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Kevin Cullen

This IRA informant didn’t die in a pool of blood, but in a swimming pool

Former Irish Republican Army guerrilla-turned-informer Sean O’Callaghan in 1997.Karin Cooper/Associated Press/File

Sean O’Callaghan never thought he’d die of natural causes. He figured it would be at the end of a pointed gun.

Most people who turned on their Irish Republican Army comrades ended up in a ditch with a bullet in their hooded heads, hands bound, stripped of their clothes and dignity. When O’Callaghan became an informer, he wrote his own death warrant. But the bullet never came. He died last week not in a pool of blood but in a swimming pool in Jamaica, most likely of a heart attack.

In his 62 years, O’Callaghan murdered and maimed, turned on everything and everyone he once held dear, put many IRA comrades in prison, and managed to thwart a group of Boston gangsters behind the most ambitious IRA gun-running mission ever in the United States.


In doing so, he unwittingly got a guy from Quincy murdered by South Boston gangster Whitey Bulger.

When I interviewed him in prison in Northern Ireland in 1994, O’Callaghan told me his life story.

He grew up in a staunchly republican family in Tralee, in County Kerry. When he was a boy, his grandmother told him that if he ever shot a policeman he should dig him up and shoot him again, because you can’t trust the police. His father was imprisoned for IRA activity.

In sleepy Kerry, the televised images of Protestant thugs burning Catholic families out of their Belfast homes in the late 1960s had a profound effect on the 15-year-old O’Callaghan. He decided to join the IRA.

He was 17 when a bomb he was assembling exploded, earning him his first prison sentence.

In 1974, his superiors sent him to join an IRA unit in Northern Ireland. He took part in a mortar attack that killed a soldier.

Later, he was ordered to murder Peter Flanagan, a Catholic member of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. He tracked the off-duty officer to a pub, where he was nursing a pint and reading a newspaper when O’Callaghan walked in and shot him dead.


That brazen assassination made the 20-year-old Sean O’Callaghan a rising star in the IRA, but he was starting to question what he and his comrades were doing. He was in an apartment with other IRA men when a TV news report announced that a female police officer had been killed by an IRA bomb.

“I hope she’s pregnant,” one of the men said, “and we get two Prods for the price of one.”

Disillusioned, O’Callaghan told his IRA superiors he was done and moved to London to start a cleaning business.

But he was haunted. And bitter. He felt the IRA hypocritically indulged in the very acts of sectarianism and brutality that it condemned in the British security forces.

In 1979, he moved back to Ireland, rejoined the IRA, and offered his services to the Garda Siochana, Ireland’s national police force. There was nothing worse in the Irish consciousness than being an informer, but he was willing to become one to get back at the IRA.

He compromised IRA operations, including, he claimed, a plot to blow up the prince and princess of Wales, Charles and Diana, at a Duran Duran concert in London in 1983. At the least, his information led to the imprisonment of dozens of erstwhile comrades.

By this time, O’Callaghan was an IRA commander, but he worried that another IRA leader he disliked, Martin Ferris, was on to him.


O’Callaghan’s solution was to get Ferris arrested, and a bunch of gangsters from Boston provided him the perfect opportunity. Joe Cahill, founder of the Provisional IRA, had asked Whitey Bulger and his gang to assemble a cache of weapons, and Pat Nee, an Irish-born Southie gangster, did just that, buying $500,000 worth of guns by mail order and having them delivered to a South Boston yacht club. They loaded seven tons of guns, ammunition, and bullet-proof vests onto the Valhalla, a fishing trawler out of Gloucester. A crew led by an American-born IRA man flown in for the mission set sail across the Atlantic.

O’Callaghan knew the shipment was coming and tipped off his handlers. After the Valhalla crew transferred the arms to an Irish fishing boat, the Marita Ann, off the coast of Kerry, the Irish navy was lying in wait. Ferris and the others got 10 years in prison. The IRA put O’Callaghan in charge of finding out who had compromised the mission.

It all worked out perfectly for Sean O’Callaghan.

But not so well for John McIntyre, a Quincy fisherman who was the only one on the Valhalla who wasn’t a career criminal or a member of the IRA.

When McIntyre was arrested by Quincy police for drunkenly trying to break into the home of his estranged wife, he started babbling about guns, the IRA, gangsters, and drugs.


John Connolly, Whitey’s corrupt FBI handler, told his prized informant that someone from the Valhalla was talking. It didn’t take Whitey long to figure out it was McIntyre.

They lured McIntyre to a home in South Boston, where the fisherman was chained to a chair and quickly confessed. Whitey put a rope around his neck and began to strangle him. But the rope was too thick and didn’t cut off his air supply. Whitey got tired.

“This isn’t working,” Whitey said. He grabbed a rifle that had been cut down. Whitey waved the gun in front of McIntyre’s face.

“Would you like one in the head?” Whitey asked.

“Yes,” 32-year-old John McIntyre replied. “Please.”

Whitey obliged and shot McIntyre in the back of the head. After Steve Flemmi, Whitey’s partner in crime, announced that McIntyre was still alive, Flemmi lifted his slumped head by the hair so Whitey could fire a volley of bullets into his face.

“Well,” Whitey said, “he’s dead now.”

While his henchmen buried McIntyre under the cellar floor, Whitey went upstairs and took a nap.

Four years after he gave up the gun-running mission, O’Callaghan walked into a police station in England and told the astonished desk officer he had killed two people in Northern Ireland. He was sent to prison for more than 500 years.

He told me and two other journalists that he also murdered an IRA associate named John Corcoran in Cork to protect his own cover but later recanted, bizarrely saying it was a ploy to get the killing investigated.


During that prison interview, I told O’Callaghan about John McIntyre. O’Callaghan said he felt terrible about it and offered to speak to McIntyre’s mother. When I relayed the offer, Emily McIntyre declined, saying she found O’Callaghan repulsive.

“Double agents are the worst,” she told me.

O’Callaghan was released from prison in 1996 by royal proclamation, basically so he could become a public thorn in the side of the republican movement.

He dogged republican leaders and made claims that became increasingly hard to believe. He traded his republican friends for Tories in Britain who considered him a hero. He testified against IRA leader Tom “Slab” Murphy in a libel case, and Murphy lost.

The peace process in Northern Ireland succeeded, despite O’Callaghan’s insistence the IRA was not serious about peace. His cynicism about the process was badly misplaced.

O’Callaghan was a lonely, nomadic figure. He moved around London, furtively, always looking over his shoulder, assuming the IRA would kill him someday. He said he wouldn’t blame them.

In 1997, he was about to embark on a publicity tour of the United States, hawking his memoir, “The Informer,” when he found out his father, Jack, had died. No one in his family bothered to tell him. O’Callaghan didn’t go to his father’s funeral.

Graveside orations at Irish republican funerals are a big deal, and it’s considered an honor to be chosen to give the oration. The graveside oration at Jack O’Callaghan’s funeral was delivered by Martin Ferris, whom Sean O’Callaghan had put in prison.

Sean O’Callaghan was not mentioned at his father’s funeral or in the death notice. He was dead to his family, long before he died in that Jamaican pool.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GlobeCullen.