Cahill, Martin (1949–94), criminal, was born 23 May 1949 in Dublin, second of twelve children of Patrick Cahill, lighthouse keeper, and Agnes Cahill (née Sheehan). The Cahill family first lived in the north inner city, then moved to a corporation estate in Crumlin. At the age of eight Cahill was involved in petty crime, receiving his first conviction aged 12. In 1965 he spent two years for burglary in an industrial school at Daingean, Co. Offaly; meanwhile, the Cahills were relocated to Hollyfield Buildings, Rathmines, a sink estate with a strong criminal subculture. On 16 March 1968 Cahill married Frances Lawless; they had five children. Cahill had four other children through a relationship with his wife's sister, Tina Lawless.
After briefly ‘going straight’ Cahill became a burglar. From 1970 to 1973 he was imprisoned for possession of stolen goods. On release he combined burglary with armed robbery, working with his extended family and Hollyfield contemporaries. He was imprisoned 1977–80 for receiving a stolen car. Hollyfield was demolished in the early 1980s; Cahill moved to a corporation estate in Rathmines. In 1981 he was again charged with armed robbery and released on bail. Cahill broke into the District Court building and set fire to it, using his trial file as kindling; he set fire to the Four Courts, which closed for weeks; he bombed the car of the head of the Garda forensic laboratory, Dr James Donovan. Dr Donovan's legs were mutilated and his eyesight permanently impaired, and he suffered chronic pain.
In July 1983 Cahill robbed O'Connor's jewellery factory at Harold's Cross; the organisational skills displayed led gang members to nickname him ‘The General’. The criminals sold their loot for a fraction of its value; the factory closed, destroying a hundred jobs. In 1984 Cahill was charged with the robbery but acquitted on a technicality. In the same year he confronted the IRA when the republican-influenced Concerned Parents Against Drugs picketed drug-dealers. Cahill (who denied involvement with drugs, but financed other criminals' drug-dealing) orchestrated resistance through a ‘Concerned Criminals Action Committee’ which intimidated CPAD members. The IRA kidnapped two Cahill associates but pulled back when gardaí intercepted the kidnap gang. ‘The General’ gave his first press interviews on this occusion.
Cahill, one of several Dublin gang bosses, came to symbolise the growth of organised crime through a compulsive desire to humiliate the state apparatus. He walked flamboyantly into Garda barracks to gain alibis during crimes which gardaí knew he orchestrated; he stole weapons from the Garda technical bureau and files from the director of public prosecutions' office. Cahill presented himself as a rebel against authority, driven to crime by poverty and social injustice. He claimed that a society that tolerated ‘the misery of the dole queues’ was itself criminal; only avowed criminals were honest, because they were not hypocrites. He projected an ethos of amoral familialism, claiming he respected women (though he intimidated a rape victim who testified against an accomplice) and avoided drug-dealing. His eccentricities, though influenced by early emotional disturbance, also made him seem untouchable and emphasised his violent, unpredictable, arbitrary power. His elaborate capers diverted attention from numerous small robberies and traumatised ‘ordinary’ victims. In May 1986 Cahill's gang stole eleven paintings from Russborough House; these brought increased attention and were virtually unmarketable. In 1988–90 Cahill negotiated with Billy Wright's (qv) Portadown UVF, who wanted to use the paintings in an arms deal; two loyalists were arrested in Turkey with a painting in 1990. Seven were recovered in 1992–3; three remained missing.
From December 1987 the gardaí mounted intensive surveillance on the gang; Cahill employed evasive stratagems and orchestrated vandalism against gardaí. On 10 February 1988 a TV documentary showed him drawing the dole while living in two houses (one bought in Tina Lawless's name in an upmarket estate). A TD suggested Cahill needed two houses to display his Old Masters. During the surveillance operation Cahill verbally abused neighbours and was bound over to keep the peace; he refused to provide securities and went to Spike Island minimum-security prison (June–September 1988). Cahill travelled to court surrounded by press photographers, face concealed by a balaclava or his hands; he removed outer clothing to reveal Mickey Mouse underpants or a Batman T-shirt. The surveillance squad dispersed after Cahill's temporary removal; while his antics made the gardaí a laughing-stock, his gang was severely disrupted and several close associates jailed. Cahill then built up a new gang and tried to maintain his image. While continuing to engage in burglaries and armed robberies, he moved into protection rackets, looking for ‘legitimate’ sources of income as his health declined.
On 21 May 1994 the UVF attempted to bomb a crowded republican pub in Dublin, shooting a bouncer. Cahill was suspected because of his previous links with loyalists. He was shot dead 18 August 1994 in the Dublin suburb of Ranelagh. The IRA claim of responsibility was widely accepted, although rumours persisted that he was killed by criminal rivals.
The standard account of Cahill's life is Paul Williams, The General: godfather of crime (1995; new ed. 1998), based on interviews with police and Cahill associates. Some critics allege that its reliance on the self-serving recollections of these associates lead it to treat Cahill's self-proclaimed code of conduct more seriously than he did, although it does describe the violent and predatory aspects of his behaviour. Cahill's career has inspired three films: The General (1998, dir. John Boorman; Brendan Gleason and Eamon Owens as Cahill), Vicious circle (1998, dir. David Blair; Ken Stott as Cahill), and Ordinary decent criminal (2000, dir. Thaddeus O'Sullivan, Kevin Spacey as ‘Michael Lynch’). The General and Ordinary decent criminal accept Cahill's self-projection as a social bandit and present him as an artist manqué, a sharp-witted city boy out-jiving fuddy-duddy gardaí.