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Column: I saw the pain and terror 'Whitey' Bulger created – he was no Robin Hood

Growing up just a few miles down the road from the Boston neighbourhood where gangster James ‘Whitey’ Bulger reigned, I saw through the lies that he protected residents from drugs and violence, writes Larry Donnelly.

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

FOR THE PAST eight weeks or so, the long-awaited trial of the infamous Irish American gangster, James “Whitey” Bulger, gripped the attention of Bostonians at home and around the world. Thanks to the cadre of dedicated journalists who live tweeted proceedings from the very beginning of jury selection, even those of us who are 3,000 miles away had a courtroom seat. Now, he has been found guilty of eleven murders and additional serious crimes. He will die in prison.

Just over two years ago, after more than 16 years on the run, “Whitey” Bulger was caught by FBI agents.  He was living with his girlfriend under a false identity in an apartment in California. While on the run, he featured on the FBI’s Most Wanted List and was the subject of a global manhunt.  Some people even speculated that he was here in Ireland. Most people “in the know” back in Boston assumed he was dead. I believed them. That’s part of the reason why, when he was apprehended, I told anyone who’d listen that his capture and the ensuing trial would forever be the biggest Boston news story of my life. Like most Bostonians I’ve spoken to now, though, I’m just glad it’s over.

Racketeering, extortion and multiple murders

The just-concluded trial resulted from a 32 count indictment, alleging – among other things – racketeering, extortion and multiple murders. The defence did not dispute many of them, yet vigorously denied that Bulger killed women, that he committed murders in states with capital punishment, and that he was a long time FBI informant, or “rat.” Simultaneously, the defence asserted that the defendant was guaranteed blanket immunity by a former US Attorney in Boston. During the trial, the jury heard from friends and relatives of victims and from a motley crew of criminals – from low level bookmakers to cold-blooded murderers. Bulger declined to testify in his own defence. Clearly, it didn’t work for him. But nothing would have.

The jury had to wrestle with some complex legalities and a voluminous corpus of evidence. The jurors didn’t have an easy task, and having to wait in an atmosphere that reportedly vacillates somewhere between uncertainty and chaos can’t have been easy on the victims’ families. The guilty verdict (on most counts) may offer some comfort to those who lost loved ones as a result of the evil activities of Bulger and his henchmen. However, it won’t change what happened to them. It also can’t undo the damage that was done to the indirect victims of Bulger’s reign of terror in my home city and, most especially, in his home neighbourhood of South Boston.

Whitey was no ‘Robin Hood’

Michael Patrick MacDonald, himself a regular visitor to Ireland, has written evocatively about his childhood growing up in South Boston’s housing projects in a large family. In his memoir, “All Souls: A Family Story from Southie,” he recalls the tragic deaths of some of his siblings, who lost battles to drug addiction and crime.

In writing, he helped to explode the long perpetrated myth that “Whitey kept the drugs out of Southie” and that “Whitey wouldn’t let anything bad happen to good people in Southie.” Everyone who knew anyone from South Boston, or who spent any time there, in the 1970s, 1980s and even 1990s would doubtless have heard these or similar lines.

Growing up only a few miles down the road during this turbulent time, I was well-acquainted with the myth. Interestingly and tellingly, I heard it a lot more from the “project kids” with whom I was acquainted than from my other South Boston contemporaries, who I knew from playing their parish basketball teams and from attending Boston College High School in the Dorchester neighbourhood that separates South Boston from my native East Milton. The name “Whitey” Bulger was typically met with stony silence when mentioned in front of my high school classmates. In all likelihood, they knew he was no Robin Hood, yet were wary of speaking ill of the man or of appearing disloyal to their neighbourhood.

Stereotyping the people of South Boston

They had good reason to be defensive. Indeed, their neighbourhood and “Whitey” Bulger’s story has provided fodder for multiple documentaries, films and even reality television programmes devised by those with only a superficial understanding of Boston, but with a keen awareness of what might appeal to wider audiences.

Many, though not all, of these portrayals have, perhaps unintentionally, glamorised “Whitey-like,” Irish American gangster figures. At the same time, they have stereotyped South Boston people in a negative light that bears little resemblance to reality. This trial will almost certainly give rise to even more of the same.

It’s really no wonder then that a recent Boston Globe article noted that people in South Boston had either nothing at all or nothing good to say about “Whitey” Bulger.  His name, and the era it brings to mind for all Boston area natives, is one we’d rather forget.

A few years ago, an astounded and exasperated journalist asked one of Bulger’s most trusted henchmen, who later testified against him in return for leniency, how all of this could have happened in the United States of America? He responded calmly and with a brutal honesty that will resound surely and regrettably with Bostonians: “It didn’t happen in America.  It happened in Boston.” If the close of our city’s trial of the century will mean anything, I hope it will mean that we have left that Boston behind once and for all.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with IrishCentral.com. To read more from Larry for TheJournal.ie click here.

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About the author:

Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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