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IRA gunrunner: ‘I never trusted Whitey Bulger.’

John Crawley, the former US Marine turned IRA volunteer who coordinated the largest IRA weapons shipment from the US, says the South Boston underworld leader rubbed him the wrong way, but he was focused on acquiring guns, not lifelong friendships with gangsters.

John Crawley, former IRA volunteer, at his home in Ireland.Suzanne Toal/ Melville House

John Crawley seems like a character from a John le Carre novel.

Born in New York to Irish immigrant parents, he joined the Marines at 18.

His ultimate goal was to get trained, at the highest level, in weapons and military tactics, and then to offer his services to the Irish Republican Army.

It was an audacious plan, especially for a teenager: using US military training to help an outlawed revolutionary organization in a foreign country.

To Crawley, it wasn’t a foreign country. As a teen, he had lived in Ireland and came to believe the British government had no right to lay claim to any part of the island. He was determined to join the IRA’s violent campaign to end British control of Northern Ireland and create a 32-county republic comprising all of Ireland.

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Incredibly, the IRA accepted him into their ranks. More incredibly, the IRA ignored his Marines expertise.

“I never found problems with volunteers on the ground,” Crawley told me from his home in Ireland.

But, Crawley said, there were too many people in leadership, including Martin McGuinness, a legendary IRA commander, who opposed changing the way the IRA trained, armed, and deployed its fighters.

“Every improvement I suggested was ignored. It was almost as if I was insulting them or criticizing their leadership,” Crawley said. “I was increasingly demoralized that the only asset I could provide to the struggle was my accent.”

While he acknowledges the reluctance to embrace his expertise could be chalked up to arrogance or hubris, Crawley also believes some of those opposed to improving the IRA’s capabilities had been compromised. The head of the IRA’s internal security network and others have been exposed as British agents.

Crawley tells his improbable life story in a revealing new memoir, “The Yank: The True Story of a Former US Marine in the Irish Republican Army.” It is rare that IRA volunteers write books, even rarer that such books explicitly criticize IRA leadership.

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Rather than use Crawley to modernize IRA capabilities, the IRA ordered Crawley back to the US to obtain weapons. He was based in Boston and, out of necessity, formed an alliance with local gangsters led by the South Boston underworld boss and IRA sympathizer James “Whitey” Bulger.

Crawley said while Bulger was the patron of the gunrunning mission, one of Bulger’s criminal associates, Irish-born former US Marine Pat Nee, did the heavy lifting. Crawley never trusted Bulger, finding him distant and inscrutable.

“Whitey gave the nod, and Pat did all the work,” Crawley said. “Whitey didn’t make money out of it. It probably cost him money. But I think it got bigger than Whitey expected. I was concerned that if our job interfered with his business, we’d end up in the harbor.”

Bulger played mind games. At one point, Bulger ordered one of his girlfriends to have sex with Crawley. Crawley was stunned. Neither he nor the woman took the bait, ignoring Bulger’s salacious demand.

“Why would he put me on the spot like that?” Crawley said. “It was excruciatingly embarrassing. I didn’t know if he was trying to test me.”

Informers have been the bane of Irish revolutionaries for centuries, and they did Crawley in, too. In 1984, an IRA turncoat gave up the Boston gunrunning mission on the Gloucester-based trawler The Valhalla. Crawley served 10 years in prison for gunrunning. When he got out of prison, he immediately reported back to the IRA.

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In 1997, Crawley was charged with plotting to blow up the electrical grid in London. After turning down a CIA recruitment pitch, he was sentenced to 35 years. He was released in 2000 under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, the peace deal between combatants in Ireland which he opposed.

While disillusioned, Crawley doesn’t advocate a resumption of armed struggle. Neither will he accept an agreement that legitimizes a part of Ireland remaining under British control.

“There are only two possible outcomes to this struggle,” he said. “One is the Irish Republic. The other isn’t.”


Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at kevin.cullen@globe.com.