Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Two Books on Martin Cahill - aka The General

I wrote recently on people's attitudes to the human sides of criminals. This was prompted by Frances Cahill's appearance on the Late Late Show last month to talk about her new book Martin Cahill - My Father. I found myself subsequently buying and reading her book. Given that it was a daughter writing the book I felt it prudent to get an overall balanced view, so I simultaneously purchased and read the book The General by crime journalist Paul Williams.

Surprisingly to me, there was a reasonable amount of consistency about the human side of Martin Cahill in both books. I certainly came away with the view that the man was clever, imaginative, witty, full of ironies and indeed caring for family and friends. He wasn't involved in the drug business and although he certainly injured, terrorised and robbed many people, it clearly seems true that he didn't kill anyone (although there is much evidence on a few cases where it seems he may have tried). Oddly too perhaps for an underworld figure - Cahill neither drank alcohol nor smoked and was not a high social flyer or casual womaniser.

I found both books good reads but there was much more weight and substance in the Paul Williams book. Incidentally the Williams book also inspired the movie The General - in which actor Brendan Gleeson played a great part (and does have a good resemblance facially to photos of Martin Cahill). Having said that, Frances Cahill put together an interesting inside view of Martin Cahill the family man. It's possible by reading both books to unravel a little the areas which may be a daughter's natural tendency to glorify her father. One noticable feature was also Frances Cahill's bitterness to the authorities and the policing service. In spite on the many factual consistencies between the books, there is much left unsaid in Frances Cahill's book (she claims not to know about many things her father was allegedly up to) and there are also some differences. Frances, for instance, doesn't seem to like or accept the notion of her mother and her mother's sister both being lovers of her father. Williams treats this area quite sensitively, claiming that the sisters both loved him and shared him in full understanding with each other and that both had a number of children by him. A kind of happy ménage-a-trois. Williams claims that Martin Cahill was very respectful to women and was indeed very family oriented - as Frances claims too of course.

I've also spoken to a few of my friends who knew the General - one who was a neighbour in the middle-class Cowper Downs area of Rathgar and another who was a detective at the time. From all I've learned on the man my attitude to Cahill has weaved through all sorts of thoughts. My final overall impression is one of a fairly detestable and dangerous individual to most outside his circle of friends and family, but a nonetheless complex and interesting figure. He certainly was very different to other underworld people in his era and in spite of all the ugly activity there is much ironic humour and even warm humanity in evidence. I really would recommend reading the Paul Williams book. It's quite rivetting and actually seems to come across with a balanced treatment on The General's positive and negative traits. The Frances Cahill book does offer some additional internal family insight and certain other information - but it does not present anything like a full view of the General's alleged activities (and indeed to be fair it doesn't claim to). I would certainly only recommend it as a read after having read the Williams book.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

1913 Rural Ireland...stunning colour photographs!

I visited the In Search of Ireland exhibition in Temple Bar recently. I would highly recommend it.

It's a fascinating story. Two French ladies, Madelaine Mignon-Alba and Marguerite Mespoulet, aged in their early thirties visited Ireland during May and June of 1913. They were equipped with camera equipment and the newly invented autochrome colour photographic plates. They were destined to capture the first colour photographs of Ireland and it's people. The women were recent graduates of the French based Albert Kahn foundation which aimed to document and photograph the people and places in remote parts of the World which were likely to be subject to irrevocable change in the near future. The women travelled from the Galway area gradually eastwards through the midlands and ended up on the east coast around the Meath area. They seem to have avoided Dublin city and other large towns and were concentrating on the rural people, their appearance, lifestyle and landscape.

When we think of the rural Irish people in the early 1900s the images we have are invariably in B&W. To see the faces and garments of the local people in full colour gives a whole new dimension. I was completely blown away by the exhibition for number of reasons....

The notes and observations made by the French women were just as impressive as the colour images. What came across to me very much was that although many of the country folk were shy of the visitors with their cameras they still warmed to them. I think that being women and French made a difference. They were not a threat as part of any landlord system and the French were traditionally friends of Ireland at least in their common opposition to the British (the enemy of my enemy is my friend!). The intended photography was not part of any oppressive agenda. Nobody photographed was trying to either impress or be obstructive. Indeed - in spite of the 10 second exposure requiring people to be a bit still and stiff -the people appeared really natural in their genuine daily lives.

Madelaine and Marguerite noticed some women with a very dark haired and Hispanic look and postulated that the strong past Spanish Armada connections with Ireland would have produced this genetic feature. I smile to myself at this as we Irish today often think that the recent arrival of settling immigrants is unique in our history.

One of the photos which really wowed me was that of the young dark haired woman with the bright red shawl. On first glance at the girl's features in this amazing colour photograph she could easily pass for a Leaving Cert student in Ireland today. On closer inspection of the photograph the life of hardship does show...her hands and fingers are toughened and nails are grimy from hard manual work and indeed the same could be said about her bare feet. Her teeth look yellowy and in need of modern care!

Although the photographers were in Ireland in the summer months they were greeted with very high winds and much rain throughout their visit which was a painful parallel to the tough, bleak and often tragic lifestyles which they encountered. Some of the notes mention the baron nature of Connemara and the often wide separation of tiny isolated dwellings a well as the presence of typhoid and other sicknesses. They do however also mention some of the stories of the people and their simple optimism. One little story about stones and a cure for headaches stuck a personal reminder for me of the type of tales and cures my paternal granny (who was from a rural background) used to tell me when I was a child. We really are not so far separated from this type of Ireland..and seeing colour photographs of the early 1900s does bring this to mind even more.

There are 54 photos in the collection and plenty of interesting accompanying notes. I would dearly love to read all the notes that these ladies took on their visit, it would make for a great publication. It was not possible to buy any copies of the photographs and photography in the exhibition was not allowed. I did however naughtily sneak a rushed and blurred phone camera shot of the wall print of the girl with the red shawl. It was poor quality.

Update 28 Feb 2011: An Italian visitor to the same exhbition took a much better photo (shown above) and as he kindly said in comments below - this photo should belong to the Irish people. So thank you Gianni, your photo is wonderful. It is terrific to share an image of the first ever colour photo of a young rural Irish girl in 1913. From another comment on my blog it seems the girl's name was Mian Kelly, then aged about 15. Mian passed away in 1973 aged 75. Mian was also a grandmother of another commenter below.

I've since then purchased the full book "The Wonderful World of Albert Kahn: Colour Photographs from a Lost Age". It's available via bookstores or on Amazon. It includes great photos from around the World at the time and a fascinating selection from the Irish visit - including the above.