Johnny Depp's Black Mass, the IRA gunrunner Bulger and me - by Ivan Little
The cult actor's latest movie Black Mass portrays the life of notorious American gangster and IRA gunrunner James 'Whitey' Bulger. But Ivan Little, who has reported on the case, was in for a shock when he saw the film in the cinema
The scene in Johnny Depp's latest movie was set in a dark and smoky Irish bar in Boston. US mobster and ruthless killer James 'Whitey' Bulger and IRA leader Joe Cahill were discussing a plan to ship hundreds of guns and grenades to the Provos in Ireland.
But the discussions in the private room of the Triple O's pub were suddenly halted as the conspirators broke off to listen to a news report on the TV in the corner about the latest disturbances in Northern Ireland.
As I sat in a Belfast cinema, the reporter's voice sounded remarkably familiar to me. And no wonder. Because it was mine.
So there we were. Me as me and Johnny Depp as Bulger on the silver screen. But the only thing was that I'd had no idea I would be making an appearance, albeit a brief and uncredited one.
The movie-makers had obviously bought the footage from ITN for whom I had been reporting on clashes after a funeral in Londonderry nearly 30 years ago, but no one informed me that I would be popping up just over an hour into the new Hollywood blockbuster Black Mass.
However, it was only the latest in a series of coincidences between me, the IRA and Bulger who has long fascinated me, prompting me to write extensively about him and make a documentary for UTV about him, his IRA sympathies and his friends in high places in America.
His brother William, who is a retired Democratic politician and former President of the Massachusetts Senate, once refused to testify at a Congressional hearing about communications he'd had with his notorious sibling.
William is played by Benedict Cumberbatch in the movie which also focuses, as I did, on the way that Whitey Bulger was able to get away with murder - and mayhem - in Boston for years. And that was primarily due to the help he received from a rogue FBI man.
The film also deals with that gun-running plot that Cahill and Bulger hatched in the Triple O's, but which didn't succeed because the ship carrying the arsenal, the Marita Ann, was intercepted off the Kerry coast in Ireland in September 1984. Which was the first link in the chain that connected me with the Bulger story.
I'd gone to London to work a weekend shift for my sometime employers ITN, but I was immediately dispatched with a camera crew on board a private jet back to Ireland to report on the Marita Ann affair.
We filmed the ship at sea as it was escorted into Cobh near Cork by Irish navy gunships - the Emer and the Aisling - and we were waiting at the quayside as five IRA men including the current Sinn Fein TD Martin Ferris were frogmarched off the vessel.
Daylight revealed the full and awesome extent of the weaponry on board the 56 feet Marita Ann - 160 guns, dozens of rockets and grenades, and over 70,000 bullets.
Over the next few days it emerged that an American-registered fishing trawler, the Valhalla, had rendezvoused in the Atlantic with the Marita Ann.
And as Bulger tried to work out who had tipped off the authorities about his $1m dollar shipment to the IRA, suspicion fell on a Boston fisherman John McIntyre who had sailed the Valhalla from Gloucester near Boston.
He 'disappeared' and his body was found in a shallow grave in Boston in January 2000 after a tip-off.
It was that discovery which took me to Massachusetts to investigate his killing for the aforementioned documentary.
It transpired that Bulger and his henchmen had tried to strangle McIntyre before shooting him and pulling out his teeth to make any formal identification of his body almost impossible.
The re-enactment of the murder is one of the most gruesome and stomach-churning killings in Black Mass and my only hope as I watched it was that McIntyre’s mother Emily and brother Chris, who had welcomed me into their home, would never have to see it.
The tragic twist in the Marita Ann saga, however, was that John McIntyre didn’t tout the Provos or Bulger out, even though at the time British and Irish authorities had been briefing journalists that the mole was in America.
But that was a ruse to protect the real informant who was in Ireland — IRA leader and police agent Sean O’Callaghan, who in an interview for the UTV documentary, admitted that he had told his handlers about the Marita Ann.
The double dealing wasn’t confined to this side of the Atlantic however.
Bulger was secretly working for the FBI giving them information about his rivals in an Italian American Mafia family in Boston and, as a result, a blind eye was turned to his activities to feather his own nest.
However, after the FBI realised he was out of control, one of their agents, John Connolly, who grew up with Bulger in south Boston, made sure that his old pal was able to evade arrest by alerting him to any attempts to catch him or his associates in what was known as the Winter Hill gang or the Boston Irish mob.
Connolly, who is superbly portrayed in Black Mass by Joel Edgerton, faced justice before Bulger. He was convicted of racketeering, obstruction of justice and second degree murder charges related to three of the murders carried out by Bulger. He was sentenced to 40 years imprisonment.
Bulger, though, led an apparently charmed life even though he was among the FBI’s most wanted men — second only to Osama bin Laden.
In Boston 15 years ago, the then director of the FBI in the city Barry Mawn agreed to my request for an interview. He denied that the FBI was half-hearted in their search for Bulger.
“I have designated a task force that is devoted full-time to tracking him,” he said.
But another 11 years went by before Bulger was eventually arrested.
There had been reports that he was holed up in Ireland in safe houses set up by his old IRA friends, but he and his long-term partner Catherine Greig were arrested in Florida in 2011, an astonishing 16 years after they fled Boston following Connolly’s tip-off.
Two years ago, the then 83-year-old Bulger was convicted of 11 murders, including that of John McIntyre. And while the ruthless gang leader escaped the death penalty, he knows he will die in jail. For his part in the Marita Ann plot, Martin Ferris was sentenced to 10 years in jail and he was released in September 1994, going on to establish himself as one of Sinn Fein’s major players in the Republic.
Bizarrely though, our paths crossed many years later.
I was in Kerry with a touring drama production and found myself sitting beside Ferris in a pub he ran in the area.
Emboldened by a few pints of beer, I mentioned that we had ‘met’ before in Cobh as he was brought off the Marita Ann.
I don’t remember a lengthy conversation on the subject, but I later read that Ferris said that he didn’t know Bulger adding, “I never met him. I never had anything to do with him, ever. You can get the transcripts of the trial and look at them. There’s nothing about him”.
The world will now know a lot about Bulger and movie buffs have predicted that Johnny Depp will win an Oscar. Me? I’m not writing any acceptance speeches just yet.