The Irish Game by Matthew Hart

Ireland is a relatively small country. In fact, it’s square mileage is almost 27,000 less square miles than my home state of Georgia, USA. I remember a conversation I had with a couple of girls from Ireland. I was amazed to hear that you could drive across the entire country in about three hours.


Yet for such a small area, Matthew Hart, in his book The Irish Game, portrays Ireland as being host to some of the most monumental art thefts of the 20th Century.  His story centers around the grand estate of Russborough House, an art museum that has been robbed at least the four times mentioned in his book.


Russborough House, Russborough, Blessington, Co. Wicklow, Ireland

   Hart paints a picture of the seedy underbelly of Ireland. The main focus of his story is the tale of the second robbery on the estate. This robbery occurred in May of 1986 and was orchestrated by one of Ireland’s most devious mob leaders, Martin Cahill.

Martin Cahill
Matin Cahill, Irish mob boss behind the May 1986 robbery at Russburough House

Cahill is depicted by Hart as having a contempt for the police. He is pictured as thriving on finding ways to make the police, or garda,  look stupid. And that he accomplished. You will find in this book the account of how the police were actually inside Russborough House while Cahill and his gang looted the place. You will also read about the undercover recovery operation that was blown when the operative forgot to ditch a memo printed on official letterhead.


It took many men collaborating over a 7 year period to recover the paintings that Martin Cahill, stole on that spring night in 1986. Their trials and methods over this span make for an interesting story, a story that Matthew Hart relays to us in great detail.


Hart obviously did lots of research and knew his topic well before he set to the task of writing this book. He peppers his pages with excerpts and quips from interviews he conducted along the way. I especially enjoyed this small bit from an interview with Chief Superintendent Sean Feely in the early pages the book:


“As we came up the drive” Feely told me. “I remember saying to our man at the wheel ‘This could be big.’ Well, it was the biggest robbery in the world at that time. But nobody would believe me when I called headquarters and said a million pounds’ worth of painting had been stolen. ‘There’s not a million pounds worth of paintings in the whole of Ireland’ They said. So I said, “OK, make it half a million.'” – Page 15


That being said, sometimes I felt like Hart was  giving a little too much information or backstory. For example: I did enjoy reading about the Boston heiress, Isabella Gardner, and her art collection/ museum. However, I felt that reading her whole life story (beginning almost 150 years before the heart of this book takes place) was a little distracting. Though her influence in the art world is obvious, I think Hart could have done a better job of showing how it was connected to the tale of The Irish Game. This was not the only time when he got off on a tangent, that while interesting, didn’t seem to belong or distracted from his main premise.


I do feel like I learned a lot from this book and was entertained while reading it. Hart spins of a tale that involves classic Hollywood themes of art theft, mob bosses, and cat & mouse capers. He puts dates and facts with these so often romanticized themes and still manages to leave the reader with a feeling of intrigue and maybe a touch of glamour.  I leave you with a few lines from his preface, that indicate what you will discover in the pages of this book:


“The story that follows, which began in a great mansion in the Irish countryside, reveals what high prices have created — an underworld bazaar with a ravenous appetite for art. ”


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