His execution at the hands of (*insert whoever*) in August 1994 merely solidified the legend of The General: rising from the Hollyfield flats in Rathmines, Dublin to become one of the most notorious crime bosses in Irish history via a string of robberies, bombings and stunts designed to embarrass the Gardai. Coupled with his seemingly larger than life persona and a state seemingly unable to do anything about him, it’s a potent combination for storytellers.
Ironically, he also serves as a reminder of a more “innocent” time in Irish criminal history. One without feuds, stabbings and extreme violence. Certainly not on the level there is today. A lot of this is down to the fact that most of the original gangsters that dominated Dublin in the 1980’s (Cahill, Dunne, Mitchell, Cunningham, Gilligan etc) knew each other from local estates, industrial school etc and so, if an issue arose, they could mediate as a feud would be bad for business. Unthinkable in 2022.
Broadcast in February 1999 (not long after the murder of Eamon Collins), Vicious Circle is a lesser seen take on Cahill’s life and crimes. Despite it not having the scope of John Boorman’s masterpiece The General (released the previous year) or the star power of Kevin Spacey and Colin Farrell’s appalling Ordinary Decent Criminal (dumped in cinemas the next year), as well as it being a TV movie, it stands up pretty damn well.
A lot of this is down to the atmosphere conjured up by the camerawork. Capturing parts of Dublin yet to be touched by the Celtic Tiger, the landscape is dirty and post-industrial. Decaying warehouses, cramped offices and a dreary landscape (even in the countryside) add to the grittiness of the film.
Likewise, the performances are more restrained in comparison to the two feature length films. Ken Stott (Shallow Grave 📹 The Hobbit) downplays Cahill’s extravagance and renders him a more mundane type, but always with a hint of violence under the surface. Andrew Connolly (Patriot Games📹 Lost 📹 Heroes) depicts the character of Declan Finney as a world-weary detective whose decaying personal life means that he uses his pursuit of Cahill as a way to vent his anger. John Kavanagh (Cal 📹 Braveheart 📹 Some Mother’s Son) has been playing IRA men in films for years, so he knows the score and delivers a performance of quiet confidence and restrained menace as Charlie Rice.
Although Cahill is the lynchpin, the film gives enough focus to both Finney and Rice, with their characters’ relationships to Cahill highlighting the amoral nature of Cahill in that he has contempt for the law (Finney) and political groups (Rice). Both are determined to sort him out, but what does that do to someone like Finney who’s supposed to be upholding the law?
The only downside is that the plot tries too hard to compact 11 years into 100 minutes and, as a result, plot strands have to be invented to make the story concise. While it works for the most part, there are one or two moments that would have needed another run through Microsoft Word.
For example, it is heavily implied that the character of Barry (who serves as Cahill’s right-hand man) gave the IRA a stash of gold bars from the O’Connor’s heist seen at the start of the film, with the end result of this being the infamous crucifixion (which made Cahill notorious throughout the underworld and belied his jovial veneer) of a member of the gang. However, it’s never explained how a car supposedly stashed with hidden gold bars could be emptied without Cahill (a meticulous planner) spotting this.
Likewise, another moment sees Declan Finney talk to an RTE journalist about the capture of two UVF members holding a Beit painting in Istanbul. It’s never made clear what the issue is with him talking to her, but there’s a vague implication that this is Finney putting pressure on Cahill that will lead to his death. It’s an angle dealt with too ambivalently for the audience’s satisfaction.
Maybe not the most historically accurate tale but, for a glimpse into a bleak and unforgiving world, Vicious Circle has plenty to offer.
⏩ Christopher Owens was a reviewer for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland. He is currently the TPQ Friday columnist.