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Monday 16 September 2019

'Tango One's down': the brutal life and death of the General

It's a full quarter-century since Martin Cahill, better known as the General, was gunned down near his Dublin home. Crime writer Paul Williams recalls a violent gangland figure whose eccentricity and audacious robberies turned him into a kind of criminal celebrity

Taking the mickey: Martin Cahill outside a Dublin court in 1988
Taking the mickey: Martin Cahill outside a Dublin court in 1988
Martin 'The General' Cahill
Cahill’s car after his assassination in 1994. Photo by Matt Walsh
Paul Williams

Paul Williams

'Tango One is down…Tango One is down…" the message crackled frantically from the scanner I used to listen in on the garda radio frequencies as the phone began to ring with sources excitedly confirming the groundbreaking news: Martin Cahill, aka, the General, Tango One, the undisputed godfather of the Irish criminal underworld, had been shot dead.

"Control, can you repeat that last message?" asked a clearly shocked voice over the wailing of a squad car siren.

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The dispatch cop on the command and control radio system responded: "The number one man is down… Get everyone down here… All other alarm calls to be put on hold. Priority for Tango One."

Even though 25 years have passed since I heard that first staccato announcement of the General's assassination, it still feels like it was yesterday. As a crime reporter with the Sunday World at the time, there had only been one gangland story for myself and my colleagues over the previous eight years or so: the General, a dangerous and eccentric gangster who controlled the most prolific armed criminal organisation in Ireland's burgeoning gangland.

He pulled off, with considerable panache, some of the biggest and most meticulously planned robberies in the history of the State, while at the same time waging an unrelenting war against his most hated enemies - the gardaí and the institutions of the State.

Apart from an intense professional interest, there were other reasons why I never forgot that event: at that time my family home was receiving increased garda protection because one of Cahill's associates was planning to burn it down in response to an exposé I wrote about the General four months earlier.

It was 3.24pm on August 18, 1994. Six minutes earlier, an IRA gunman from Finglas, who had been posing as a corporation worker at the corner of Oxford Road and Charleston Road in Ranelagh, calmly shot the General five times with a .357 magnum in what can only be described as a textbook execution.

Eyewitnesses who were out soaking up the rare late summer sunshine told detectives that the hitman had taken his time and appeared to be grinning as he jumped on the back of his accomplice's stolen motorbike and sped off into the afternoon traffic.

No one was ever charged with the crime.

The murder was a seminal event in the history of organised crime in Ireland. It marked a turning point for the underworld which ultimately led to the murder of Veronica Guerin just two years later. The 45-year-old Cahill was also the last victim of the Provisional IRA before the terrorists announced a ceasefire 13 days later as part of the incipient peace process.

Cahill had been the one criminal who showed no fear of the IRA. He left them in no doubt that he was prepared to go to war when they tried to access a share of the largesse from his major crimes including the 1983 theft from Dublin's O'Connor's Jewellers of jewels, diamonds and gold worth £2m - the biggest robbery in the history of the State.

It was the first time that a high-profile criminal, a man at the top of the garda's most-wanted list for two decades and a source of intense public fascination, was gunned down in the street.

Cahill had enjoyed a public notoriety unlike any other crime boss - and that includes his contemporaries like the Monk, Dapper Don or John Gilligan - either before or since.

He was infamous for wearing a balaclava or Mickey Mouse shorts on his head to cover his face en route to his high-profile court appearances. A bestselling book and then a John Boorman movie, The General, secured his immortalisation.

Back in 1994, four days after his murder, the Sunday World published the first full front page picture of a smiling General, without a mask. The newspaper sold out within hours. Everyone wanted to see the bogeyman's face.

So who was Martin Joseph Cahill, the General, and Public Enemy Number One?

Cahill was a complex, enigmatic character who displayed many contradictory traits that left even those closest to him confused and bewildered. To them he was a loyal friend and a devoted father to the small army of kids he parented in a bizarre three-way consensual relationship between his wife and sister-in-law, which burnished his reputation as a prolific womaniser (although it was a subject that his gang members knew best not to ventilate in front of their unpredictable boss).

Outwardly, the General came across as soft-spoken, even gentle, with a flat Dublin brogue who certainly did not fit the bill of a big-time gangster. In appearance he was unremarkable and resembled a cross between a street person and a down-at-heel used car salesman. Short, rotund and bald with a combover, he wore dirty jeans and stained T-shirts.

The General was no Dapper Don.

Apart from his unorthodox relationship with his wife and her sister, his passions - of the non-criminal variety - were cakes, curries, motorbikes and racing pigeons.

Horrifying crucifixion

The General was obsessive, paranoid, manipulative, conniving and extremely clever. He loved playing the part of the absurd joker as long as it was he who enjoyed the laugh.

He could be cruel, sometimes compassionate; and he was secretive with a malicious streak that once saw him subject one of his henchmen to a horrifying "trial" because he was suspected of ripping off some of the proceeds from the O'Connor's jewellery heist.

The "trial" involved Cahill having the man pinned down by stapling his fingers to the floor of a derelict house before hammering six-inch nails through the palms of each hand.

In what came to be part of gangland folklore, Cahill pronounced the crucified man innocent of the charge, explaining to his sidekick John Traynor that no guilty man could endure such pain without confessing.

To the gardaí, Cahill was a hardened, sadistic gangster who bombed, tortured or shot those who irritated or challenged him.

The name of the General was synonymous with violence, intimidation and fear. And when it came to dishing it out, he was egalitarian in his choice of victim who came from both sides of what he saw as the metaphorical razor-wire fence between his underworld kingdom and the rest of society.

Cahill and his family grew up in abject poverty. His first criminal offences were for stealing food and fuel for his hard-pressed mother who gave birth to 12 children. His father, Patrick, was a heavy drinker which he indulged at the expense of his wife and children.

From an early age, Cahill and his brothers became very capable burglars. At the age of 16, he confessed to two burglaries when a detective bought him fizzy drinks and sweet cake - and for that he was sent to the notorious Daingean industrial school in Co Offaly.

The horrific history of these camps for children - many of whom were subjected to systemic brutality, starvation and sexual abuse - is well known today and Cahill famously once said: "If anyone corrupted me, it was those mad monks down in the bog."

It was while in Daingean that Cahill's personality began to emerge. He was quiet, cautious and shrewd, sizing up every situation as it arose and making the most of a bad lot. If he saw a piece of paper on the floor, he would pick it up rather than suffering the indignity of being ordered to do so, and he never made eye contact because to do so would mean acknowledging their presence and authority.

After borstal, Cahill tried to avoid crime. He met Frances Lawless, who became his wife, but then he soon went back to what he did best: robbing and planning robberies. And he involved himself in a constant war of wits with the gardaí who he hated with venom - a war he variously described as a "grudge match" or "the game".

At every opportunity he would try to get one up on the gardaí, exploiting weaknesses in the system and making them look stupid.

He equipped his extensive arsenal of weapons by robbing the depot on St John's Road in Dublin where gardaí stored confiscated illegal firearms.

The weapons, including grenades, shotguns, pistols and machine guns, were stolen over the course of several break-ins which were not discovered until a number of years later, when forensic examination of guns used in Cahill-led robberies showed that the guns were supposedly locked up and in the hands of the gardaí.

In 1981, after he and his close friend Christy Dutton were arrested after an armed robbery, Cahill did everything he could to scupper the State's case against him. He broke into the court clerk's office and burned the State's prosecution file. And when that didn't work, he ordered his henchmen to set fire to the Central Criminal Court in the Four Courts building, causing extensive damage not seen since the Civil War.

And when it became obvious that the trial would still proceed, Cahill crossed the Rubicon and bombed one of the prosecution's main witnesses in the case, the State forensic scientist Dr James Donovan, in a shocking act of terrorism.

Dr Donovan suffered appalling leg injuries which he has lived with ever since. Despite giving his evidence at Cahill's trial, the gang boss was acquitted on a technicality. Over subsequent years, Cahill struck out at the State again by breaking into the offices of the Director of Public Prosecutions and making off with some of the most sensitive crime files in the country.

When the State finally put together a specialist team of young gardaí - called the T or Tango Squad - to target Cahill in 1987, it led to a groundbreaking documentary on the RTÉ Today Tonight current affairs programme which effectively copper fastened Cahill's reputation. The crackdown led to the arrest and imprisonment of several of the General's closest associates including his brother Eddie and his brothers-in-law.

Cahill managed to escape on a number of occasions following shoot-outs with the gardaí, but there was never enough evidence to put him in prison with the rest of his mob.

At the height of the operation, the General dug up the greens at the Garda golf club in Stackstown and openly laughed at his tormentors about getting a hole in one.

The investigations into the General showed up how criminals of that era, who were officially unemployed, could flaunt their gains without worrying about a backlash from the State. Even though he was on the dole, Cahill bought a four-bedroom detached house in upmarket Cowper Downs in Rathmines in the early 1980s for cash.

Inspector kidnapped

This situation was only finally addressed with the establishment of the Criminal Assets Bureau in 1996 following the murder of Veronica Guerin.

And when the State did finally move to cut off Cahill's dole payments in 1989, he had Brian Purcell, the social welfare inspector dealing with his case, kidnapped from his home at gunpoint. The terrified public servant, who later became the Secretary General of the Department of Justice, was brought to a railway line in south Dublin where Cahill personally shot him in both legs as punishment.

Ultimately it was one of his most audacious crimes, the theft of the Alfred Beit art collection from Russborough House in Wicklow - at the time the second biggest art heist in the world - that put him on a one-way trip to destruction.

In 1986, he and 10 other men broke into the stately home and took 18 artworks by Vermeer, Goya, Metsu, Rubens and other great artists.

Members of the Cahill gang always believed that the paintings were cursed because the theft threw them into a complex story of international intrigue involving police forces, criminal organisations and terrorists in several countries.

Cahill had believed that he could sell the paintings and his gang would all become millionaires. But the truth was different. In his desperation to offload the artworks, Cahill ended up doing business with Loyalist terrorists in the North, who in turn, tried to sell them in return for weapons.

And it was that deal that gave the Provisional IRA the opportunity to settle an old score, right before the ceasefire.

Paul Williams is the author of 'The General: Godfather of Crime'

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