'Whitey' Bulger and the FBI deal that opened up Boston to the IRA

In a plot involving the late Joe Cahill, a book on the life of James ‘Whitey’ Bulger claims the FBI was soft on the IRA in the…

In a plot involving the late Joe Cahill, a book on the life of James ‘Whitey’ Bulger claims the FBI was soft on the IRA in the 1980s

The FBI agreed to turn a blind eye to the IRA gun-running activities of one of most notorious gangsters in the US in return for his agreement to inform on Italian Mafia families in New England, according to an account of the life of James ‘Whitey’ Bulger, due to be published early next month.

The Boston Globe reporters Kevin Cullen and Shelley Murphy, who have co-authored the book Whitey Bulger, say the deal paved the way for a lengthy relationship between the IRA and Boston-based Irish-American criminals. Their efforts included an ill-fated attempt to smuggle a boat-load of arms and explosives to Ireland in the 1980s.

Central to the plot was the late Joe Cahill, the commander of the Provisional IRA in Belfast, who in recent years has been promoted by Sinn Féin as a key facilitator of the peace process. The authors say Bulger’s associates four times smuggled Cahill into the US. On one occasion Cahill met Bulger in a Boston bar and encouraged him to send weapons to the IRA.


Bulger was deeply involved in criminality with the city’s Irish mob, running protection rackets aimed at drug dealers, loan sharks and those involved in illegal gambling. Bulger is believed to have been the inspiration for the Jack Nicholson character in the movie The Departed.

In 1975, Bulger agreed to become an FBI informer and was largely left alone by the authorities, who were mostly interested in what he knew about rival Mafia gangs. In 1994, his FBI handler tipped him off about an impending indictment and he fled Boston. For 12 of the next 16 years Bulger was on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list. In June 2011, Bulger, by then 81 years old, was recaptured in Santa Monica, California, and returned to Boston, where he now faces charges of involvement in 19 murders.

His FBI handler, John Connolly, acceded to Bulger’s precondition not to investigate his IRA activity when he signed him up as an informer, but this wasn’t, according to the authors, the only example of the FBI being soft on the IRA.

In the early 1980s, another FBI agent gave Bulger more than 18kg of powerful C-4 plastic explosives for the IRA, which were then smuggled to Ireland in a van.

Bulger, notorious as a gangland killer and operative, idolised few people, “but Joe Cahill was one”, write the authors. “And when Cahill insisted on going to south Boston to meet him, Whitey was flattered. ‘Jimmy really looked up to Cahill,’ said Bulger protege Kevin Weeks. ‘Cahill was a legend.’ ”


Cahill was smuggled to Boston from Canada disguised as a hockey fan travelling on a chartered bus from a game in Montreal. He met Bulger and his associates in a bar in south Boston, where Cahill showed the mobsters an IRA propaganda video depicting victims of RUC and British Army plastic bullets. “When the movie ended,” the authors write, “Cahill flicked off the power on the TV and stood to face the assembled gangsters. ‘Lads,’ he said, folding his hands in front of him, as if he were in prayer, ‘we need your help.’ ”

One outcome of that meeting was an effort to smuggle several tons of guns and explosives by sea from Boston to the west coast of Ireland, where they would be picked up by the IRA. All the weapons were bought legally and shipped to the gangsters by mail; the boat used to transport them, the Valhalla, was part of a fleet of boats used by one of the gangsters to ferry marijuana up the east coast of the US.

Unknown to Bulger, when the Valhalla set sail, in September 1984, it had already been betrayed by Sean O’Callaghan, a senior Garda spy in the IRA’s Southern Command. The Marita Ann, the IRA boat sent to meet the Valhalla, was intercepted off the west coast by the Irish Navy. The Marita Ann’s crew, including the current TD for Kerry North-West Limerick, Martin Ferris, were arrested.

The crew of the Valhalla were also arrested on their return to Boston, where Bulger tortured and killed a member of the crew he suspected of informing on other aspects of his activities.

The authors claim O’Callaghan betrayed the Valhalla because he feared that Ferris suspected he was an informer. They write: “Too many missions that had O’Callaghan’s fingerprints on them had been compromised. Besides, O’Callaghan didn’t like Ferris and considered him a bully. Their extended families were close, but O’Callaghan despised Ferris as one of the IRA’s top recruiters, someone who talked young people into throwing their lives away.”

Whitey Bulger: America’s Most Wanted Gangster and the Manhunt That Brought Him To Justice, by Kevin Cullen and Shelley Murphy, is published by WW Norton