THE coffins carrying departed members of Boston's Irish-American clan back across the Atlantic for burial in the land of their fathers were unusually heavy. But no one suspected a thing.
"We were able to get at least five rifles, a couple of handguns, and some ammunition under a corpse," recalled Patrick Nee, an IRA sympathiser and lieutenant of the infamous Boston gangster James 'Whitey' Bulger. "Caskets were ideal for smuggling."
While enforcing a murderous protection racket around the city's south side, Bulger and Nee's Irish-American mob were also running guns to the boys back home.
Bulger (83) is likely to spend his final days in jail after finally being convicted of carrying out 11 murders and leading a lucrative crime network before going on the run from the FBI for 16 years, last week.
His two-month trial shed light on the unique underworld of 'Southie', the blue-collar district where prosecutors told the jury at Boston's federal courthouse that he and his Winter Hill Gang "ran amok".
Yet it was his support for the republican campaign against Margaret Thatcher's government more than 3,000 miles away that led directly to one of the most gruesome killings of his career.
Nee, who moved to Boston as a boy from Galway, was excused from testifying after indicating he would exercise his right not to incriminate himself. But in a memoir, he revealed the full details of the murder, and how it came about after the gang organised one of the biggest weapons shipments to the IRA.
"Whitey loved being associated with the IRA and the cause of Irish freedom," Nee recalled 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."
Living on streets dotted with IRA murals and drinking in pubs where hats were passed round to raise money for the families of IRA prisoners, Bulger's enforcers saw themselves as freedom fighters as much as gangsters. "I was a criminal with a passion: to drive the British out of Ireland," added Nee.
Early on, thousands of dollars taken during the gang's shakedowns of bookmakers were funnelled to Ireland through a representative of Noraid, the Irish republican charity in the US.
However, Bulger was urged to think bigger by Joe Cahill, one of the Provisional IRA's founders, during a meeting at The Three Os, the gang's favourite pub, nicknamed 'The Bucket of Blood'. Cahill, banned from the US over a conviction for murdering a policeman in Belfast in the 1940s, was sneaked into Boston on a coach full of fans returning from an ice hockey match in Canada.
"Lads," Cahill told them, after showing a propaganda video of British troops and RUC officers firing rubber bullets at crowds, "we need your help." Soon they were shipping 30 rifles, 25 pistols, 10 blocks of C-4 plastic explosive and 2,500 rounds of ammunition to Ireland under the false floor of a Dodge van.
The mission's success thrilled the gang and made them more ambitious. One Sunday in 1983 Bulger, Nee and others met John Crawley, a 26-year-old IRA man who had returned to Ireland after serving in an elite unit of the US Marines. They hatched a plan to buy a boat, fill it with weapons and sail it all the way to Ireland.
One September night in 1984, the shipment was loaded on to a fishing boat the gang had bought and renamed Valhalla, after the heavenly destination for martyrs of combat in Norse mythology.
The core gang had been joined by a handful of newcomers, including John McIntyre, a 31-year-old marine mechanic and drug smuggler. His loose tongue after a few drinks worried the older mobsters, but they accepted that given his seafaring expertise, "he was the guy with balls enough to cross the Atlantic".
Six vans delivered the weapons to the dock in Gloucester, 35 miles north-east of Boston. Finally, three minutes after midnight, the crew set sail.
Following a terrible journey, the weapons were transferred to an Irish boat, which was intercepted by Irish authorities after a tip-off from a British mole inside the IRA.
The Valhalla got away and back to Boston. But the very next day, the gang's problems began.
McIntyre was caught trying to enter his estranged wife's house. When police logged his details, an outstanding drink-driving charge showed up. Near breaking point after his harrowing six-week boat trip, and facing a weekend in the cells, he started to talk.
"I'd like to get out of here," he pleaded.
"And I'd just like to start living a normal life." Soon he was telling police the story of the Valhalla.
Unfortunately for him, as word of his disclosures spread through US agencies, it reached John Connolly, an FBI man who was running Bulger as an informant against rival gangsters. He promptly tipped off the mob boss.
McIntyre was lured to Nee's brother's house on the pretext of delivering beer to a party. Dragged to the basement, he was chained to a chair by Bulger, who demanded to know what he had disclosed, while a rope was tightened around his neck.
Eventually the torture from Bulger, who was waving his MAC-10 machine pistol, became too much, according to another mobster, Kevin Weeks, who gave evidence at Bulger's trial last month. "Jim says to him, 'do you want one in the head?'," he recalled. "And he says, 'yes, please'."
After Bulger obliged, McIntyre's teeth were extracted with pliers to prevent identification. Bulger "had to go upstairs and lie down" after "the release of sexual excitement from killing exhausted him," claimed Nee, who dug a 5ft hole in the ground and buried the body, which was only found 16 years later.
Bulger was last week convicted of killing McIntyre and 10 others during his reign as king of Boston's underworld, which ended in 1994 when, tipped off by Connolly that he was about to be arrested, he fled for California, where he was found hiding in 2011.
Weeks, who testified extensively against Bulger, his former boss, spent five years in jail for drug and racketeering offences, but is now free.
Nee, who was jailed for his part in the Valhalla mission, still lives in South Boston.
He denies persistent rumours that he too is a protected FBI mole. (© Daily Telegraph, London)