Military Wiki
Joe Cahill
Irish language: Seosamh Ó Cathail
Born (1920-05-19)19 May 1920
Died 23 July 2004(2004-07-23) (aged 84)
Place of birth Belfast, Ireland
Place of death Belfast, Northern Ireland
Allegiance Provisional Irish Republican Army
Unit Belfast Brigade
Commands held Chief of Staff
Conflict The Troubles[1]

Joe Cahill (Irish language: 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, Ireland, where his parents had been neighbours of the Scottish-born Irish revolutionary James Connolly.[4]

Cahill was the first child in a family of twelve siblings born to Joseph and Josephine Cahill. Cahill was educated at St. Mary's Christian Brothers' Primary School at Barrack Street. Cahill's 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.[5] At the age of fourteen Cahill left school to assist in the print shop after his father had become ill.

Soon after this, Cahill joined the Catholic Young Men's Society, which campaigned on social issues with a focus on eradicating working-class areas of Belfast of moneylenders who often charged extortionately-high levels of interest rate. At the age of seventeen, Cahill then joined Na Fianna Éireann, a republican-orientated scouting movement.

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 police 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.[6] Of the six men sentenced to death for the murder of Constable Patrick Murphy of Clowney Street, the Falls Road, Belfast, only one was executed. He was Tom Williams, the leader of the IRA unit that killed Murphy. Cahill was released from prison in 1949.

During the 1950s IRA Border Campaign, Cahill was again arrested and interned. He was released in 1962.

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 Irish Catholic residents, who were unimpressed with the IRA's response to the events of August 1969.[citation needed]

Angry at the failure of the IRA, led in Belfast by Billy McMillen, to defend Irish Catholic areas during this 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 PIRA. The remnants of the pre-split IRA became known as the Official IRA. Cahill was a member of the first Provisional IRA Army Council.

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 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". Cahill himself however had to flee to the Republic of Ireland to avoid arrest, temporarily relinquishing his command of the Belfast Brigade.

In March 1972, Cahill was part of an IRA delegation that held direct talks with the British Labour Party leader Harold Wilson.[7] However, although the IRA called a three-day ceasefire for the talks, no permanent end to violence was agreed upon.

On his return to Ireland, Cahill was arrested in Dublin by Gardaí and charged with IRA membership. However 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, he held this position until his arrest in the following year.

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".[8] 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).

Cahill 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 Irish Dáil or parliament.

Peace process[]

In his later years as honorary life vice-president of Sinn Féin he 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 strident opposition by John Major's government.[9] This was to facilitate a trip to the United States to win support for the new Sinn Féin strategy from Irish American IRA supporters.

In 1998 he stood in North Antrim in the elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly but was unsuccessful, finishing in eleventh place in a poll topped by Ian Paisley.[10]


Cahill died at the age of 84 in Belfast as a result of being exposed to asbestos 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. There is a republican flute band from Glasgow named after Cahill.[11]


  1. "the most important campaigns ever fought by the British Army and its fellow Services". Retrieved 2011-01-24. 
  2. Irish Republican Felons Association 1964-2004, p. 25.
  3. Anderson, B., Joe Cahill: A Life in the IRA, Dublin 2002, p.17
  4. "Joe Cahill - A life in the IRA. ISBN 0-86278-836-6
  5. Anderson, Brendan (2002). Joe Cahill: A Life in the IRA. O'Brien Press. p. 18. ISBN 0-86278-836-6. 
  6. Anderson, page 61
  7. Anderson, pages 246-249
  8. Anderson, pages 279-280
  9. Sinn Fein: A hundred turbulent years, Brian Feeney, p409
  11. "Glasgow marchers honour Hunger Strikers". Retrieved 2011-01-24. 


  • Brendan Anderson, Joe Cahill: A Life in the IRA, Dublin 2002
  • Richard English, Armed Struggle - A History of the IRA, MacMillan, London 2003, ISBN 1-4050-0108-9
  • Ed Moloney, The Secret History of the IRA, Penguin, London 2002,
  • Eamonn Mallie and Patrick Bishop, The Provisional IRA, Corgi, London 1988. ISBN 0-552-13337-X
  • Brendan O'Brien, The Long War - The IRA and Sinn Féin. O'Brien Press, Dublin 1995, ISBN 0-86278-359-3
Party political offices
Preceded by
Noel Kavanagh?
General Secretary of Sinn Féin
with Walter Lynch (c.1970–1980)
Cathleen Knowles (1980–1983)

Succeeded by
Tom Hartley?
Preceded by
Dáithí Ó Conaill and
Máire Drumm
Vice-President of Sinn Féin
with Dáithí Ó Conaill (1976–1978)
Gerry Adams (1978?)

Succeeded by
Dáithí Ó Conaill and
Gerry Adams

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