Cahill, Pearse (1917–2011), aviator, businessman and race driver, was born Matthew Pearse Cahill (in honour of the executed leader of the 1916 rising) in Dublin on 26 January 1917, son of Hugh Cahill (1883–1966), of Glasnevin, Dublin, and his wife Caroline (née O'Connor). The owner-manager of the successful Iona Garage and Motor Engineering Works at Cross Guns Bridge, Glasnevin, his father was most notable for founding Ireland's first commercial airline, Iona National Airways (1930), and Ireland's first civil aerodrome at Kildonan in Finglas, Co. Dublin (1931). Before Pearse undertook his first instructional flight aged 14 in 1931, his father had told the pilot to scare him off; instead the ensuing aerial acrobatics inspired him to persevere and complete his first solo flight in a de Havilland Gipsy Moth on 30 April 1933. Iona's closure that November, however, forestalled his flying.
Upon completing his schooling at Belvedere College, Great Denmark Street, Dublin, he joined the family motor business and gained engineering qualifications. He also competed in motor events, from 1936 in his mother's Hillman Minx saloon car, and then in a 1287cc, 1935 MG Magnette bought for him by his father in 1938. When motor sports were suspended in 1940, he joined the Irish army and was stationed all across the country during the Emergency as a lieutenant in the supply and transport section. He married (1943) Constance Duncan, daughter of a businessman from Clontarf, Dublin. They settled in Glasnevin and had two sons and a daughter.
Discharged from service in 1946, Cahill resumed both working for his father and competitive driving in his Magnette, which he dubbed the Iona Special, having altered its appearance and enhanced its performance with the help of Iona's mechanics. He dominated the precision-driving trials and hill climbs held in the Dublin region during 1946–7 and won the 1947 Hewison Trophy based on trial results over the year. Following a frustrating period wherein his fine driving was undone by mechanical failures, he scored a dramatic and prestigious victory in the 1950 Leinster Trophy Race handicap held over 100 miles of the Wicklow Circuit, going on to claim that year's Sexton Trophy for the best driver in races and speed events.
Before retiring from automobile racing in 1954, he co-drove a Gordini to consecutive victories in the 1.5-litre class in the long-distance Ulster Tourist Trophy Race at Dundrod (1953–4), latterly against formidable continental competition. A frequent winner of reliability trials, speed events, races and hill climbs, and an active committee member of the Irish Motor Racing Club, serving as president for 1953/4, he upheld Irish motor sports amid austerity and petrol restrictions. Upon his death in 2011 he was one of only three drivers to have won the Hewison and Sexton trophies. The Iona Special was sold in the 1950s, ending up in America where it was much admired by vintage car enthusiasts and valued at $125,000 in 2000.
After jaunts in a friend's light aircraft rekindled his love of flying, he ended a nineteen-year hiatus in May 1952 and started training in a de Havilland Tiger Moth at Weston Airport, Co. Dublin, being a founder member of the Leinster Aero Club based there. He gained his private pilot's licence in 1960. The Iona motor works had been doing repairs for Aer Lingus, and Cahill was keen to expand into aviation maintenance. His father was wary and reluctantly advanced him a £1,000 loan in 1956 to buy and modify for resale four de Havilland Chipmunk aircraft, but dropped his objections once Pearse turned a tidy profit.
Pearse then became involved in partially assembling and storing American-made Piper aircraft on behalf of British dealers seeking to evade import restrictions by going through Ireland first. As the Glasnevin motor works were too small, in 1957 he leased land from Aer Lingus beside Dublin Airport at Cloghran, Co. Dublin, and built a hangar, which opened in 1959. The Cloghran operation quickly moved beyond assembling Pipers to emerge as the only facility in Ireland capable of performing major repairs and maintenance on light aircraft. He obtained the qualifications necessary to act as chief engineer, and recruited and trained apprentices, many of whom later joined Aer Lingus.
Keen to encourage public interest in aviation, Aer Lingus abetted Iona's progress by seconding skilled staff and charging a nominal rent. (Cahill also drew on connections within the airline.) Servicing a variety of models, including almost all of Ireland's privately owned aircraft, the business grew rapidly with the hangar tripling in capacity to twenty-five aircraft in 1962 and workshops being added for engines and airframes; further expansion saw the site eventually host over sixty aircraft. In 1962 the government lay down tarmacadam, improving access to Dublin Airport's runway from Cloghran.
In the early 1960s Cahill started importing light aircraft, partly for resale, partly for his diversifications into air charters and pilot training. He revived the Iona National Airways title, and in 1965 established a flying club at Cloghran under Iona's auspices, which developed into the largest in Ireland. Buying his first Cessna aircraft in 1964, he found it ideal for pilot training; Iona operated Cessnas almost exclusively thereafter. As Cessna's Irish agent from 1966, he facilitated the US manufacturer's subsequent ubiquity within Irish light aviation and traded over 100 aircraft (mainly Cessnas) during 1960–94, generating further maintenance work for Iona. He also sold assorted aircraft components.
Iona aircraft appeared in various film scenes shot in Ireland during the late 1960s, most notably when Cahill piloted his Cessna 172G for the 1967 thriller Robbery. A keen flyer and a prominent member and sometime chairman of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, he participated in air rallies held abroad and in Ireland throughout the 1960s and 1970s; Iona aircraft also featured prominently in Irish air shows during this period. His practice of buying new Cessnas, operating them for some years and selling them cheaply to flying clubs advanced Irish recreational aviation. By 1970 his Iona National Airways/Irish Aero Club venture had six aircraft, twenty employees and three hundred club members, and in 1974 he committed himself to the aviation business by selling the motor engineering works. Iona was a family affair, with all of his children and certain of his grandchildren employed therein; a son and a granddaughter qualified as commercial pilots with Iona.
The air-charter operation grew haltingly, its progress marked by the arrivals of Iona's first twin-engine aircraft (1969), which permitted flights outside Ireland, and first pressurised aircraft (1974). For long, Iona had the tiny Irish market almost to itself, but in the late 1970s greater demand for executive charter services attracted competition. In 1979, his bold £230,000 acquisition of a one-year-old Cessna 414A Chancellor III allowed him to stay ahead of the field by offering customers a turbo-charged, eight-seater, cabin class with a 1,200-mile range. Pilot training activity also expanded from the mid 1970s, with Iona having 100 students in 1976 and producing forty-five licensed pilots during 1976–7. In 1980 Iona installed the state's first light aircraft flight simulator.
By then, Aer Lingus and the airport authority increasingly regarded Iona as a nuisance, particularly as Dublin Airport got busier. (In 1989 traffic congestion at Dublin Airport forced Cahill to transfer most of Iona's flight school operation to Cork Airport.) Iona was subject to higher rents and landing charges, restricted in its flight operations, and denied planning permission for a new hangar with more sophisticated maintenance facilities. The maintenance business declined, latterly representing a negligible proportion of revenue. Although Taoiseach Charles Haughey (qv) was a regular Iona flyer and sympathetic to Cahill's plight, Aer Lingus generally prevailed by virtue of its sway over local politicians and the Department of Transport.
Cahill experimented briefly and unprofitably with a scheduled air service, for the Dublin–Sligo route in 1984, and again in the late 1980s when Iona connected Dublin to regional airports at Carrickfin, Sligo, Shannon, Belfast and Derry. Instead, Iona flourished from 1986 by engaging in freight, obtaining valuable contracts plying routes within Ireland and between Ireland, Britain and the continent. This entailed a dramatic increase in the size and variety of Iona's fleet with some of the new additions being leased for certain delivery routes from the relevant contractor. At its 1990–91 peak, Iona managed 130 employees and twenty-six aircraft (sixteen for the flying club), boasting Ireland's second-largest fleet.
Cahill's conservatism and nous had previously allowed Iona to defy the unforgiving economics of short-haul air services, but this rapid growth left it vulnerable to the onset of a world aviation recession from 1991. Following the calamitous loss of Iona's main freight contracts, Cahill imposed wage cuts, sold aircraft and slashed his workforce to below forty in 1992; the flight training school at Cork was closed also, as EEC sanctions against Libya cut off a valuable source of foreign students. Iona went into liquidation in December 1994 owing £2.3 million, including £670,000 in taxes. In 1996 the liquidator stated that Iona had been insolvent since March 1992 and initiated stillborn legal proceedings against Cahill and the other directors for reckless trading.
Remaining mentally sharp and in robust health up to his death, Cahill continued selling spare parts to the Irish aviation sector. From 1980, he lived in Skerries, Co. Dublin, dying in his home there on 7 December 2011. He was buried in Ardla cemetery, Co. Dublin.