In his own words
Last August, An Phoblacht's JOANNE CORCORAN interviewed Joe Cahill, lifelong republican and honorary vice-president of Sinn Féin, in his sitting room in Belfast, enjoying the warm hospitality of himself and his wife Annie. Most interviewers asked Joe about the execution of his comrade Tom Williams and his arrest on the Claudia as he tried to import arms for the IRA. Joanne, however, wanted to know about other aspects of his extraordinary life, from his earliest memories of growing up in Belfast to his fundraising adventures in the United States and his respect for his brother, Frank.
Joe answered all her questions, throwing in amusing yarns as he recalled some of the events of his extraordinary life.
As part of our tribute to Joe this week, we are re-running that interview in full, including sections left out at the time for reasons of space. What follows is a glimpse into the life of Joe Cahill, a true hero of our revolution.
An Phoblacht: What was it like growing up in Belfast right after partition had taken place?
Joe Cahill: I was born in 1920, and partition happened in 1921, so it didn't hit me until I was about nine or ten.
What first struck me about partition was the amount of unemployment. Nobody had any work. So the government set up this scheme, unemployment relief they called it, and it involved getting people to dig up the streets. It was very heavy work and only paid about 15 shillings a week. That wasn't too much then, I can tell you.
I also remember that housing conditions were very bad. In ordinary areas, a house like this, with three beds, would have been classed as a big house. In working class areas, most houses would be two-up, two-down and at least two families would live in them. And that would be in the unionist estates. In the Catholic estates, like the Lower Falls, the houses would be one-up, one-down. My family lived in Divis Street and we had little or nothing.
Even though we were luckier than most - my father had opened a business in 1914 - the first memory I have is of moving into a house with no windows and doors. But at least we lived on our own and were able to make it comfortable.
At that time there would have been a big problem with moneylenders and the Catholic Church at one point took a case against them. They were robbing families blind. The Church won partially, they got the interest rates reduced or something, but what occurred to me then was that politics wasn't working for Catholic people. No matter what we tried to challenge, we only ever got a partial response.
It was at this time I became interested in socialism. And it was also at this time that I discovered it was impossible to get work, because I was a Catholic.
Anyway, Labour was very strong then, and they wanted to bring people together through work. The bitterness and sectarianism of the 1920s seemed to have disappeared by the time this was happening, although there had been some bigotry at the 1932 Eucharistic Congress. Well, Labour got active and got people motivated, got them protesting, and they were successful enough. They got the wages raised to 30 shillings a week.
The beauty of this was to see Catholics and Protestants fighting together for their rights. The problem was that when Catholics tried to improve their standards of living, then sectarianism was brought into it, and brought in mostly by the unionist government.
I joined na Fianna Éireann, when I was about 16. I couldn't join the IRA because you had to be 18, but I wanted to.
You see, Catholics up the North felt let down by the government in the 26 Counties. They looked to them for support and help, and it wasn't forthcoming. Then when Fianna Fáil came to power, they thought things would improve. Obviously it didn't. So the IRA were the only support for the people.
The campaigns the IRA ran weren't all that successful. They didn't have any political backing, and that meant less support from the people. It was the same throughout the '30s, '40s, '50s and '60s. I still believe that unless you have some political backup, you will never be successful in the campaigns that you run.
AP: What was it like working in Harland and Wolffe in the early '50s? Was the company as sectarian as it is made out to be?
JC: It was all right, but people thought I was mad to work there!
I'll give you some background on this. I had come out of prison in October of '49 and I went for a few weeks' holidays before I started looking for a job. I had done a course as a joiner, and I assumed, big-headedly, of course, that because I'd served part of a life sentence, I'd get a job with any of the Catholic builders.
But none of them wanted to have me, because they said I'd be an embarrassment to them because they were all doing government work. One foreman asked me would I do a job in Cork, and I said, "No way, Joe Cahill isn't going to work in Cork".
So anyway, that guy went on to own his company, and he got in touch with me, and said he'd give me a job no problem as a foreman. I told him I'd skills as a joiner, but he said, "you'll probably be a bit rusty after eight years in prison, so take this job". He offered me a trade union card and everything, but then I heard him sacking two lads, without even giving them money they were owed, and his attitude turned me right off him. When I did talk to him, I gave out to him and said, "Paddy, I didn't serve my time for Ireland to end up working for a so and so like you". He said, "Joe, you're as stubborn as you ever were," and offered me full wages. But I stayed away from him and kept looking.
A while after that I met this friend, and he said to me why don't you try the shipyard. I said to him "are you mad?" But he told me that it wasn't as bad as it used to be, so I thought about it, and said, well okay, I need a job, I'll go down.
So I went down on the Friday and they offered me a job starting on the Monday.
I was there for two periods altogether, nine months and then eleven months, and both times nobody ever said as much as boo to me. We worked in pairs then, and I worked with a Protestant and told him all about my background. He said that made no odds to him, and that we were workmates anyway.
Then one Easter I went to Milltown cemetery, and the paper carried a report about it that weekend. That Monday in work my mate heard something said at lunch and he told me that it was probably only gossip but I wasn't to go about the ship without him, or without my hammer and belt. That was the first time anything was strange, but most of the workers were friendly. There was one other incident, when I was promoted to this job that paid an extra £3, and one day the foreman said to me, "Back to the tools, Joe". I said "Why, are you not happy with my work?" and he said he was very happy and that it wasn't his decision. He told me that the problem was I "kicked with the wrong foot".
They were the only two times I had any trouble. You could do manual labour, but if you tried to rise, you'd always meet difficulty. But generally, I got on with everybody there.
AP: What led to the split in 1969?
JC: Well I wasn't a member of the IRA then, I had resigned. It was obvious to everyone that something was going to happen. I was a member of the Civil Rights movement at the time; I did stewarding and the like, but I didn't think it was going anywhere. It was obvious to everyone that there were never going to be many benefits to Catholics.
Terence O'Neill was the PM then, and he was probably the most forward thinking of all the unionist Prime Ministers, but even then, he'd no desire to give the Catholics too much. He did have this idea that he could pacify them, though, by giving them a little. Well, he gave a little and the unionists weren't happy, so we knew there'd be a kickback and that came in him getting the push and Chichester Clarke being put in.
We had a feeling pogroms were about to start. You didn't have the British Army then, but you had something worse, the B-Specials. The IRA weren't doing anything to defend the people. They were making no preparations, because they had been getting more political and had been running down the military machine.
A lot of older hands could see what was happening, and they decided to start some training. That was doing okay but they didn't have long enough and eventually '69 came and there really was nobody there to stand up for the people.
Those of us who had been out of the IRA, and there were a lot of us, reported back, in the hope that we could do something. The feeling, particularly in Belfast, was that there should be a break with Dublin, and many of the rural areas thought the same.
I remember going to Lurgan and saying the North should break away and there was mostly agreement. There was a lot of opposition to the leadership in Dublin. So anyway, we decided to have this meeting on a Sunday in the International Hotel in Belfast. Representatives came from the south and the north and the purpose was to set up a separate command. We made a lot of progress at it, and shortly after we were drawing up plans, and some more people arrived from Dublin, among them Seán Mac Stiofáin. He was aware of what we were doing and supported it. He said that on the Saturday night there had been a meeting and the IRA had split, and the people who'd left Cathal Goulding's crowd had decided to set up their own army council.
Then we discussed how things should be developed and it was agreed that there should actually be an all-island body. So another convention was held, with the Provisionals, a temporary name that had been given at the first army council meeting, and the officials. It was planned that we would go away over six months and see where people's loyalty lay around the country, and that was the split. It was fairly bitter, but nobody was killed. And in the end the name the 'provisionals' stuck.
AP: Can you tell me about the reaction to Bloody Sunday in the South?
JC: Prior to Bloody Sunday, you had internment, one of the biggest mistakes of the British. I've often said that much of our success was down to the Brits' mistakes, as well as our own hard work. Lots of meetings about internment had been taking place, and then on that Sunday they decided to have a massive march and meeting. What happened then is well documented. The Paras came in and got stuck into the people, and there were the murders.
Then of course there was the aftermath. Many have said that if we had had the political strength then, we could have unified the country and defeated the British. All over the South they were protesting. I never witnessed anything like the protests I saw in Dublin. Workers downed tools and came onto the streets to protest, it was amazing. People were furious. They wanted to show their sympathy for the people in the North.
The British Embassy was burned down, and I was there. Some people argued it was a bad thing, because what happened was many people felt that they had vented their anger, and then they went off satisfied. I thought it was a good thing, though.
But it was the same when Jack Lynch called a day of mourning. For many, that was the climax to the whole thing. People in the South walked away from the problem, feeling like they'd done something.
It wasn't the same for us in the North. We were left with the bitterness. Of course, everyone knows the story then of how volunteers flocked to the IRA and it didn't have the capacity to take them all in.
AP: You've been on several hunger strikes in your life. Each time, did you feel that this was the time you were going to die?
JC: Every time you went on a hunger strike, you always thought "I could die now". There was no point on going on it if you didn't. My first one was in Crumlin Road prison. It started off that lots of us were on it and then there were only five of us. Two of us were in the prison hospital and three in the prison itself. We had very little communication between ourselves. Then it was called off because if we all died there would have been nobody left to take over. One of the senior figures, who had been taken to the hospital wing, gave the order and the message was brought to us. We got improvements but not immediately. That was the way it was with hunger strikes - if you lived, you got your demands, but later.
AP: Having been on hunger strike yourself, how did you feel about the 1981 Hunger Strike?
Joe: I remember how the leadership felt at the time. We knew they were going to die. We didn't want them to go on with it.
When they were conned into coming off the one in 1980, we felt that their demands were going to be met, eventually. I felt that if another one started they would die. I never anticipated that ten would die.
No amount of talking would make them come off it, though. I talked to Bobby Sands and I pointed out to him that they were going to die. Bobby said he couldn't see a way out of it. He thought if one died, then that would be the end of it. That didn't happen though. I'll never forget that conversation. The worst thing about that hunger strike as well was that it was one of those where one lad goes on it, and then another, then another, and it meant it stretched out for such a long time.
AP: Joe, you've had a lot of involvement in the US. Can you tell our readers something about that?
JC: My involvement in the US started in 1970. There had been different groups coming over from all over the place and the organisation of it was very scattered. They wanted to help, and we were also sending individuals over to get help, but everyone was confused about who was raising funds for who, was it the Provisionals or the Officials. One or two had gone out before me, but I said there was a lot of support out there and that it needed to be organised. At an army council meeting it was decided that two would go out, Leo Martin and myself.
We went to the consul in Belfast to get our visas, and of course they asked had you been to jail. Well, Leo had been interned and I'd been sentenced to death, but we told your man it had been political. I said "I've never done anything criminal in my life". He looked at us and said "Well, there's nothing in the rules that says you can't go", and issued us with visas.
So we went off, legally, and we went to New York first. We met with a group called the Thursday Committee, so called because they met on Thursdays, and it was proposed at that first meeting that we start up a nationwide organisation. That was how Irish Northern Aid, or Noraid, was formed. Leo and myself travelled extensively through Boston, Chicago, San Francisco, Philadelphia, and everywhere we went we set up branches of Noraid.
That was my first involvement, and we'd get reports back and forth of how things were going.
Then internment came and the PM of the North at the time, Brian Faulkner, gave a press conference, saying that the IRA had been wrecked, internment had been a success, and that they had picked up lots of volunteers.
So the IRA decided to hold a press conference in Belfast, or at least to have people get a message out for them about what has really happened. See, we'd had prior knowledge of internment so it hadn't worked that well for the government We'd been able to warn volunteers the night beforehand, so most of the volunteers who had been picked up were older ones or inactive ones.
What happened then at the press conference has gone down in history, but it wasn't intended, it was never meant to happen. There were a lot of telly crews and reporters at the conference, and mostly civil rights people. Paddy Kennedy, who was an MP at the time, was there and a councillor, John Flanagan.
It was a bit of a damp squib for the best part, until one of the reporters asked the question was Faulkner right saying the IRA had been squashed. Well, Flanagan replied and said, "I can't answer that because I'm not in the IRA, you'll have to ask the OC of Belfast there" - and he pointed at me.
Immediately the room was electrified, and the questions were flying. I told them that we had known about internment and the rest of it. I said we had lost very few Volunteers because we had told them to stay out of their houses and that most of those arrested weren't active. They asked would the IRA be continuing campaigns and it struck me that this was an opportunity to get a message across to all the Volunteers out there, because I probably wouldn't be able to contact them for a while after that. I said that we would be carrying out a shooting and bombing campaign for 48 hours, and that after that we'd be going back to guerrilla training. It was a perfect way of getting the information out, because I knew I wouldn't be able to move after that.
While this was going on, a few of those in the room had gone outside to get me arrested and I was instructed to leave Belfast very quickly and get down to Dublin.
HQ had decided the best thing I could do then for the movement was go back over to America, and I was happy to do that. I got on a plane and headed off. Then, as I was getting off the plane in America, a stewardess from the ground came up to me and said "Joe you're wanted in one of the offices".
I assumed it was our people and I went in, but of course it was immigration control. Your man asked for my passport, and as soon as I gave it to him he stamped it 'null and void', handed it back to me, and said you're now in America illegally.
I was kept there for several hours and eventually brought to a holding centre. We got lots of publicity out of it. Noraid would be ringing me up and saying, "Stay there Joe, don't get out, you're worth million dollars a day to us locked up." My name became very widespread through America then.
After that, I went many times illegally, doing tours and such. I was generally known as Joe Brown, and sometimes even Father Brown, when I travelled about the States.
I remember one time, somebody was introducing me to someone else and they said 'You know Father Brown don't you?' and they said aye, and he said 'Well this is his wife'. There was confusion, I can tell you. From then on it was a joke, we were being introduced as Fr Brown and his wife!
Between '71 and '94, when I officially got a visa, I was probably in America eight to ten times. Once in that period I was arrested again with Jimmy Drumm. He was deported immediately but I was brought to court. I was on remand but I got bail. I had to report to a probation officer every Monday. Luckily, he was an Irishman and he was a neighbour of the house I was staying in and also a great Gaelic man. I went to report to him and he said to me 'Your health is not the best, is it Joe?' And I said to him 'no'. So he told me just to ring in on Mondays. For three months then, I travelled around the States on bail, raising money until I was eventually deported, making sure I rang in every Monday.
AP: Can you tell me about your brother Frank's involvement?
Joe: Frank was a lot younger than me and he was first interned when he was 17 years old. That was around '42 or '43. He had been fairly active and he still would have been active when he got out, but he got involved in community work, particularly after he got married.
He went to live in Ballymurphy and decided he wanted to better the position of the people living there. It wasn't just Ballymurphy either, he was using that as a pilot scheme.
Frank was very far-seeing, even though a lot of people would have disagreed with him. His community work was very successful and he set up a lot of small projects, like picture framing and knitwear. He also helped set up a petrol station. He took a lot of his ideas from Fr Dwyer in Donegal, but he had fantastic ideas of his own.
He became greatly involved in the Conway Mill in West Belfast. It was up for sale and a small committee came together to talk about it. Frank was one of the big pushers behind this. The Mill was practically in ruins and it is still a long way from the way they envisioned it. When the idea was put forward first, people thought they were mad, but he was very far-seeing. I disagreed with him on a lot of things, but I respect all the activities he became involved in. We wouldn't have been human if we didn't disagree.
AP: How do you see the role of An Phoblacht today?
JC: I think a lot more work needs to be put into the sales of the paper but I think it's a great political paper and a great forum for debate. I still enjoy reading it, but I have discovered that sales aren't what they used to be.
We depend on it, we always did, but some of our members think that they are above it. But I see the paper as incredibly important in spreading the gospel, if you like. We need to wise up and make sure it's getting out to the public.
AP: Do you ever think that my generation is the one that will sell out?
JC: That's something I never thought about. I've always been a great believer in youth. I don't think that they'll sell out or break. I think it was Martin McGuinness who said 'we have the most politically educated generation ever' and I have complete confidence in them.
I know when I speak to young people, they know everything that's going on, they are happy to be part of the struggle and they have no intention of giving up.
AP: Any regrets?
JC: No regrets. Absolutely none. People have asked me this several times and the answer is always no, but that's in my professional life. I have regrets in my personal life, particularly being a married man with seven children and not living constantly with them. I missed all that natural life, but I suppose the one thing that compensated was the support I received from my family, particularly from Annie. I left her to rear seven kids and she did a damn good job.
I can say that in front of her because she's deaf! Really, she can't hear a thing I'm saying. That's how I can get away with everything.