Sunday 23 October 2016

The General's 'spectacular' heist that led to his bloody downfall

Martin Cahill planned the Beit job to mock the establishment, but it backfired badly

Published 24/04/2016 | 02:30

'The General' Martin Cahill
'The General' Martin Cahill
Alfred and Clementine Beit at Russborough House, Co Wicklow

As they drove in darkness under the canopy of oaks that line the winding driveway to Russborough House, Martin Cahill knew in his heart and soul that this caper was not about money. He'd make more vaulting a counter and sticking a gun in some lowly bank official's face.

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This was about much more. It was about letting the bastards know that he could do as he pleased: put a bomb under the car of the State's most senior forensic scientist, break into the offices of the Director of Public Prosecutions, rob and plunder with impunity.

Cahill, otherwise known as 'The General' in Dublin's underworld, was a smart guy, but he was about to enter his Mickey Mouse phase, dressing up in a mask, T-shirts and underpants and playing up for the cameras outside the Four Courts.

Cahill didn't foresee that this night would cast a long shadow - not only would it prove fruitless in terms of money, but the beautiful Beit paintings he was about to plunder would lead inexorably to the pool of blood seeping from his body by the side of the road in Ranelagh eight years later.

On this night, a Wednesday, May 21, 1986 - 30 years ago next month - Cahill and the 10-man gang he led had only one thing in mind: carrying out a 'spectacular' that he could use to taunt the authorities.

Eddie Gallagher and Rose Dugdale had pioneered raiding Russborough House on behalf of the IRA. All Cahill had to do was follow in their footsteps, even stealing some of the same paintings.

Nobody in their right mind was going to buy them any­way, despite the fact that one, a priceless Vermeer, was among the most coveted paintings in the world.

The plan was simple. They drove in and hid their getaway vehicles, then deliberately smashed a window in the French doors at the back of the house, setting off the alarm. Hidden in the lush undergrowth, they waited to see what would happen. A squad car drove up from the Garda Station in Blessington, took a look around and, believing it was another false alarm, drove off.

The gang then broke into Russborough House. The paintings themselves were not individually alarmed, so he chose 18 smaller, easier to move artworks by Vermeer, Goya, Metsu, Rubens and other great artists, many still in their frames. On their way back to the city they dumped seven of the "lesser" paintings by the side of the road near Manor Kilbride, leaving them with 11 of the best.

The following morning was chaotic at Russborough House, built by the wealthy Earl of Milltown, and, according to the architectural historian Mark Bence-Jones, "arguably the most beautiful house in Ireland". Set in the dramatic landscape of west Wicklow, it passed through the hands of various earls, gradually falling into down-at-heel magnificence.

In 1951, Sir Alfred Beit was sitting in his summer home in Cape Town, South Africa, thinking about where to hang his fabulous collection of paintings, when his wife 'Kitty' (Clementine), thumbing through Country Life, showed him an advertisement for Russborough House and its 1,000-acre estate. They bought it by telegram the next day.

Beit's father, also Alfred, and his brother Otto, had left Hamburg, Germany, in the middle of the previous century and gone prospecting in South Africa, where they became part of the De Beers conglomerate and amassed fabulous wealth from the diamond mines of the Rand.

Alfred assembled most of the art collection, which, on his death in 1905, passed to his son, Sir Alfred, later to become a Unionist MP and confidant of the future King George V.

In the years between the wars, Sir Alfred and his wife were described as "not merely the richest young couple in London, but the handsomest".

The months that followed The General's raid on Russborough saw a game of cat and mouse between Cahill and detectives determined to outwit him. In 1987, after a long surveillance operation, a criminal recruited by the Dutch police made contact with the Cahill gang posing as an art buyer. He came to Ireland and was shown several of the Beit paintings. But a 'sting' arranged for the foothills of the Dublin Mountains collapsed in a welter of confusion.

Over the next few years, through a trickle of intelligence and international police work, most of the Beit haul was tracked down and recovered. In 1990, a Metsu, A Woman Reading a Letter was recovered by police in Ankara, Turkey, where a drug dealer was trying to swap it for a shipment of heroin.

In 1992, the Gainsborough Madam Bacelli was found in London, and shortly afterwards two more paintings were discovered behind a sofa in a London semi-D, Rubens's Head of a Monk and Concert Party by Palamedesz.

By now, Cahill was becoming paranoid about the paintings and the surveillance surrounding his every move. In an effort to offload them, he hooked up with Billy Wright, the vicious Loyalist gang leader from Portadown, who attempted to fence them to finance an arms shipment.

The big breakthrough in the investigation came in September 1993, when three Irishmen and an Eastern European were arrested at Antwerp Airport in Belgium.

Eight internationally important artworks were found in the boot of two rented cars, including the most important painting from the Beit collection, Lady Writing a Letter with her Maid by Vermeer, Goya's Portrait of Doña Antonia Zarate, the second Metsu, Man Writing a Letter and a portrait Princesse de Lamballe by Vestier.

After an in camera hearing before a magistrate, the gang was released. The Belgian authorities were worried that the provenance of some of the paintings could not be fully traced. The Vermeer, for instance, was used after the artist's death in 1676 to cover his debts. Its ownership could be followed until 1889 when a gap appeared before it was purchased by Alfred Beit senior from a Parisian art dealer.

Sir Alfred Beit died on May 12, 1994, in Dublin, leaving £3.2m in his will, which included a bequest of two paintings by Guardi "the said pictures having been stolen and not recovered at the date of this, my will".

The story of the Beit art heist took another macabre turn on August 18, 1994, when the IRA, in one of its last acts before the ceasefire, murdered Martin Cahill at the junction of Oxford Road and Charleston Road in Ranelagh, Dublin, shortly after he left his home in nearby Swan Grove to return a video, aptly titled Delta Force 3 - The Killing Game. He was repeatedly shot in the face and upper body with a .357 Magnum before the lone gunman jumped on a motorbike and disappeared.

The Provisional IRA claimed his killing was directly related to his connection to the Loyalist gang and events four months earlier, on May 21, when a UVF gang tried to plant a bomb in a pub in Pearse Street, Dublin, on a Saturday night during a crowded Republican fundraiser. When the doorman, Martin Doherty, later identified as a member of the IRA, stopped them going upstairs with the bomb, they shot him dead.

There was much speculation as to how the gang were able to escape, but the IRA Intelligence unit in Dublin soon discovered that they had been hidden by Cahill and given safe passage back across the border.

His fate was sealed.

Then in August 2002 the second Rubens, Head of a Man (also known as Portrait of Erycius Pureanus), was recovered from a northside suburb of Dublin.

Lady Beit died on August 17, 2005, in London, leaving an estate in Ireland of more than €7m, which did not include Russborough and much of its contents, which are now owned by a trust.

By then, the major paintings from the Beit collection were housed in the National Gallery of Ireland, where they are among the main attraction for international art lovers.

The two Venetian scenes by Guardi have never been recovered. The secret of their whereabouts went to the grave with Martin Cahill, but they are believed to be buried somewhere in the woods near Killakee in the Dublin Mountains. Maybe someone walking there will one day stumble across the last of the looted legacy of Sir Alfred and Clementine Beit.

As for Martin Cahill, who will remember his legacy 20 years after the so-called "daring raid" that eventually led to his death?

Sunday Independent

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