The last act in an Irish tragedy
The saga of Whitey Bulger can be told as a peculiarly Boston Irish story, marked by local versions of nursed resentment, and the victimhood that justifies victimizing. It is a story of the Irish shadow, the dark side of the overwhelmingly positive achievements of a dispossessed people who re-created themselves in exile. Now that Bulger is caught, and is seen for the anachronism that he is, perhaps the Irish construction of identity around that wound of dispossession can be laid to rest as well.
Bulger’s crimes are uniquely his, but his habit of defining himself by enmity perfectly embodied what William Butler Yeats called the “antithetical self.’’ We know who we are by whom we hate. One reason Bulger so dominated public awareness in his fugitive years is that many Americans implicitly recognized in him the last act of an Irish tragedy, one played out no more poignantly than on the stage of Bulger’s own South Boston.
When Southie first received the Irish, their enemy was the British. And why not? The mass trauma of the London-enabled Great Hunger, a potato blight turned genocidal, stamped the consciousness of every Irish emigrant across four generations. Famine anguish informs the Irish-American unconscious to this day, showing up in bitter notes of personality — sarcasm taken for humor, silence for expression, the thirst. Arriving in Boston, the newcomers’ hatred of the British was readily transferred to the local Brahmin establishment, whose condescension could not have been more familiar. That Boston’s social and economic stratification was more unyielding than that of other American cities meant the way up and out was closed off (the Kennedys had to move to New York to escape), and the Irish enclave of South Boston became, in effect, a prison pretending to be paradise.
Whitey Bulger wanted to be taken as Robin Hood, a defender of the neighborhood under siege. As the old Brahmin enemy faded, a new enemy arrived in the legion of black families who wanted to put their children into Southie’s schools — or bus Southie children out to theirs. “Liberals’’ were their sponsors, along with the courts, the press, and even the broader church. Local Irish xenophobia became general. In concert with his politician brother, William, Whitey Bulger played on all of this, the pair celebrated as maestros of neighborhood values.
Whitey made alliances with the FBI against another outside enemy — the Italian mob. Jumping on the wagon of renewed Troubles in Northern Ireland, he became a self-appointed henchman of the IRA, returning to the well of Britain-hatred to refresh the spirit of grievance. With his brother as winker-in-chief, Whitey’s legend as a benign Irish rogue was established. He became a favorite punch line to jokes told by cops and pols at the Bulger-sponsored St. Patrick’s Day breakfasts. Irishness itself settled on the brothers like fairy dust, and Boston joined Southie in loving them for it. All the while, Whitey Bulger was a one-man plague, infecting his own turf with mayhem, murder, and drugs, poisoning the very streets and projects that honored him as protector. One mythic figure in Irish tradition is the informer who betrays his own people. That, in every way, is Whitey Bulger.
In the 16 years that Whitey was a fugitive, the last pillars of parochial Irish tribalism have crumbled. Race hatred dried up. The isolating wall of Boston’s elevated expressway came down. As Irish figures solidified positions in the establishment, ethnicity faded as an engine of envy. Loyalty — once an absolute virtue, trumping even justice — was discredited by Whitey’s own brother, who was forced from public life after he refused to answer investigators’ questions. In Ireland itself, meanwhile, not only were the old wars left behind, but so was the island’s very insularity as it moved fully into Europe. And the Irish Church — as much in Boston as in Dublin — was seen at last to be no more immune from the snares of the devil than any lowly mobster.
Whitey Bulger is left naked now. Stripped of all the myths, he is seen for what he is: a man of monumental cruelty. A monster of whom the Irish in Boston are properly ashamed.
James Carroll’s column appears regularly in the Globe.