Joe Cahill

For the NSW Premier, see Joseph Cahill.
Joe Cahill
Irish: Seosamh Ó Cathail
Born (1920-05-19)19 May 1920
Belfast, Ireland
Died 23 July 2004(2004-07-23) (aged 84)
Belfast, Northern Ireland
Allegiance Provisional Irish Republican Army
Unit Belfast Brigade
Commands held Chief of Staff
Conflict The Troubles[1]

Joe Cahill (Irish: Seosamh Ó Cathail;[2] 19 May 1920 23 July 2004) was a prominent Irish republican paramilitary and former chief of staff of the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA).


On 19 May 1920, Cahill was born above a small printing shop at 60 Divis Street[3] in West Belfast, where his parents had been neighbours of the Scottish-born Irish socialist and Easter Rising leader James Connolly, who co-founded the Irish Citizens Army.[3]

Cahill was the first child in a family of twelve siblings born to Joseph and Josephine Cahill. A younger sister, Tess, was the mother of Siobhán and Eilis O'Hanlon. Cahill was educated at St. Mary's Christian Brothers' School, then located on Barrack Street. His father was a printer by trade and an Irish republican who was a former member of the Irish National Volunteers and would produce republican-related material at his print shop.[3] Aged 14, he left school to assist in the print shop after his father had become ill. Soon after, he joined the Catholic Young Men's Society, which campaigned on social issues with a focus on eradicating moneylenders from working-class areas of Belfast, as they often charged usurious interest rates. At the age of seventeen, Cahill then joined Na Fianna Éireann, a republican-orientated Scouting movement.

Early paramilitary career

The following year in 1938, at the age of 18, Cahill joined the local Clonard-based 'C' Company of the Belfast Brigade of the Irish Republican Army. In the 1940s, he was sentenced to death for killing a Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) officer during the IRA's Northern Campaign. The sentence was commuted to life imprisonment, as a result of pressure on the British government by the Irish government. The Vatican also called on the Northern Ireland government to grant clemency.[3] Of the six men sentenced to death for the murder of Constable Patrick Murphy of Clowney Street, the Falls Road, Belfast, only one, Tom Williams, was executed. Cahill was released from prison in 1949. During the 1950s IRA Border Campaign, Cahill was again arrested and interned. He was released in 1962.[3]

Founding the Provisional IRA

In 1969, Cahill was a key figure in founding the Provisional Irish Republican Army. In the Northern Ireland riots of August 1969, Cahill, along with Billy McKee, tried to defend the Catholic Clonard area from attack, but was unable to prevent Bombay Street being burned by Ulster Protestant rioters. When he subsequently tried to organise the defence of the Ballymurphy area, he was initially chased away by its Catholic residents, who were unimpressed with the IRA's response to the events of August 1969.[3]

Angry at the failure of the IRA (led in Belfast by Billy McMillen) to defend Catholic areas during the communal rioting, Cahill and McKee stated in September 1969 that they would no longer be taking orders from the IRA leadership in Dublin, or from McMillen. In December 1969, they declared their allegiance to the Provisional IRA, who split off from the leadership. This action took 9 out of the 13 units of the IRA in Belfast into the Provisional IRA. The remnants of the pre-split IRA became known as the Official IRA. Cahill was a member of the first Provisional IRA Army Council.[3]

Provisional IRA activities

In April 1971, after the arrest and imprisonment of Billy McKee, Cahill became the commander of the Provisional IRA Belfast Brigade. He held this post until the introduction of internment in August of that year. It was during this period that the Provisional IRA campaign got off the ground in the city. Cahill authorised the beginning of the IRA's bombing campaign as well as attacks on British troops and the RUC. He based himself in a house in Andersonstown and toured the city, co-ordinating IRA activity. The day after the British Army mounted Operation Demetrius, designed to arrest the IRA's leaders, Cahill held a press conference in a school in Ballymurphy and stated that the operation had been a failure. He said, "we have lost one brigade officer, one battalion officer and the rest are volunteers, or as they say in the British Army, privates". To avoid the propaganda defeat that his capture would then have entailed, Cahill fled to the Republic of Ireland, temporarily relinquishing his command of the Belfast Brigade.[3]

In March 1972, Cahill was part of an IRA delegation that held direct talks with the British Labour Party leader Harold Wilson.[3] However, although the IRA called a three-day ceasefire for the talks, no permanent end to violence was agreed upon. Upon his return to Ireland, Cahill was arrested in Dublin by Gardaí and charged with IRA membership. He went on hunger strike for twenty-three days and was subsequently released due to lack of evidence. In November 1972, Cahill became the IRA's chief of staff and held this position until his arrest the following year.[3]

Cahill was then put in charge of importing arms for the IRA. He liaised with the NORAID group in America and with the Libyan dictatorship of Muammar al-Gaddafi to this end. In March 1973 he was arrested by the Irish Navy in Waterford, aboard the Claudia, a ship from Libya loaded with five tons of weapons. Cahill was sentenced to three years imprisonment by the Irish Special Criminal Court. Cahill stated at his trial that, "If I am guilty of any crime, it is that I did not succeed in getting the contents of the Claudia into the hands of the freedom fighters in this country".[3]

Upon his release, Cahill again was put in charge of arms importation and to this end went to the United States. He was deported from the United States in 1984 for illegal entry (see Provisional IRA arms importation). He served on the IRA Army Council as late as the 1990s. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, he argued against proposals for Sinn Féin to stand in elections. However, in 1985, he spoke at the party's Ard Fheis in favour of republicans contesting elections and taking seats in the Dublin parliament, the Dáil.[3]

Peace process

In his later years as honorary life vice-president of Sinn Féin, Cahill was a strong supporter of Gerry Adams and the Good Friday Agreement. In 1994, a controversial but central aspect of the IRA's ceasefire was the granting of a limited visa by then United States President Bill Clinton to Cahill, in the face of opposition by John Major's government,[4] for the purpose of trying to win support for the new Sinn Féin peace strategy from Irish American IRA supporters.

In 1998 he stood in North Antrim in the elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly, but was unsuccessful [5]


Cahill died at age 84 in Belfast. He had been diagnosed with asbestosis, which he likely developed while working at the Harland & Wolff shipyards in his twenties. He and several other former shipyard workers later sued the company for their exposure to the dangerous substances but only won minimal compensation. A Irish republican flute band in Glasgow is named after Cahill.[6]


  1. "The most important campaigns ever fought by the British Army and its fellow Services" (PDF). Retrieved 2011-01-24.
  2. Irish Republican Felons Association 1964-2004, p. 25.
  3. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 Anderson, Brendan, Joe Cahill: A Life in the IRA, Dublin 2002, pp. 17-18, 61, 246-49, 279-80; ISBN 0862786746/ISBN 9780862786748
  4. Sinn Féin: A hundred turbulent years, Brian Feeney, O'Brien Press; 2 edition (17 April 2002), ISBN 086278770X/ISBN 978-0862787707, p. 409
  5. Election results,; accessed 21 November 2014.
  6. "Glasgow marchers honour Hunger Strikers". Retrieved 24 January 2011.


Party political offices
Preceded by
Noel Kavanagh?
General Secretary of Sinn Féin
with Walter Lynch (c.19701980)
Cathleen Knowles (19801983)

Succeeded by
Tom Hartley?
Preceded by
Dáithí Ó Conaill and
Máire Drumm
Vice-President of Sinn Féin
with Dáithí Ó Conaill (19761978)
Gerry Adams (1978?)

Succeeded by
Dáithí Ó Conaill and
Gerry Adams
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