The arms cargo sent to the IRA by James “Whitey” Bulger in 1984 was financed by drugs money, according to one of the crime leader’s former henchmen.
The operation was foiled by the authorities, who captured the Marita Ann trawler off the Kerry coast, and arrested Martin Ferris, now a Sinn Fein TD and anti-drugs campaigner, on board.
Ferris told Radio Kerry last week he had no knowledge of who was involved on the US side of the gunrunning operation and had never come across Bulger — but it would not be expected “you’d get guns from the Legion of Mary”.
Bulger, the former Boston gang leader who was murdered in a US federal prison last week, was an IRA sympathiser who held Irish citizenship and was the proud possessor of an Irish passport.
According to Connemara-born Pat Nee, Bulger’s former partner in crime, about $1m was put up for the gunrunning operation by Joe Murray, one of the main marijuana smugglers in the Boston area in the 1980s.
In an interview in Boston some years ago, Nee revealed that Bulger donated “some arms” to the shipment but Murray paid for most of it and laid on the gunrunning boat, the Valhalla. It took the arms cargo to a point off the Kerry coast where it was transferred to the Marita Ann.
Like Nee and Bulger, Murray was of Irish descent, which was why he was asked to supply arms to the IRA. “We appealed to his Irish heritage,” said Nee, pointing out that it also made sense to use somebody with smuggling expertise to help get the weapons to Ireland.
Bulger extorted money from drug traffickers, including Murray, who had to pay him to store marijuana in South Boston. By financing the IRA arms cargo from his drugs profits, Murray was currying favour with Bulger and his gang.
Nee said he travelled to Ireland to liaise with IRA leaders about the shipment, but did not meet Ferris. In Boston he worked with Sean Crawley, a former US Marine turned IRA member. Crawley sailed on the Valhalla, and was later arrested with Ferris aboard the Marita Ann.
According to Nee, the IRA in Ireland was anxious that a boat associated with drugs not be used to ship the arms. He assured them the Valhalla, an 82ft fishing trawler, was “clean”.
Bulger and his sidekick Kevin Weeks provided security as seven tons of arms and ammunition were loaded on the Valhalla in the Massachusetts port of Gloucester. They used a radio scanner to check police calls as the boat set off early on a September morning in 1984.
Murray and his wife, Susan, flew to Ireland with Nee to be there when the arms arrived. But Nee said the IRA did not want them anywhere near where the guns and ammunition were to be brought ashore.
The gunrunning operation was blown by IRA informant Seán O’Callaghan, and the arms were seized by the Irish Naval Service and gardai. John McIntyre, who worked for Murray and was on the Valhalla, was later murdered by Bulger for co-operating with the US authorities.
Murray and Nee were among those jailed in the US for their role in the operation. In 1994, Murray was shot dead by his wife, from whom he was estranged.
In the early 1970s, IRA leader Joe Cahill visited the Triple O’s, a notorious “mob bar” in south Boston, where he met Bulger and Nee. According to Nee, Cahill said the IRA needed arms, and the Boston gangsters agreed to help. “We were criminals, which meant we had access to all kinds of weapons,” he said. Nee recalled Bulger asking Cahill how many British soldiers he had killed.
Nee later turned on Bulger after learning he was an informant for the FBI. The story helped to inspire The Departed, a Martin Scorsese film starring Jack Nicholson. Bulger was also portrayed by Johnny Depp in the 2015 movie Black Mass.
Bulger was captured after 16 years on the run in 2011, and sentenced to two life sentences for 11 murders. The 89-year-old was found beaten to death last Tuesday in his cell in a West Virginia prison.
With many thanks to: Sean Boyne, The Times and The Sunday Times for the original story.