The General’s Daughter

The reader doesn’t have to journey too far into Frances Cahill’s book before discovering the real villain of the piece - An Garda Siochana. Her father Martin and his cohorts were pretty okay sort of guys who made a stand against the police and invasive authority. Nor did the father countenance marital infidelity, never having had an affair with his wife’s sister, nor fathering a number of her children. Just a good, all round solid guy, the type you would not mind climbing over your back wall in the middle of the night. Reluctant to judge her father she merely says it ‘appears he was involved in criminal activity’ even though in a later part of the book she would discuss counting out substantial amounts of money for her father at the age of eight or nine and his progression from house burglary to armed robbery. 

Yet for all its bias this is a great read. If your preference is for the literary output of a good storyteller rather than accuracy this might well be the book for you; a read to be enjoyed rather than believed. Frances Cahill employs the artist’s licence and does it quite well, never losing the attention of her reader.

Obviously the art connoisseur Martin Cahill his daughter Frances knew was vastly different from ‘The General’ so ‘loved’ by the media and hated by the guards. The Mickey Mouse disguised character who tormented the Garda, art collectors and householders alike was considered with much awe by his daughter who while writing her book was also training to be a lawyer. ‘He stood up for what we believed in. He was our hero.’ That he stood for – not to mention on - much more as well was not considered suitable material for this book.

Martin’s mother gave birth to 21 children 15 of whom would survive. Frances insists it was an early brush with authority, being arrested by the garda while playing, that was the catalyst for her father’s future career. Martin ended up in a reform home and the ‘sadistic clutches’ of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate Order whose men of god duly:

knew which boys to target, which boys were vulnerable. They were the ones that got the worst abuse, the ones that wet their beds night after night, the terrified ones, the tortured ones, the battered, spat on, pissed on, kicked, punched, buggered, torn to shreds, hair ripped out of heads, teeth pulled out, kicked out, kicked in, chests caved in, suffocated ones.

But even in the Buildings where the family lived the affluence of the Cahill family stood out against the poverty that defined the area. Her father’s Harley Davison, her mother’s Kamikaze, the family BMW and Mercedes Benz. Frances’s depiction of family life in the Buildings is reminiscent of the type of background the Glasgow gangster Paul Ferris grew up in Blackhill. One of immense poverty, total lawlessness other than what the residents agreed to work out among them or had imposed upon them by the hardest in their midst. Crime was looked upon as economic necessity rather than illegal activity.

Coming away from it my mind entertained the notion that for all the allegations that can be justly made against the Catholic Church, Garda stations up and down the country were the site of abuse for many decades and barely a word said about it by comparison with what is thrown the way of the Church. Garda brutality weighs down on this account with a deadening baton. The surveillance employed against Martin Cahill might have been the envy of the East German Stasi. The Garda:

could watch our family and hurl abuse and rubbish at us as soon as we stepped out into the back garden. The police would sit drinking beer on the wall and throw the cans at my teenage brother as he went about looking after the pigeons. They would spit at my mother and call her a prostitute as she hung out the washing. Their high powered search beams would shine through out bedroom windows all night ... to watch my father’s every move, every second of the, day, seven days a week, perched on this wall at the bottom of our garden.

Frances certainly shared her father’s disdain for gardai and authority. At one point she refers to gravediggers who were known for opening the coffins of deceased gardai and bashing in the faces with a spade. Whatever the level of animosity, the scars of grievance or genuinely felt resentment, desecration of the dead is a revolting spectacle.

At times the narrative seems to grow farfetched. Two gangs happen to arrive at the same time to rob some parking meter depot; they argued in a manner which conveyed a sketch from Monty Python and then left without completing the business they came for.

Like many in his trade, Martin Cahill fell to the assassin’s bullet and his daughter lived to tell the tale of that and much more.

Frances Cahill, 2007, Martin Cahill, My Father. New Island: Dublin


  1. I enjoyed this, I especially like the grave diggers tale, I was talking to a very old lady the other day about when she was in 'service,' we more than got our own back Mick, she said with a wink. enough said I thought.

  2. She should get a job with qsf..

  3. Marty,

    She should get a job with qsf..

    She is not that bad. It is quite a good read but she shades it her da’s way and it is hard to fault her hostility towards the guards.

    Mick that was the very part I winced at.