcell, he spoke broadly of his dislike of “the faceless men behind the misery of the dole queues,” and he had nothing but contempt for forensic scientists, who, he claimed, were prone to tampering with the evidence. He launched into an animated description of a case in which he was prosecuted for burglary. The evidence against him, he explained, was all forensic, based on a pair of his shoes the police had taken away for examination. “This burglar”, he said (ah, the third person again, but such detailed knowledge!) “had to climb down a wall, cross a flower bed, cross a garden, climb up a drainpipe and through a window, and later escape the same way, but there’s no dirt or dust on these shoes, just fibres from the scene of the crime and a toffee stuck right in a hole in the middle of the shoe that exactly matched toffees that had been in the house at the time!”
He shook his head in plain disbelief. “Now these are professional people; if they are the top forensic people, they should do a proper forensic job. You know how I got off? The only witness said he heard the burglar escaping from the noise he made running away, like clattering footsteps. But the shoes were hush-puppies, y’understand? Hush puppies don’t make any noise. The jury took them in the room and came out with a not guilty verdict a few minutes later.” He chuckled at the thought of jurors running up and down in his shoes.
During his massive public bout with the police in the late eighties, there was little doubt that he considered it his great achievement to force them to fight on his terms. “The Garda have come down to my level. They are now breaking the law,” he said, after incidents of tit-for-tat car slashings.
It was the robbery of the Beit paintings and the subsequent embarrassing attempts to recover them that led to the ill-fated overt surveillance operation. In May, 1986, Cahill led his gang on a midnight raid of Russborough House in County Wicklow, stealing 11 paintings valued at £30 million. The paintings were almost his undoing, however, when he was drawn into an elaborate sting operation by an Interpol officer posing as a Dutch art dealer. On the day scheduled for the transaction, a Cessna plane tracked the officer’s homing device as he was driven up into Dublin’s outlying hills. They came to a halt deep in a wood, where paintings were produced. When the Interpol agent switched on a torch to examine the art-work a signal was activated in the Cessna and relayed to fifty undercover Gardai who had gathered in a nearby pub. Their intended swoop was halted when it transpired that nobody knew exactly where to go. A detective had to phone a nearby bus depot for directions.
By the time the Garda descended on the spot, gang members on high-powered motorbikes had disappeared into the Dublin mountains with the paintings. Cahill had become suspicious that the buyer was bugged when he had suddenly started talking in a loud voice. Without formal identification of the stolen property, no one could be charged. Garda spokesman Superintendent Dinny Mullens rather lamely pointed out that they only had fifty men for an area of 12,500 acres. “You cannot surround a forest,” he said.
The Garda’s humiliation was compounded in August ’87, when a gang of men bypassed the alarm system and broke into the offices of the Director of Public Prosecutions. In an act of bare-faced criminal cheek, they made off with 145 carefully chosen files, including everything the police had on Martin Cahill.
The Gardai response was to assign 70 men to watch the General and key members of his gang 24 hours a day. Remarkably, no attempt was made to hide it. Cahill was openly contemptuous of the surveillance, leading police cars around roundabouts for hours on end, and flashing his warning lights as he drove past the homes of policemen. He related with much amusement how little this operation cramped his lifestyle.
“I had to be a bit more careful where I went. I kept to myself but I like being on my own. I’d always keep to the main roads. See, I know Dublin like the back of me hand; I could lose them pretty quick – but I’d never lose them. I didn’t want to show them me short-cuts.” When he wanted to slip away he would crawl across neighbouring gardens with
guerrilla-like stealth, or send a friend out of the house disguised as himself, which was pretty easy since his face was always covered. When the police followed the decoy, Cahill would go about his business.
The stakes were raised on February the 10th, 1988, when RTE television broadcast a documentary openly naming him as a leading Dublin criminal. A camera crew stopped him on the street to interview him, and, while his fellow gang members scattered and hurled abuse, he simply covered his face and engaged in jovial banter. The General, he speculated, “could be some army officer,” disingenuously adding, “the way the country is these days, you wouldn’t know.” The result was banner headlines, outrage in the Dail and overnight stardom.
Cahill confessed that he was shocked when he saw himself on TV. “I thought, Good Jaysus, so much for keeping things quiet!” But he refused to let the attention get to him. “I just dealt with it. If you do anything to me, I’ll say, ‘Can I break? Can he get me?’ And you can’t. I’m not afraid. There’s nothing you can do to get me. I’ll go down the lowest. I’ll go down so low that the only way left is back up. The only thing is, I can’t bow down to you. I’d rather be dead. so I’ll just make fun of you. If you annoy me, I’ll make fun of you. I’ll react but I won’t attack. And I’ll keep smiling.”
He gave me an example of an incident in which he embarrassed his police escort so much they abandoned their pursuit. Four undercover Gardai had been strolling alongside him when Cahill paused at a crowded bus stop and suddenly began rummaging in an overflowing bin. He pulled out a sandwich, “the horriblest, sloppiest thing,” and began eating it, asking his companions if they wanted some. “The minute they went I was spittin’,” said Cahill. “Spittin’ for a month I was.”
Cahill may have been reviled on one level but he captured the imagination of the Irish public by his sheer cheek and outrageous sense of humour. while the police were po-faced and serious about their operation, Cahill dropped his trousers at court appearances, singing ‘I’m Going To Sit Right Down And Write Myself A Letter’ (a none-too-veiled reference to the most valuable of the Beit paintings, Vermeer’s Love Letter) for the news television cameras, and gave wisecracking interviews to the media. He told reporters he was moving into the security business. “Since the Gardai go everywhere we go we can offer an armed Gardai escort for the movements of large amounts of cash.” When 11 greens at the Garda golf club at Stackstown were mysteriously dug up, Cahill joked: “I’d have no trouble getting a hole-in-one on the Garda golf club, there’s that many holes in it.”
And despite all the publicity, Cahill maintained a curious level of anonymity. Whilst appearing in court for a breach of the peace, a succession of Garda witnesses failed to point Cahill out, then one Detective was prepared to have a go, declaring, “He is wearing a wig, a false moustache and glasses and if he took down his hands from his face I could identify him.” Everywhere Cahill appeared in public, he kept his face hidden. The police, who would periodically arrest him on vague suspicion of something or other, then release him without charge, once confiscated his ski mask and sent him out into a barrage of photographers with only jeans and a jumper.
The next day, virtually every national newspaper carried a picture of Cahill wearing the torn arms of his jumper over his head. He even took to blacking up his face beneath the masks. “I keep polish,” he told me, “the Al Jolson stuff, in case they make me take the mask off. I used bootpolish the one time, but I was stoned from the fumes for days after. Now I use professional make-up.”
Cahill clearly enjoyed talking about his off-beat conflicts with the forces of law and order. After a while he started pulling out videos of his various TV appearances, and packs of home snaps of the surveillance units watching his house. “They take pictures of me, so I take pictures of them,” he explained. I asked him why he had never sued for harrassment or libel. “They’d think they were getting to me,” he replied. “Anyway, I’d win but I’d never get a penny. If I was in America now I’d be living in the lap of luxury.”
The most public period of Martin Cahill’s career came to an end when he was sent to Spike Island for four months, for failure to agree to be bound over to keep the peace. “I don’t mind prison if it’s not for long,” he told me. “I get a chance to catch up with my friends.” He was of the opinion that if he had continued to be such a public embarrassment to the police, they would have resorted to framing him. Or maybe killing him. He spoke of how a member of his gang who he was convinced had turned police informer, tried to draw him into a plot that he felt certain was a set-up with that very purpose in mind.
The man, known to the Garda as T7 and to Cahill as The Viper, was on bail for assaulting a police officer, an incident Cahill believed was itself a set-up. He came to Cahill suggesting they “do something” about the officer involved. “I’ll help you,” Cahill told him. “I’ll help you get him.”
He chuckled as he recounted how, in quiet, deadly serious tones, he told The Viper his plan. “I’ve got a mobile incinerator,’ I told him. ‘Yeah, I have. We’ll get him. We’ll chop him up and put him in the incinerator and burn him to ashes. But what are we gonna do with the ashes? We can’t bury them, in case one of us becomes a born again christian in the future and feels he has to confess. He could take the police back to the ashes. No, and we can’t throw them in a lake or a river, cause they could wash back to shore and if forensics got them we’d be done for. No, I’ll tell you what. I’ll get a boat, take them out to sea and drop them overboard, that’s the best thing. You just find out the address of the guard and I’ll take care of the rest.”
Cahill told me The Viper returned the next day with the news that the officer in question was nicely isolated in a private room at Phoenix Park Hospital. “Now where do you suppose he got that information?” asked Cahill. He laughed at the thought that the Garda would have staked out a hospital waiting for the General to drive up in a mobile incinerator.
It was a funny story, and Cahill could spin it just right,
drawing out all the laughs, but it perhaps contains the seeds of his downfall. While Cahill had the mental strength to survive the intense Garda surveillance, the same could not be said of most of his associates. By its end, several were in jail, others had realised they were safer if they kept their distance from him, and still others, like the Viper, turned against him (though none testified, almost certainly out of fear of the consequences). Cahill became isolated, and when he did venture into major criminal activity again (in the Dublin hot-dog war, and the Lacey kidnap) it was with new, less trusted associates. There was a reported run-in with the INLA, themselves muscling in on the Dublin crime scene. “He was mixing with people who would cut his throat,” a senior Garda commented. “He was not in the same league anymore.”
Certainly, with the Lacey kidnapping, he seemed to transgress his own unwritten rules. Family was important to him. He had once told journalist, now barrister, Michael O’Higgins, that he had abandoned plans to kidnap one of the Smurfit children when, during his reconnaissance, he had seen what a tight-knit family they were. But he organised the kidnapping of Jim Lacey’s family, forcing the banker to empty his vault for their safe return. Only, when the dust settled, it looked like the joke was on the General. Jim Lacey had asked the manager at the College Green branch in Dublin to “hand over the £250,000 that is in the vault.” In fact, there was £6.5 million in the safe, which went untouched.
But reports that Cahill was enraged when he learned of this deception were surely exaggerated. That was the game. For once he had been outmanoeuvred. In January this year, he told journalist Veronica Guerin that the operation had been a success because “the cops look like fools again.” He added that whoever was playing games with the gardai was winning, and that was worth everything.
But what was it Neville Chamberlain said? “In war, whichever side may call itself the victor, there are no winners, only losers.” I don’t suppose the General paid much attention to old British statesmen. But surely any fool could have told him the end was coming sooner, rather than later. Maybe there was no one left who he trusted to tell him anything. Maybe he was the fool.
For God’s sake let us sit upon the ground
And tell sad stories of the death of Kings:
How some have been depos’d, some slain in war
Some haunted by the ghosts they have depos’d,
Some poisoned by their wives, some sleeping kill’d,
All murder’d - for within the hollow crown
That rounds the mortal temples of a king
Keeps Death his court
– William Shakespeare – Richard 11
Nobody buys the IRA’s story that they killed Martin Cahill
for collaborating with the UVF. Cahill was a Catholic Dubliner. If he was smart enough to stay ahead of the police for most his life, he surely wasn’t stupid enough to take on the IRA. No, their motives may never be truly known. Were they jockeying for position before the ceasefire, with the intent of moving in on Dublin’s criminal scene? Were they trying to impress the plain people of Ireland as dispensers of rough justice? Or settling some stupid old score?
When the Sinn Féin-backed Concerned Parents Against Drugs started forcing suspected drug dealers and criminals from their homes, Cahill responded, with his usual high sense of absurdity, by picketing the homes of concerned parents with a group he called Ordinary Decent Criminals. But nobody ever accused the IRA of having a sense of humour. They backed off. That doesn’t mean they forgot.
When I last saw Martin Cahill, he told me to drop by anytime. “My door is always open to my friends,” he said. “I’ve got lots of friends.” One of the survivors of the Athy shoot-out had been round to see him the day before. “He’s still got three bullets in his head,” said Cahill. “Battling on, like myself.”
Cahill peppered his conversation with home-spun advice about how to deal with being arrested. He demonstrated how policemen will pull you off balance and cautioned against pulling back - “that’s resisting arrest. ”Always duck when you’re being put in a police car, he advised, because it only takes a little nudge to make you smack your head off the roof. “I had a lot of sore heads before I worked that one,” he joked. Always tell them the opposite of what you want, he suggested. “If you’re in the cell and you want the light on, you say, ‘Turn off that light!’ and they leave it on. If you want it off, you say, ‘leave on that light!’ and they’ll turn it off.”
A more genial gangster you could not hope to have met. “I’m a very happy person,” he insisted. “I’m telling you the truth now. I’ll tell you how I feel. I’m no better than anyone else and they’re no better than me. I’ve respect for everyone. Even the winos. Every one of them had a mother and father somewhere. Everyone was the little babe in arms that the mother or father would not like to see anything happen to.”
‘Que Sera Sera –what will be, will be,’ said one of the family wreaths on Martin Cahill’s coffin. As his bullet-riddled body was laid to rest, commentators speculated on whether this was the first shot in a war for supremacy of the Dublin crime scene. Some openly spoke of a blood bath coming, and began to talk of Cahill as if he had been a restraining influence. If the King was dead, who was going to take his place?
But it’s hard to tell if Cahill was King or Clown, and it seems doubtful that anyone is going to step into his jester’s shoes. Martin Cahill wasn’t the most successful or most dangerous criminal in Ireland. He was simply the most interesting, and the most well known. He enjoyed his fame, but in the end, like Al Capone and the Krays, he got too famous for his own good. His public notoriety made him look like a legitimate target for terrorists with an agenda of their own.
Martin Cahill lived life like he was playing a game, a particularly dangerous and inventive game of cops and robbers. His fatal mistake was to forget that, in Ireland, there’s always more than two players.