The life of an IRA gunrunner: ‘I was in a corner in a dark basement with Whitey Bulger’

Former US Marine John Crawley recalls difficult conversations with Martin McGuinness and uncomfortable encounters with Boston gangster James ‘Whitey’ Bulger

Former IRA man John Crawley at his home in Clones, Co Monaghan. Photograph: Philip Fitzpatrick

Former IRA gunrunner John Crawley says he used to meet Martin McGuinness in the 1980s in the Botanic Gardens in Dublin to discuss operations. They brought peanuts and fed the squirrels, he says. They also talked about guns and building the IRA’s arsenal of weapons.

Forty years ago, when the paramilitary group was waging full-scale guerrilla attacks, McGuinness ordered the then young Irish-American to travel to the United States to buy weapons in gun stores, believing Crawley’s American accent would not attract attention.

In his new memoir, The Yank, Crawley described himself as “crestfallen” at that point. He had left Ireland as a teenager to join the US Marine Corps, serving from 1975 to 1979 and rising within its ranks to join a special forces unit. His plan was to return to Ireland and join the IRA. As he saw it, he would be fighting to end British occupation and attempting to make his dream of a 32-county republic a reality.

But McGuinness seemed only interested in his accent, not his training. For Crawley, this was his first clue, confirmed over his years in the IRA, that his military training was “a complete waste of time” and that the leadership did not have “the slightest interest in anything I had to say about improving our organisational, logistical and training skills and abilities,” he writes.


In an interview with The Irish Times, he says he suspects efforts were made for years to “keep a cap” on the IRA within the republican movement, claiming there was an unwillingness to upskill, train and develop its military capabilities.

Crawley says he does not want to “point fingers” but says some people were appointed who were “considered a safe pair of hands by the leadership, somebody who could carry stories back, somebody who would toe the line.”

These people, he says, were individuals who did not have the “technical ability or tactical competence” to push ahead with the armed campaign Crawley believed the IRA could engage in.

He just says to me: look, it will just take you eight hours longer to die if you put that (survival) suit on

He paints a picture of an organisation that was “very badly led and very badly organised”. He regarded as exceptions the East Tyrone IRA unit, led by Jim Lynagh who was killed in an SAS ambush during an IRA attack on Loughall RUC base in 1987, and the “tight as a drum” South Armagh IRA unit that had “completed boxed in” the British army.

But the overall intention, in his view, was deliberate: “Keep the pot simmering but don’t ever let it boil over — that would lead to a British reaction that could bring in internment and take out people in positions who didn’t want to lose those positions,” he says.

“I firmly believe that. I have loads of evidence for that. I can’t write it in the book because I would have to incriminate people, which I am not going to do.”

Former IRA man John Crawley at his home in Co.Monaghan. Photograph: Philip Fitzpatrick/The Irish Times

Few books about the IRA delve into the operational detail that Crawley covers in The Yank. His accounts of activity along the Border highlight the inexperience of some he fought with, and his own close shave with death after he says he shot a British soldier. On that incident, Crawley does not want to discuss it beyond what is in the book: “I push the boat out there and I don’t want to push it out any further.”

Crawley goes into greater detail about his interactions with the notorious Boston-based Irish-American gangster James “Whitey” Bulger, an IRA sympathiser who helped source weapons for the organisation.

Crawley arrived in Boston with half of a five-dollar note, torn in an erratic formation; the other half was in the possession of a contact who would help him when he arrived. This contact, he says, directed him to Bulger. Crawley was initially “extremely uncomfortable” dealing with Bulger’s gang and told McGuinness as much. He says the reply was: “Little old ladies in Noraid can’t get us M60 machine guns” — a reference to the US group that began sending money back to dependents of IRA prisoners and others shortly after the start of the Troubles.

“I wasn’t very interested in the criminal underworld except what they could do for us. Buying guns was illegal so we had to have somebody who was willing to break the law to do it. They say, ‘Needs must when the devil drives,’ and that’s what we had to do,” says Crawley.

From their first meeting, Crawley remembers Bulger as being immaculately dressed, intelligent and well-spoken. He was polite and respectful, but demanded respect in return.

“If he got any hint at all that that was wavering, he would snap back,” he says.

“He didn’t project an air of menace, like the movies show an air of menace every moment of the film. He didn’t come across like that, but I would find that menace in him in later stages.”

On one occasion, Crawley says he found himself alone in a dimly lit basement of a South Boston house with Whitey and his henchman Steve Flemmi. A wave of paranoia swept over him as he was drilled on serial numbers on weapons in preparation for an arms shipment to Ireland.

“I was in a corner in a dark basement with two very dangerous guys who could have taken me out of it like that. I just remember thinking at the time: don’t be cornered again. While I was talking to them, I remember thinking: I wish one of these guns was loaded,” he says.

The last time Crawley saw Bulger was at a dock in Boston when he boarded The Valhalla boat in September 1984 with a shipment of 160 guns and 71,000 rounds of ammunition to be transported across the Atlantic for a rendezvous mid-ocean with Irish fishing trawler, the Marita Ann. The Valhalla hit a hurricane en route with huge waves causing severe damage to the boat. At one point, he suggested to the skipper that they put on survival suits they had brought with them in case the boat were to sink.

“He just says to me: look, it will just take you eight hours longer to die if you put that suit on. He was convinced we weren’t getting out of it and he was the captain,” he says.

I would not have joined the IRA if I had have known that core members of the IRA leadership weren’t on the same mission I was on

Crawley along with three others, including Martin Ferris, later a Sinn Féin TD, were arrested when the Marita Ann was intercepted by the Irish Naval Service off the Kerry coast on a tip-off by Tralee IRA informant Sean O’Callaghan. Crawley was sentenced to 10 years in Portlaoise Prison.

After his release, Crawley was arrested in London as part of an IRA team planning to bomb electricity substations and cripple power supplies to much of London and the southeast of England. He was sentenced to 35 years but later released under the terms of the 1998 Belfast Agreement.

Now 65, Crawley sits in the livingroom of his home in the Co Monaghan Border town of Clones reflecting on his time in the IRA and the 14 years he served in prison. He is “all for the peace” now but critical of the process because “it cannot lead to an Irish republic”.

He believes none of what he did was worth it, given that the chance of a 32-county republic is now, be believes, “dead in the water”.

He considers the idea of partition institutionalised on the island and believes “Westminster parliamentary supremacy is very much intact”, with a referendum for Irish unification resting in the hands of Britain’s secretary of state for Northern Ireland — “an English politician who doesn’t have one single vote in this country”. He notes that talk has turned now to “an agreed Ireland”, “a new Ireland” or “a shared island”, “but where is the Irish republic in all this?” he asks.

“It certainly wasn’t worth shooting anybody for,” he says, describing the Belfast Agreement as “an internal settlement on British terms”.

Had he known then where the situation would end today, he would never have joined the IRA, he says. Ultimately, the IRA in Belfast and Derry were “absolutely riddled with informers”, he says. The former IRA internal security head Freddie Scappaticci being described as an alleged British agent was “just the tip of the iceberg.”

Crawley challenges the view the IRA fought the British to “a stalemate” or that peace was a compromise.

“It was a defeat for the republican movement, a complete military and ideological defeat across the board that opened up career paths for certain members of the leadership but left us ideologically destroyed,” he says.

Former Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams has long denied he was a member of the IRA. Crawley says he understands the “political practicalities” behind the denials. “I can understand the political necessity of not putting yourself in prison but at the same time sometimes you just admire people who came out and said exactly what they were doing and why they were doing it,” he says.

New York-born Crawley, as US citizen, is not sure whether he can return there because of past gun-running “but the people who sent me to the US can go to the White House and eat steaks as thick as a bog bank”.

When he saw McGuinness shake hands with the late Queen Elizabeth in 2012 on television, he saw acceptance of a role for the British royal family “in perpetuity” on the island of Ireland and reflected on a stellar US military career he believes might have had.

“I remember thinking, I gave up Annapolis for this,” a reference to the invitation he says he received to attend the US Naval Academy as a young US Marine.

He says he objected to the killing of “civilians” and commercial bombings, but has no remorse for what he did in the IRA, beyond the regret of not achieving a 32-county republic.

“I can’t speak for any other former IRA man than myself but I think a lot would feel that IRA volunteers who were active took great risks with their lives and sacrificed many years — and they took lives — and they would not have done that for anything but a much higher purpose,” he says.

“I would not have joined the IRA if I had have known that core members of the IRA leadership weren’t on the same mission I was on,” he says.

“I thought we were on the same mission.”

The Yank is published by Merrion Press at €16.95

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is News Editor of The Irish Times