Goulding, Cathal (1923–98), socialist republican, was born 2 January 1923 at 1 East Arran Street, Dublin, one of four sons and three daughters of Charles Goulding, a housepainter, and Bridget Goulding (née Costello). The family had a long tradition of republican activism and working-class militancy. Goulding's paternal grandfather had been involved with both the Fenians and the Invincibles, and his father and an uncle fought in the Easter 1916 rising. Both his parents were jailed during the civil war, and thereafter were sympathetic to social republicanism. On being blacklisted by employers owing to his civil-war allegiance, his father worked as a self-employed contractor.
Educated locally until age fourteen in north Dublin city, Cathal joined Fianna Éireann, the IRA's youth wing, at age eleven. After serving an apprenticeship, he practised the trade of a housepainter and decorator. From youth he had a close friendship with writer Brendan Behan (qv), with whom he shared a common background, trade, and politics. Interned in the Curragh throughout the 1939–45 emergency, on release Goulding participated energetically in efforts to revive IRA organisation in the aftermath of relentless wartime suppression. He received a twelve-month prison sentence when special branch detectives – alerted by his extensive travelling on organising missions – broke up a meeting of twelve republican leaders in a Dublin pub (1946). In the late 1940s he ran IRA training camps in the Wicklow mountains. In the arms build-up before the IRA border campaign, he was one of three volunteers, including Seán Mac Stiofáin (qv), who raided the armoury of the officers’ training corps at Felstead School, Essex, but were apprehended when their van, grossly overloaded with a large haul of weaponry, was noticed by a routine police patrol on a narrow country road (25 July 1953). Imprisoned for six years in several British jails, Goulding was not involved in the first few years of the border campaign, thereby escaping culpability for the campaign's failure, and remaining neutral between the rival IRA factions engaged in bitter recriminations over the conduct of the campaign.
Elected to the army council, he served as quartermaster general (1959–62), before being elected IRA chief of staff (1962–9). Assuming command of a demoralised and depleted organisation, he undertook a thorough reassessment of the history and future direction of the republican movement, involving a prolonged period of internal discussion and education. Devoid of the traditional IRA disdain for ‘civilians’, he solicited the advice of radically minded intellectuals external to the movement, notably two TCD lecturers, Roy Johnston and Anthony Coughlan, both veterans of the Connolly Association, a British-based Marxist group, and deeply influenced by the association's chief ideologue, C. Desmond Greaves (qv). Contending that the economic liberalism of Seán Lemass (qv) was increasing the dependence of the Republic of Ireland on British capital, and facilitating a British master plan to reintegrate the Republic into the UK, they argued that the republican aspirations of national independence and reunification must be pursued by means of social and economic resistance in the Republic, conducted by a ‘national liberation front’ of republicans, trade unionists, small farmers’ organisations, and other progressives, combined with a similar united-front campaign for full political democracy in Northern Ireland.
On the basis of this analysis, Goulding in the mid 1960s led the republican movement into a ‘new direction’, away from the traditional concentration on armed struggle to end British rule in Northern Ireland, to active engagement in political, social, and economic agitations. Republicans started, helped to start, or joined ‘a scatter of campaigns’ (Goulding's phrase), around such issues as industrial strikes, rural cooperatives, housing conditions in Dublin, and ground rents in Dún Laoghaire. They sponsored committees on the ownership, control, and exploitation of natural resources, especially fisheries and minerals, and targeted foreign companies, investors, and landowners as ‘agents of economic imperialism’. Asserting the right of the Irish people to own the nation's waters, they conducted illegal ‘fish-ins’ on private rivers. In Northern Ireland, Goulding circumvented a government ban on Sinn Féin by fostering the formation of Republican Clubs, which actively supported the militant, but non-violent, civil rights movement. The strategy was sanguine in its hopes of enlisting the protestant working class in a united-front campaign for political and social reform, and thereby undermine the cross-class hegemony of the Ulster Unionist Party. Goulding redefined the role of the IRA in the republican movement, conceiving it as an armed guarantor of the social and political gains attained by a mass, revolutionary popular movement. IRA military action was confined to violence against property during social agitations in the late 1960s, such as the burning of large foreign-owned farms, and of buses conveying strikebreakers.
Though Goulding's perspective was dominant, tensions emerged with physical-force traditionalists, alarmed by the ideological subjugation of ‘armed struggle’, the consequent decline in military readiness, and the embracing of socialist politics. Goulding exacerbated the tensions by ham-fisted efforts to discipline recalcitrants, including expulsions of individuals and branches, and disbandment of the women's section, Cumann na mBan. The tensions exploded into the foreground amid the outbreak of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland in August 1969. Traditionalists accused Goulding, who had refused to release arms to IRA units in Belfast and Derry, of failing to defend nationalist areas from attack by loyalist mobs. Though faced with a revolt in the Belfast IRA, where traditionalists had withdrawn temporarily from GHQ control, and were threatening a permanent breakaway if arms were not supplied, Goulding remained convinced that the correct response to the northern situation was to intensify pursuit of the standing political strategy. Accordingly, he persisted with an initiative to rescind the republican movement's hallowed policy of abstention from parliamentary politics at Leinster House, Stormont, and Westminster. Supported by majorities at both a general army convention (December 1969), and Sinn Féin ard-fheis (January 1970), his position precipitated the withdrawal of dissident traditionalists, who formed a provisional army council, led by Mac Stiofáin, and an allied caretaker Sinn Féin executive, led by Ruadhrí Ó Brádaigh (qv).
After the split, Goulding remained as chief of staff of the Official IRA, which throughout the early 1970s steadily lost ground to the Provisional IRA as the dominant armed republican force in Northern Ireland. Ostensibly limiting their military operations to ‘defence’ of nationalist areas, as violence escalated amid the intensifying armed campaign of the Provisionals, the Official IRA increasingly engaged in ‘retaliatory’ attacks on British troops, especially after the introduction of internment (August 1971). In July 1971 Goulding asserted, during a graveside oration in the republic, that when peaceful efforts to effect revolutionary social change were countered by violent repression, it was the prerogative of the Official movement to reply in ‘the language of the bomb and the bullet’ (Ir. Times obit.). Indicted and acquitted for incitement to cause explosions or to shoot people, he was the last person in the republic to be so charged. Such rhetoric notwithstanding, it is thought that Goulding largely exerted a moderating influence within the Officials’ GHQ. In the aftermath of ‘Bloody Sunday’ (30 January 1972), the Official IRA launched a retaliatory campaign in Britain and Northern Ireland, the ferocity of which alienated nationalist opinion throughout Ireland. Under Goulding's lead, the Official IRA responded by declaring a conditional cease-fire, while reserving the option of ‘defensive’ or ‘retaliatory’ military actions (29 May 1972).
Thereafter Goulding and other Official leaders were severely critical of the ‘purely military campaign’ of the Provisionals, which they characterised as sectarian, fascist, counter-productive, and devoid of a political strategy. Their gradualist approach to Irish reunification precipitated another breakaway movement, the Irish Republican Socialist Party (IRSP), under Séamus Costello (qv), launched in December 1974, and linked to a new paramilitary body, the Irish National Liberation Army (INLA). Sporadic skirmishing, and periods of sustained and deadly feuding, continued for some years between the Official IRA and both the Provisionals and INLA.
Goulding led the army council into a momentous decision (1973) to transform the Official movement into a revolutionary vanguard political party, with a Marxist philosophy, and a Leninist organisation based on democratic centralism. He was deeply involved in the pursuant ideological and organisational evolution of Official Sinn Féin into Sinn Féin The Workers’ Party (1977) and the Workers’ Party (1982). His service for many years on the party's ard-comhairle (national executive) fuelled allegations that the party retained links with the Official IRA, and was partly financed by army criminality. In the late 1970s he initiated another sweeping ideological reassessment, which identified southern Ireland's increasing dependence on non-British (chiefly American) sources of foreign investment (thereby implying disparate economic interests between the republic and NI), and outlined a programme of defending and expanding the public sector. Akin to the contemporaneous Eurocommunist parties, with which it established fraternal links, the Workers’ Party attracted mounting electoral support in the republic through the 1980s. Goulding vigorously resisted the ideological revisionism within the party stimulated by the Gorbachev reforms in the USSR and the subsequent disintegration of the Soviet Union. The dissension culminated in the defection of six of the party's seven TDs to form the breakaway Democratic Left (DL) (1992). Accusing the defectors of abandoning socialism in the opportunistic pursuit of short-term political power, he regarded DL's entry into a coalition government led by Fine Gael (1994), and its subsequent merger with the Labour Party (December 1998), as vindication of his critique.
A small, intense man, both convivial and philosophical in temper, Goulding was a self-deprecating raconteur, with a boisterous sense of humour, who revelled in company and conversation. He married (c.1950) Patty Germaine, from whom he eventually separated; they had one son, Cathal Óg Goulding. In the 1960s he had a relationship with Beatrice Behan (qv), the widow of Brendan; they had a son, Paudge Behan. He lived for twenty years (1971–91) with Moira Woods, a feminist doctor, and her six children by previous relationships; they had one son and one daughter, Aodhgán and Banbán Goulding Woods. In his latter years he spent much time in a small house at Myshall, Co. Carlow, beneath Mt Leinster. Ill for a lengthy period with cancer and other health problems, he died 26 December 1998 at St James's hospital, Dublin.