When the Irish Republican Army
executed Martin Cahill
in August, 1994, nobody was happier than the Dublin
police. Known in Ireland
as "The General", Martin Cahill was an old style, working-class criminal
humiliated authorities and provided plenty of fodder
for Irish newspapers looking for comic relief
in the dark days of Irish politics.
From dancing around the courthouse in a pair of Mickey Mouse boxer shorts to pulling off heists of priceless art, Cahill was a mysterious figure who rose from petty thief to the top of Dublin's criminal dungheap.
Adding to Cahill's mystique was the fact that few people - save for his two mistresses, their four children and his crime buddies - ever knew what he actually looked like because he always managed to hide his face from the media.
Cahill's lifetime haul from bank robberies, art gallery thefts, and home burglaries was estimated at nearly 60 million irish pounds, and while he was no Robin Hood, preferring to steal from the rich and give to himself, he was certainly an interesting character whose life, crimes and loves formed the basis of Director John Boorman's (Deliverance, Excalibur, Beyond Rangoon, Hope and Glory, Point Blank) 1998 film The General.
Shot entirely in black and white, The General tells the true to life story of Cahill, a small time crook who eventually became Dublin's Godfather of Crime. The film looks at Cahill's crime overlordship with a humourous slant, casting him as an anti-authoritarian hero of the marginalised and the oppressed.
In one scene, he appears as a David against the Goliath of urban progress when he makes a last stand at his low-income housing project even though it is literally being torn down around him.
But the film does not sugar coat his penchant for brutality and violence. In another scene, we see how Cahill treats suspected traitors within his crime organisation when he nails the crook's hand to a snooker table in a mock crucifixion.
In yet another scene he tries to assasinate a forensic anthropologist, and in another, he threatens a witness who is slated to testify against him.
His prediliction towards violence indicates that he had little remorse for his victims and no one knows that better than John Boorman, himself one of Cahill's burglary victims.
That episode is brought to life in the film when Cahill, played by actor Brendan Gleeson, steals a Gold Record during a home burglary and breaks it in half when he realizes it isn't gold.
That particular Gold Record was for Duelling Banjos, the hit score from Deliverance, one of Boorman's earlier - and most successful - films.
Not everyone loves The General. According to The Republican News, the voice of the IRA, Boorman's characterisation of Martin Cahill is a "major disappointment". Among other criticisms, the News cites Boorman's reference to the Concerned Parents Against Drugs movement as insulting to Cahill's victims. In one hilarious scene, Cahill counters the success of the grass roots CPAD by establishing a parallel group called "Concerned Criminals."
"Cahill was no ...hero.... He was the ultimate in authoritarianism and individualism, and was an oppressor to people of his own class who he used, abused and brutalised in order to fulfill his own selfish ambitions. Cahill had no altruistic traits. His motive was pure, unadulterated greed.
He despised the collective will of the people and community empowerment and demonstrated this through his actions against the Concerned Parents movement. Faced with the people power of the CPAD Dublin's drug dealers could no longer threaten or intimidate with impunity. Martin Cahill's response was to establish the `Concerned Criminals' group. Gangsters, under Cahill's direction, targeted the homes of anti-drugs activists and threatened people who involved themselves in marches and pickets. Masked gunmen shot an anti-drugs activist, Joey Flynn, in both legs.
It's widely believed among the Dubliners that I hang around with that the real reason Cahill was killed by the IRA was because he interfered in the Irish drug trade. It's also suggested that Boorman wisely avoided mentioning that fact in the film because he intends to keep working in Ireland.
While we may never know the real reason why Cahill was murdered, we can make up our own minds about the man who became Ireland's most controversial criminal by watching the film, or by reading the book The General by Paul Williams.
- The General, directed by John Boorman
- The General by Paul Williams