Book Review by Frank O’Shea
GILLIGAN. The Mob Boss who Changed the Face of Organized Crime. By Paul Williams. Allen & Unwin. 392 pp. $34.08
It is not often that a book describing factual material can hold your attention like a thriller or murder mystery. But Paul Williams has done it with this quite enthralling account of the life and criminal career of Dublin man John Gilligan. It really is engrossing, the kind of thing that draws you in and keeps you up at night; the difference is that what is being described are facts not fiction.
In some ways, John Gilligan is the ultimate Irish joke, a small man of limited intelligence who managed by dint of violence to persuade those around him that he was the boss. His career started with robbing factories and storage depots, on-selling his loot to people in his own working-class areas of Dublin. Television sets, vacuum cleaners, cigarettes, Adidas sportswear, Aran sweaters, even cattle drench were only some of the heists that were known about. The products were sold to his own area of Ballyfermot and surrounding suburbs like Walkinstown, Bluebell and Palmerston. While most of those buying from him were probably innocent, it is difficult to believe that there was not an awareness that the bargains they were purchasing were stolen goods.
While all this was going on, other criminals were taking advantage of the legal system and the easygoing government attention to crime – this was, after all, Catholic Ireland. Martin Cahill, known as the General was swaggering around Rathmines and Rathgar, teasing the Gardai that he was untouchable. The name of Christy Kinahan was appearing in the news and of course the IRA and INLA were carrying on their own forms of lawlessness. If there is one thing that a reader may take from this book, it is that Sinn Féin have a long way to go before they can persuade ordinary citizens that they were not part of this lawlessness.
In 1990, Gilligan was given a four-year sentence, not for his part in organising and carrying out the various burglaries, but for receiving stolen goods. His time was spent in the E1 wing of Portlaoise Prison, the state’s highest-security prison unit. He and his mates were kept separate from the IRA; the latter regarded these Dublin hoods as inferior, and would have nothing to do with them, except for a game of soccer organised by Gilligan towards the end of his time. For him, EI was his graduate school, where he came to realise that the big money was in drugs.
The remainder of the book deals with Gilligan’s slow build-up of a network of drug movements from the Netherlands. It was mostly hash and ecstasy, with occasional moves into cocaine, but not heroin. This was the 1990s, the tiger boom in Ireland where people had the money and the interest. Hash was imported in 100 kg loads that increased until the amount was in tonnes. Gilligan ruled with a rod of iron, threatening anyone who dared interfere or try to interfere with his business. One who did was journalist Veronica Guerin.
Once Guerin comes into the story, we are now in Lee Child or Dan Brown territory. She had the cheek to visit him in the equestrian centre set up in his wife’s name and received a physical beating from him. Refusing the huge reward if she did not pursue an assault charge, it was explained to her that her life was in danger. On June 26 1996, she was shot in her car while pulled up at traffic lights on the Naas Road. The rest of the book describes the attempts by the Gardaí to find those responsible, an effort in which they were not fully successful.
To his clear delight, the courts found Gilligan not guilty of the murder. However, he was found guilty of his involvement with drugs and was given a sentence of 28 years, about the same as he would have got if found guilty of murder. He served 17 of those years and now lives in some comfort in Spain where the local police appear to be closer to stopping his current activities.
This is a wonderful story, brilliantly told by a writer who knew Gilligan personally in his role as a journalist. Called to the scene on the Naas Road, he describes what he saw,
A few feet away, my closest professional rival, a friend, was lying in the driver’s seat of her car, dead. Her body was full of bullets and her clothes were drenched in blood. It was a dreadful sight, a memory that has not faded with time.
The murder of Veronica Guerin got the Irish government off their comfortable seats. They set up the Criminal Assets Bureau, the CAB, copied since then by other jurisdictions, though even this did not prevent Gilligan challenging everything, using free legal aid. The role of the Gardaí is fully described, often leaving the reader fuming at how their hands were tied and how the criminals were able to use the law to their advantage.
My first nomination for book of the year.
Frank is a member of the Tintean editorial collective.