It started with an ITN weekend reporting shift in London. And it ended with me starring in a Hollywood movie Johnny Depp. Over the past 25 years, the fascinating story of the IRA arms smuggling ship Marita Ann has taken me to Boston on the trail of American mobster and Provo supporter Whitey Bulger, where I met the FBI and the family of one of Bulger’s murder victims, as well as undercover cops and lawyers. I also ended up facing the IRA leader who ran the Irish side of the arms smuggling operation and the former provisional who tipped off the authorities to the Marita Ann.
On my birthday in September 1984 I flew from Belfast to London to work at ITN for a few days. But as soon as I was in the door, I was out again, flying back to Ireland with an ITN crew, this time on a private jet that was waiting at Heathrow.
The task was to get pictures of a fishing boat called The Marita Ann which had been captured by the Irish Navy, which had fired tracer rounds before boarding the ship 120 miles off the coast of Kerry. We duly discovered them Marita Ann at sea, and award-winning cinematographer Sebastian Rich filmed it from the air before we drove to Cork to edit a report for ITN (after having a few glasses of champagne to celebrate my birthday).
Later that evening we were in Cobh harbor to tape the IRA gunslingers – including well-known Kerry Republican Martin Ferris – being handcuffed off the ship. The others arrested were Irishmen Michael Browne, Gavin Mortimer and John McCarthy, and John Crawley, a US citizen and former US Marine. The next morning we were given access to the terrifying arsenal of weapons being unloaded from the Marita Ann. It included 160 guns, dozens of rockets and grenades, and over seventy thousand bullets – total value: $1 million.
Next stop was Dublin where the men who had been arrested appeared before the Special Criminal Court. I was due to return to Belfast the next morning for my day job at UTV but ITN asked me to go with their crew to film the arms transport being driven from Co Cork to Garda HQ.
On our way south we saw a convoy of security trucks heading north on the opposite side of a dual carriageway, but when we were able to turn around we couldn’t see any of them. We later discovered that in a unique moment in Ireland the drivers had stopped for a cup of tea at the Irish Army’s Curragh base – which explained why we had lost them. When the trucks finally arrived at Garda Síochána’s headquarters in Dublin’s Phoenix Park, we waited to film what I felt was the last part of the film Marita Ann jigsaw puzzles for me.
But how wrong I was. Sixteen years later, in 2000, UTV sent me to Boston to film a documentary about the discovery of the body of murdered Irish-American John McIntyre in a shallow grave Valhallathe trawler that had taken arms from Massachusetts and met with the US Marita Ann for a surrender in the Atlantic. It turned out that Whitey Bulger, a notoriously fanatical and vicious gangster who sang Irish rebel songs in Boston’s IRA bars, had funded the shipment and, like the Provos in Ireland, was furious when the Marita Ann was intercepted. He wanted to expose the recruiter.
Bulger, the ruthless leader of Boston’s Winter Hill Gang, was quick to convince himself that McIntyre was the informant, and his suspicions were heightened after British and Irish authorities misinformed journalists in Ireland that the information came from America. The fake bull was designed to protect the real source of the tip – IRA leader and British intelligence agent Sean O’Callaghan.
McIntyre paid with his life, with Bulger – who ordered his murder – helping his men do his heinous dirty work after their victim was lured into a Boston home. Bulger and his henchmen initially attempted to strangle McIntyre with a rope, but they were unable to finish him off and he asked for a bullet to the head. McIntyre was then shot, and Bulger’s gang pulled his teeth out to make positive identification of his body all but impossible. But it was established that he was actually John McIntyre.
In 2000, I met McIntyre’s mother, Emily, and his brother, Chris, in a neat home in Quincy, just outside of Boston. Over tea and fruitcake, they cursed Bulger, who had been on the run for years with his partner Catherine Greig. At another meeting during the same trip, Boston Director of the FBI, Barry Mawn, told me he had no doubt about the gangster’s involvement in the McIntyre assassination. He showed me an FBI card on the wall showing that Bulger is second only to Osama Bin Laden on the Most Wanted list.
The next part of mine Marita Ann The trip took me to England to interview double agent Sean O’Callaghan for my documentary. In an elegant London hotel, O’Callaghan readily admitted that he had given chapters and verses about it to his collaborators in British Intelligence Marita Ann, which was to take its deadly cargo to Co Kerry, where IRA men waited in cars to haul the guns to gun dumps. The British informed Irish authorities that the confiscation operation was underway. O’Callaghan said he dated Martin Ferris up until the moment he boarded the trawler in Fenit, Co. Kerry. He added that McIntyre had nothing to do with the information leak. Over dinner, I told O’Callaghan that McIntyre’s family was the source of the Marita Ann Hint as much as they hated Bulger. He wasn’t surprised, and he wasn’t particularly remorseful.
A few years later, a bizarre twist of fate led me to talk to Martin Ferris about O’Callaghan. With my other hat as an actor, I had toured Ireland in a Martin Lynch play, The Story of Trouble (According to my Da)a black comedy about the effects of the Troubles on a man played by me and supported by a cast of characters created by Conor Grimes and Alan McKee who also helped write the play.
We staged the play at Siamsa Tíre Theater in Tralee for almost a week and one evening after the performance an Australian woman named Máire and her friends came over to the bar to discuss the production. Máire invited us for a drink after the performance the following evening at the bar outside Tralee which she ran with her husband Martin. We never left a party and within minutes of being warmly welcomed by the locals in the pub, I was sitting next to Máire’s husband and instantly recognizing him as Martin Ferris, who had by then become a Sinn Féin MP was in the daily.
I told him I had “met” him before and went on to explain that the other half of my double life I had been a journalist covering his “departure” from Marita Ann 26 years earlier. We’ve talked at length about everything under the political sun, but if I was expecting an inside track Marita Ann or O’Callaghan I was bitterly disappointed.
In 2011, Whitey Bulger and Catherine Greig were arrested in Santa Monica, and Bulger was later sentenced to a series of life sentences for 11 murders, including the murder of McIntyre.
But a different kind of sentence awaited Bulger. In 2018, the 89-year-old mob boss was found dead in his cell at a West Virginia jail after some of his many enemies eventually caught up to him and beat him to a pulp. In a gruesome echo of the McIntyre murder, Bulger was defaced by his attackers.
Three years earlier, a Hollywood film about Bulger called Black mass had been dismissed. The monster was superbly played by Johnny Depp, who managed to portray its evil ferocity with ease. In a scene discussing the practicalities of arms smuggling, Bulger meets Belfast IRA leader Joe Cahill in a private room at a Boston bar called Triple O’s. The two conspirators break off negotiations to watch a TV report of violent clashes between security forces and Republicans in Derry following an IRA funeral.
By a bizarre coincidence, the reporter’s voice you hear on the ITN report is mine.
Reporting the Troubles 2, compiled by Deric Henderson and Ivan Little, is published by Blackstaff Press
https://www.independent.ie/irish-news/crime/the-mob-the-ira-johnny-depp-the-double-agent-and-me-41466564.html The mob, the IRA, Johnny Depp, the double agent and I…