American Gangster: 'Whitey' Bulger and the Irish Mob
Chillingly brought to the screen by Johnny Depp, the extraordinary story of James Bulger sheds a light on the secret history of the Irish-American mob
Johnny Depp is no stranger to portraying outlandish characters but even by the actor's mercurial standards his latest role is especially larger than life.
In Black Mass, just released in the US and opening here in late November, Depp plays James 'Whitey' Bulger, an Irish-American mobster who spies for the FBI, consorts with the IRA and smuggles guns to the old country inside coffins. It sounds preposterous - but everything depicted in the movie is absolutely true.
Currently serving time for 11 murders, the real Bulger (83) has become the public face of a curiously obscure phenomenon, the Irish-American gangster. Where the Mafia and Italian-American identity remain inextricably connected - to the annoyance of many upstanding members of that community - the prominence of Irish-Americans in the US criminal underworld is underplayed, no matter that for much of the 20th century they were arguably as influential as, and often considerably more ruthless than, the Cosa Nostra.
In the case of Bulger, who personally beat several of his victims to death, notoriety was interwoven with a Robin Hood populism.
Among the Irish-American 'southies' of impoverished South Boston, Bulger was perceived as folk hero as much as ne'er-do-well (his brother William was actually a state senator). He also supported the IRA at the height of its campaign - another plus in "Irish" Boston, as made clear in Black Mass (released in Ireland in November).
"He lived a frugal lifestyle and used to give old ladies a lift home with their shopping. Everyone knew he was a criminal, but would say, 'isn't he such a good boy'," recounted Boston journalist Kevin Cullen of Bulger on the publication of his 2013 book Whitey Bulger: America's Most Wanted Gangster and the Manhunt That Brought Him to Justice.
"Even those who knew about his darker side would say 'he's a son of a bitch, but he is our son of a bitch'."
His relationship with the IRA went beyond mere tankard-clinking. Widely feared across Boston, Bulger himself looked up to IRA chief of staff Joe Cahill, whom he helped smuggle into the US by arranging for him to pose as a Canadian ice-hockey fan.
To further prove his fealty, in 1983 he dispatched a boat with rifles, pistols and explosives worth $500,000 from Boston to Ireland. The shipment was intercepted by gardai on a tip-off and the bust poisoned Bulger's long-term relationship with Republicans.
The twist is that, all the while, Bulger was in cahoots with the FBI. As the authorities ratcheted up their campaign against organised crime, the Feds had come to view the Italian mob as the overwhelming threat. Thus a bargain was struck with Bulger: he would be allowed to run his extortion and racketeering empire unhindered in return for snooping on his rivals.
That he was widely known to be in the pay of the Feds was for many years glossed over around South Boston and he was free to oversee a bloody fiefdom as much as he saw fit.
This he did with notable brutality, typical of Irish-American gangsters who, since the mid 1800s, had cultivated a reputation for cruelty that surpassed even that of the Mafia.
There is indeed a case that the hard-punching Irishman was the original American Gangster. Even the word 'mob' has Irish-American origins, deriving from a 'mob primary', rigged elections held in the Five Points Irish slum of Lower Manhattan in the late 19th century. As brought memorably to the screen by Scorsese in Gangs Of New York, this was the golden age of the Irish crime lord - figures such as John 'Ole Smoke' Morrissey of New York's Bowery, Owen 'Killer' Madden, owner of the notorious Cotton Club in Hell's Kitchen and 'King' Mike McDonald, controller of the red light trade in Chicago.
"Operating on the wrong side of the law quickly served as an outlet for many an Irishman with savvy, muscles and guts," wrote film lecturer Stephen Farrell in his essay 'The Return of the Irish-American Gangster to the Silver Screen'. "Bootlegging and drug pushing were both enterprises for the future so the early Irish fire-plug thugs earned their upkeep through stealing, pimping and hiring out to ward bosses on election day; the brightest of these lads graduating into the ranks of big-time gambling: cards, dice and horse racing."
"The main reason behind the rise of the Irish gangster was simple economics," says Patrick Downey, author of true crime books such as Gangster City: The History of the New York Underworld 1900-1935. "They, the Jews and the Italians were coming in by the boat loads, were poor and filled the ghettos and that is where gangsters are spawned."
By the early 20th century and the advent of Prohibition, the Irish were challenging the Italians for the title of American's most ferocious criminals. Joseph Kennedy, father of JFK, earned his millions in part from booze-running while Al Capone's big rivals for control of Chicago was Dean O'Banion's Northside Gang, whom Capone attempted to wipe out in the infamous St Valentine's Day Massacre.
Bulger differed from his criminal forerunners in one crucial respect - his overt support for the IRA. Previously, Irish Republicanism had been of passing interest to Irish-American gangsters, more interested in growing rich in the new world than worrying about freedom in the old country.
The outbreak of the Troubles, however, triggered a fresh wave of Irish American sympathy - and, raised with stories of English oppression, Bulger (whose family was of Newfoundland-Irish stock) was determined to play his part in the 'struggle'.
"Whitey loved being associated with the IRA and the cause of Irish freedom," recalled Patrick Nee, Bulger's Galway-born lieutenant in his book, Criminal and an Irishman, The Inside Story of the Boston Mob and the IRA. "I think he liked the legitimacy a political cause gave him."
Ultimately the circumstances that facilitated Bulger's rise also led to his downfall. As it became widespread knowledge around Boston that he was in cahoots with the FBI, so his reputation as the people's champion suffered. The IRA, especially, went cool on him.
His downfall, when it finally came, was swift and unforgiving. By the early 2000s, his relationship with the Feds having unravelled and with many in his community turned against him, Bulger was on the run. In June 2011, after a decade-long manhunt, he was finally apprehended in California. By then he was America's second most wanted man, trailing only Osama Bin Laden.
Seemingly destined to live out his days behind bars, Bulger represents the last of his kind. With increased prosperity and assimilation, Irish-American crime has dwindled away. "I don't think there was anything particular to the Irish gangs other than common heritage," says Patrick Downey.
"You don't really hear about Irish gangs anymore. The ethnic gangs you are more likely to hear about are the Russians, perhaps some other eastern European gangs, and of course the Latin American drug cartels."