The Viper’s life
Martin Foley, the 64-year-old criminal known as the Viper, was thought to have turned over a new leaf. Then he was arrested over a row in a jewellery shop
Viper: Martin Foley with the fang-like handlebar moustache that gave him his nickname. Photograph: Collins
Confrontation: Martin Foley reacts to a journalist in 2012. Photograph: Sunday World
Associate: Martin Cahill, aka the General, with whom Foley fell out
Attack: the scene of Foley’s shooting, outside the Carlisle Health & Fitness Club in Kimmage, Dublin, in 2008. Photograph: Eric Luke
The circumstances of this week’s arrest of Martin Foley, the criminal also known as the Viper, mirrored much of his criminal past: chaotic, unusual and covered by the media in detail.
As a young man Foley became a member of the infamous gang headed by Martin Cahill, also known as the General. Foley has survived no fewer than five assassination attempts and was once kidnapped by an IRA gang, only to be freed after the paramilitaries shot it out with gardaí in the middle of Dublin.
Along with Cahill, Foley faced down Concerned Parents Against Drugs – which Cahill’s gang claimed was wrongly accusing “ordinary decent criminals” of drug dealing – by establishing the absurdly titled Concerned Criminals Action Committee.
Although most of the men Foley began his criminal life with are dead or in prison, Foley remains fit and healthy. He is regularly seen cycling around his native Dublin and frequents the gym. Two months ago, at the age of 64, he became a father for the third time. A widower for 12 years, Foley married the 38-year-old mother of his third and youngest child last year, in the Canary Islands.
Last Tuesday Foley was involved in a disturbance at a jeweller’s in the Ilac Shopping Centre in Dublin’s north inner city. He was pinned down by security guards who ran from other shops, and was eventually taken into Garda custody. The shop owner and his wife have alleged that Foley and an associate falsely imprisoned them during the row in the shop.
The altercation was over a piece of jewellery Foley had given to the shop to sell on his behalf. The item was subsequently stolen in what appears to have been a sham credit-card purchase by a con man. The allegation of false imprisonment, if proven, carries a tariff of up to life imprisonment.
Originally from Derry
Born on November 24th, 1951, Foley was one of five children whose Derry parents moved south and settled in the Dublin suburb of Crumlin, where he still lives. While he served his time as a tyre fitter, he was regarded as a rough diamond and ladies’ man who built a reputation as a capable street fighter in his teens. He was feared by his peers in Dublin in the 1950s and 1960s.
The first of his 40 convictions was recorded when Foley was 16. He was given the Probation Act for being drunk and disorderly. At the age of 17 he was convicted of larceny and receiving stolen goods.
His first contact with Martin Cahill was when Cahill’s family were transferred to a new council house on Captain’s Road in Crumlin when Cahill was 11 and Foley two years younger. The Cahills would soon be evicted for rent arrears, and Martin Cahill was incarcerated in the Daingean industrial school for some of the period when the family lived on Captain’s Road. But it was around this time that their friendship began. It endured until shortly before Cahill’s murder, probably at the hands of the Provisional IRA, in 1994.
As the early days of the Troubles stretched Garda resources to the limit, Cahill’s gang – including Foley as enforcer and armed robber – blazed a trail for cash-in-transit and bank robberies, art and jewellery heists, and hitting company payrolls and factories containing cash or any resalable commodity.
More than £90,000 was stolen in a 1974 raid on a van delivering money to a supermarket in Rathfarnham, in south Dublin.
In 1982 John Traynor, a close associate of the criminal John Gilligan, supplied information to the Cahill gang on the O’Connor’s jewellery manufacturing facility in Harold’s Cross, in south Dublin.
In the summer of the following year Foley and Cahill were the key figures in a 10-man gang that stole more than £2 million in jewels after taking staff hostage at gunpoint. The scale of the theft was staggering at the time, and helped make the gang one of the Garda’s top priorities.
In 1984, when the Concerned Parents Against Drugs group wrongly blamed Foley and his associates of dealing drugs, Martin Cahill established the Concerned Criminal Action Committee. Led by Foley, it marched on the homes of members of the parents’ group. Eventually a truce was called between the two groups, after Foley was sent to negotiate with the parents’ group, which had been infiltrated by republican elements.
In March 1984 Foley was abducted from his house by an IRA gang. He was beaten, handcuffed and tied, and bundled into the back of a van. A witness telephoned the Garda, which followed the van. A shoot-out ensued between the gardaí and the gang, climaxing in the Phoenix Park, where Foley was freed. He later gave incriminating evidence to the Garda about his abductors, who were convicted despite Foley withdrawing his evidence.
When Paddy Shanahan, a middle-class criminal from Co Kildare, came to the Cahill gang in 1986 with the idea of stealing Dutch masters paintings, owned by Sir Alfred Beit, from Russborough House, in Co Wicklow, it was Foley he approached.
In December 1987 the Garda put seven of the Cahill gang under intense overt surveillance, to frustrate their work. The Garda’s Tango Squad, as it became known, would camp outside their houses and stop and search them on the street, sometimes repeatedly within a few hundred metres.
The operation attracted much media attention. The RTÉ journalist Brendan O’Brien, of the Today Tonight programme, doorstepped Cahill as he walked out of a labour exchange and asked him about the Beit paintings. In this well-known interview Cahill replied that he was working as a private detective on the case and was “on standby with Martin Foley to get those paintings back”.
Within weeks of the Tango Squad putting him under close surveillance Foley had assaulted two gardaí. One he knocked out with a punch that broke his jaw; the other he threatened with a loaded crossbow.
Now 36 years old and the father of two girls, Foley had 31 convictions, many for traffic offences, but also for receiving stolen property, obstructing gardaí, possession of house-breaking implements, assaulting a garda, and possession of an offensive weapon. He was jailed for two years for breaking the garda’s jaw, a trial he had to be extradited from the UK for, after he fled there. He was put on trial at the Special Criminal Court, which has no jury and is reserved for serious gangland figures and subversives – both categories regarded as posing a high risk of threatening and intimidating juries.
In Portloaise Prison Foley shared a cell with Seamus “Shavo” Hogan, who was attacked in jail on the orders of Martin Cahill, who suspected he was an informer. The attack drove a wedge between Foley and Cahill, and their relationship never recovered.Cahill was shot dead in August 1994. Paddy Shanahan was shot dead two months later.
In December 1995 Foley himself was shot as he got into his car in the Fatima Mansions complex in Rialto, in Dublin. He was wounded in the arm and stomach but survived. In 1996 Foley was shot at again, sustaining wounds in the back and on one of his fingers.
It appears that, on this occasion, John Gilligan believed that Foley had been spreading rumours in the underworld, picked up by the IRA, that Gilligan was dealing heroin. He ordered the hit on Foley.
Foley would later take an unsuccessful legal challenge against a newspaper report that had suggested he was dealing in cannabis from the mid 1990s.
In September 2000 there was another attempt on his life. He was ambushed after leaving the swimming pool of Terenure College and shot in the ankle. The bullet travelled up his leg and exited at his kneecap.
Around the same time he was presented with a bill for almost £160,000 for unpaid taxes and bogus social welfare claims by the Criminal Assets Bureau.
The following June, when a stolen vehicle rammed the door of Russborough House and a gang of criminals stole paintings value at about £2.5 million, Foley and Shavo Hogan were the chief suspects. Hogan was shot dead the following month, outside the Transport Club in Crumlin, while on his way there for a drink with his wife.
The Russborough House paintings were later recovered, and a number of people were jailed for their role in the robbery. Foley was not among them.
Foley’s wife Pauline died from cancer in 2003. When the Sunday World photographed him at the funeral with his daughters, a dispute between Foley and the newspaper began. When a hoax explosive device was found under one journalist’s car Foley was the chief suspect. He was arrested but never charged.
He would later go to the High Court, unsuccessfully seeking orders to prevent media coverage of him suggesting that he was an informer and that he was was paying protection money to the IRA to allow him to deal cannabis. He said that this was untrue and that it put his life at risk.
Foley became involved in localised feuding in the Crumlin area over the Terenure College hit in 2000. That resulted in another attempt on his life, in January 2008, when he was shot and wounded several times outside the Carlisle Health & Fitness Club in Kimmage, south Dublin.
Again he survived. The men behind the attack were involved in a separate gun feud, which has since run its course because the main players are either all dead or in prison. Foley has kept a lower profile since then.
He opened a debt-collection agency using his Viper nickname – which he originally earned because of the fang-like shape of his old handlebar moustache – but it has since closed. There were allegations that he was threatening people menacingly when collecting debts on behalf of others.
In recent years he had helped broker a peace deal between feuding factions. Now remarried with a young child, Martin Foley appeared to have turned over a new leaf until the incident this week. It leaves him facing a serious investigation in his 65th year.