Uncle Joe


Years ago I heard a very young Siobhan O’Hanlon talk about her Uncle Joe, clearly proud of her connection, through her mom, to the Cahill clan. I had first got to know Joe - let’s say, professionally - to the extent that as far as I was concerned he was first and foremost an IRA man who could produce miracles, usually in respect to money.

It was only much later, after our introduction, that I entered his inner sanctum and realised that behind every great man there is a great woman, and that behind Joe was Annie Cahill. Joe was older than Annie but she was a thorough republican and through a wonderful relationship and marriage, through her dedication and her and her children’s’ sacrifice, she facilitated his faithfulness to his comrades.

What power, what strength she provided! That this Belfast boy, who survived the hangman, survived jail, emerged with his beliefs intact so much so that the line, the lineage, ran from his comrade, Tom Williams in the 1940s, right through to the image in the 1980s of Joe Cahill at Dublin airport, awaiting the return of the remains of Dan McCann, Mairead Farrell and Sean Savage from Gibraltar, in 1988. And then, of course, that other image, in January 2000, of Joe not only witnessing the reinterment of his comrade Tom in Milltown Cemetery, but speaking over his precious remains, his grave, with passion and love, completing a commitment that he had made in times when things were lean, when hope was almost lost, when our people, bar a few, were on their knees.

I often joked with Joe about his unwitting impact on my fate. “See if it hadn’t been for you, I would have had a brilliant life,” I use to say to him.

In 1970, when I was seventeen, I transferred from St Mary’s Grammar School, which I couldn’t stand, to St Peter’s Secondary School in Brittan’s Parade. (Poor Gerry Kelly lived next door to the school and had to walk fifteen feet to get there and was late every morning. God forbid, he could be a Minister!)

In August 1971, after internment had been introduced, Joe, a leader in the IRA, gave a press conference. No mask, no anonymity. Later, many spokespersons were to hide behind masks, or be filmed in silhouette, but Joe did our struggle a huge favour and legitimised our republicanism through his openness (which meant, however, that he was on the run, was now recognisable.)

The place of the press conference was St Peter’s School.

That same month I had applied to be a librarian and was interviewed before a panel in Academy Street. Everything was going well until one of the panel asked, “And what school did you say you went to?”

I said, St Peter’s. He turned orange.

“St Peter’s? Is that the school where Joe Cahill gave an IRA press conference two weeks ago?”

“Ah. Eh. Ooom. Errrrrrrr. I think so.”

“Well, that’s fine. Sure, won’t we write out to you about how the interview went?”

The letter’s still coming.

Joe loved the story and tried to convince me that he did me a favour. Which he did.

I remember Gerry Adams saying to Joe in 1988 or 1989 that Joe wasn’t getting any younger and that he should allow a book to be written about his life. Joe had been near death, through natural causes, through ill health, so many times that even when Tom Hartley and I visited him last Monday we wouldn’t have been surprised to discover that on Tuesday he had me made yet another Lazarus recovery and was on his way to an ard comhairle meeting.

The journalist, Derek Dunne, who wrote the book, ‘Out of the Maze’ about the 1983 escape, was enthusiastic and thrilled about writing Joe’s biography, and began the task, only to die in 1991, himself a young man, a year into his project. Then, Brendan Anderson, picked up the cudgels, and, despite the fact that his subject had to maintain security and keep hidden major portions of his life, Brendan managed to produce a fair representation of what made Joe Cahill tick.

A couple of years ago Joe heard that I was writing a book which included a chapter on my Uncle Harry, who like Joe, had been sentenced to death, and survived. He told me to call over to his house. Annie made us coffee while Joe left the 21 st century and entered into the spirit of, as I said, earlier, lean times.

Of course Joe Cahill was an important IRA leader whose influence in regard to bringing peace to his country cannot be over-estimated. But to me he was also an important, crucial, gateway to the past, a repository, who could recapture the fading narrative of yesteryear, who could make you gasp, realise and appreciate, how long we were in the making.

He told me about the inquiry into the escape of Hugh McAteer and three senior IRA men from Crumlin Road Prison, after which the warders on the wing were withdrawn and replaced by a ‘beating squad’ who mistreated the prisoners. Word was sent out to the IRA calling upon them to retaliate against one prison officer in particular. The man who carried the message out of the jail was himself a prison officer, a Protestant, who had volunteered his services to the IRA free of charge. At first the IRA had been suspicious and set several tests for him but he passed them all, said Joe, and they trusted him absolutely. He was never caught.

Shortly afterwards this prison officer called Joe to the side and said, “You better get word to Harry White. Tell him to get the hell out of the bushes!”

“What are you talking about?” asked Joe. The officer explained that when he was coming into work he spotted Harry crouching in the bushes with a revolver in his hand, obviously waiting to shoot a member of staff. Joe sent word out and Harry wrote back, tetchily,” What did you want me to do? There’s nobody else out here to do it.”

There’s nobody else out here to do it.

Oh, how proud Joe was of the next republican generation of which he was a founding father!

When I turned fifty, last year, Annie and Joe came along to my party in the Felons Club and gave me a card. When I opened it a fifty-pound note fell out, “a pound for every year,” joked Joe, and I was touched, and humbled, because this couple had no wealth to show for the richness they had brought to our struggle, their decades of sacrifice, though for them their union had produced greatness in devoted children, whose love was all too evident in Joe’s dying days.

I was with Jim Gibney in Donegal on Friday night when he got news of the death of Joe. I thought of a song on a 78 record that my Uncle Harry had given my mother some years after his release from prison, and I also thought of the death in 1988 of another great veteran, John Joe McGirl, who in his way had also made radical change possible.

The song was, ‘Shall My Soul Pass Through Old Ireland’, and is probably based on Terence McSweeney who died on hunger strike in 1920, which had happened only twenty years, a flick of the fingers, before Joe became involved in the IRA.

Yes, for many of us, Joe Cahill became our ‘Uncle’, and in the late hours of Friday his soul certainly passed through old Ireland, leaving us a loss which is irreplaceable.

Irreplaceable. Our Uncle Joe.

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© 2007 Irish Author and Journalist - Danny Morrison