Kevin Cullen is my kind of journalist – unafraid to lay bare corrupt activities – especially at public institutions that profess to be paragons of probity and morality such as the Catholic Church – yet also quick to highlight the extraordinary achievements of ordinary people.
When the twice Pulitzer-winning columnist for ‘The Boston Globe’ writes, his words leap off the page and with a resounding thump, smack you full in your emotional center, somewhere between heart and brain.
Such prose power is amply illustrated by his column on the quiet, dignified testimony of Bill Richard during the trial of Boston marathon bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, whose dastardly work killed the Dorchester father’s 8-year-old son, Martin, ripped the leg of his 6-year-old daughter, Jane, and blinded his wife, Denise, in one eye.
Kevin Cullen – one of the most informed American journalists on Irish affairs.
Or on Tim Davis from Taunton, who from the age of six lived in 15 different foster homes, was cruelly treated in some, yet went on to establish the ‘Teddy Bear Foundation for Foster Children,’ which, among other things, delivers gifts to kids every Christmas.
Irish culture in America faces challenges
As one of the most informed American journalists on Irish affairs, Cullen is also concerned about the dilution of Irish culture in the US due to the dramatic drop in the number of emigrants from here – a subject he’ll address this Friday evening at the ‘TransAtlantic Connections 3‘ conference in Bundoran. A multi-disciplinary event embracing the connections between Ireland and the US, it is organized by Drew University and hosted by the Institute of Study Abroad Ireland and takes place at the Atlantic Aparthotel and Bundoran Cineplex from Wednesday until Saturday.
Event speakers include Christine Kinealy, author of more than 16 books and director of Ireland’s Great Hunger Institute at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut, Mike Nesbitt, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, authors, Michael MacDonald and Turtle Bunbury, Micheal O’hEanaigh, director of enterprise, employment and property at Údarás na Gaeltachta, Liam Kennedy, director of the Clinton Institute at UCD, Barbara Franz, politics professor at Rider University, New Jersey, Mary Hickman, Irish Studies professor at St. Mary’s University, London and Tommy Graham, founder and editor of ‘History Ireland’ magazine.
The institute’s founder, Professor Niamh Hamill, a lecturer in Irish history and culture, completed her Doctorate studies at the New Jersey-based Drew University and established the institute in Bundoran in 1996. “While there, I became aware that the narrative about Ireland in the US was somewhat outdated and that a more contemporary and accurate one was necessary, thus the idea for a multi-disciplinary conference such as this one and the formation of the institute itself,” she told me this week.
But why Donegal?
“I am from the county and my view is that a border location is essential for a comprehensive understanding of Ireland,” she replied. “This is an authentic yet undervalued corner of the country and – being close to cities such as Derry – a greater dimension, both culturally and historically, can be added to an educational endeavor such as this.”
Hamill said Donegal County Council helped fund this week’s conference and Fáilte Ireland helps fund an annual familiarization trip in October for American educators to come to Donegal to help her institute to establish relations with US schools and universities.
As for Cullen, he told me in a telephone interview from Boston this weekend. “Ten years ago, there were around a quarter of a million Irish-born people living in the US. That has now dropped by over one hundred thousand, with major cultural ramifications.” As evidence, he cited the reduction in the number of GAA teams in New York and Boston as well as fewer Irish pubs in what were once considered traditionally Irish neighborhoods such as Dorchester in Boston and Sunnyside in New York. “Fifteen years ago, there would have been Irish music sessions every night. Not now, and in those, very few Irish-born musicians.”
Cullen is not optimistic this situation will change any time soon.
“Ever since the Famine the Irish diaspora has always been both wide and deep in the US, constantly replenishing itself, with historic deals such as the Donnelly and Morrison visas in the ‘80s and 90s a major benefit,” he said. “But since 9/11, the creation of Homeland Security and the Republican Party’s anti-emigration, anti-amnesty stance, the situation has changed radically and this trend is expected to continue even if the Democrats take over in Washington. This is in stark contrast to Australia and Canada where specific visa strategies for Irish emigrants have been established.”
His words sadden me deeply. I was one of those people lucky enough to emigrate to America in the 1980s, forging a decent career in print and broadcast media there and launching an Irish newspaper and cultural center. I also became an adviser to the Irish Immigration Reform Movement (IIRM) led by the effervescent and charismatic, Cork-born Sean Minihane, that performed such sterling work on behalf of Irish men, women and children, both legal and undocumented. Other IIRM leaders included Mae O’Driscoll and Sean Benson.
While the developing situation as explained by Cullen is undoubtedly bad news, fortunately he doesn’t consider this dilution of Irishness in the US will affect American investment here. “Such investment has nothing to do with sentimentality. It is finance, pure and simple, in a phrase: low corporate tax rate and other tax shelter options that Ireland offers.”
National policies permitting such shady tax shelters, which companies like Starbucks, Google, Microsoft, Pfizer and Apple have taken full advantage of, are under siege by both EU and US authorities, perhaps rightly so, and may not last. They have cost America more than 500 billion euro in lost tax revenue over the last year alone.
Making of a Mafia
Kevin Cullen and Shelley Murphy, co-authors of a book on gangster, Whitey Bulger, relax on the South Boston waterfront. Photo by Stan Grossfeld
“I wrote the book with Shelley because between the two of us, we broke most of the stories about Bulger over his long criminal career,” Cullen informed me. “I was the one who first figured out he was a protected FBI informant, and Shelley broke everything about his 16 years on the run and the manhunt that finally led to his capture in 2011. The book we wrote was more than a biography of Bulger, it was a biography of South Boston, the Irish-American neighborhood that produced him, and the culture of law enforcement and politics in Boston at that time which allowed him to become the biggest gangster in the city at the same time his brother was the most powerful politician. The book was more about culture than crime.”
Brilliant investigative reporting
A model for Irish people and journalists in particular is Cullen’s persistence and that of his Globe colleagues which led to their winning the coveted Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 2003 for revealing, through 600 articles 14 years ago, the horrendous cover-up by the Catholic Church in Boston of priests sexually abusing young children.
That five-month investigation, which is now the subject of a new movie to be released here over the next week or so, entitled ‘Spotlight,’ led to the resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law and a global crisis for the church that continues to this day, with scandals in more than 100 cities across America and at least 100 more around the world.
Cullen informed me, “Regarding the Catholic Church cover-up, as usual, whether you’re talking about Bloody Sunday or Watergate or whatever, it isn’t the crime, it’s the cover-up. The way that bishops, including Cardinal Law, enabled abusive priests by moving them from parish to parish was shocking. The way they treated victims and survivors was worse. As part of the investigative team, I spent much of my time trying to show the deference that was shown the church and the Catholic hierarchy by the leaders of law enforcement, politics and business, most of whom were Irish Catholic in Boston. We tried to explain that beyond the crimes of the priests and enabling bishops, the wider society was somewhat complicit in not challenging them more forcefully over the years. The same thing happened in Ireland.”
Cullen was also a member of ‘The Boston Globe’ reporting team that won another Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Reporting in 2104 for its marathon bombing coverage. He was one of three finalists for the 2014 Pulitzer for Commentary. “As it would have been for reporters in Ireland covering The Troubles, the Marathon bombings were very personal for us in the Globe newsroom, because we knew people who were injured,” he told me. “I knew several, and vaguely knew of the Richard family, which suffered so grievously in losing 8-year-old Martin. I was also very friendly with a number of first responders who were traumatized by what they saw. The Globe’s news coverage in that first week after the bombings was recognized for its depth and breadth, from the victims to the medical people who saved them. I was just part of that team, supplying a lot of information about the investigation and the shootout that ended the threat from the bombers.”
Lessons to be learned
In my discussion with Cullen and in my overall reading of the events mentioned above, one key element stands out – the importance of vigilance in holding powerful institutions and individuals accountable for their actions.
Admirably, the Globe’s ‘Spotlight’ investigation of the church started with four reporters and expanded to eight shortly after the initial stories were published. That group stayed on the story for the rest of the year. In contrast, newspapers today, mainly due to declining circulations and ad revenues, cannot afford to have investigative reporters. But it is vitally important that local, as well as national, newspapers do not shy away from controversial stories. They remain the trusted protectors of the public domain and such stories are the lifeblood of real journalism.
Also, as the US media commentator said, “The Boston Globe’s clergy abuse investigation provided an early lesson in the power of the Internet. Although it may seem all-too-obvious today, its decision to post church documents used in its reporting provided readers with powerful, direct evidence that Law and other church officials had spent decades covering up the abuses. The Internet also helped spread the Spotlight Team’s stories — and the church’s internal records — worldwide, spurring lawsuits, investigations by other news organizations, and complaints from thousands of victims.”
In this regard, a recent blog posted by me, ‘Crooks, citizens or celebrities?‘– which had key documents attached – attracted more than 1,000 dedicated readers, illustrating the kind of power that technology has provided us with to help right public wrongs.
The same US media commentator continued, “The Globe investigation underscored the importance of old-fashioned, shoe-leather reporting. Though new technologies have provided investigative reporters with an array of shiny tools, it showed there is no substitute for knocking on doors for face-to-face encounters with reluctant sources who needed to be assured of a reporter’s sincerity or determination. Perhaps most important, the investigation highlighted the need for vigilance, or a continuing commitment to cover and advance the story.”
Cullen himself added, “It’s important to write about process, it’s important to write about institutions …but I’m not going to sit and explain to you the ins and outs of our great political system. I will, however, tell you stories about people who got screwed by that same system, because I like writing columns that stick up for those who have no juice, no power, no influence.”
We here in Donegal – already severely marginalized and ravaged by high unemployment, depression, alcoholism and suicide – cannot afford to stay quiet about greedy people placed in positions of trust who steal scarce money from the public pocket.
All of us – encouraged by passionate local councillors such as Dessie Shiels, Frank McBrearty Jnr. and Micheál Cholm Mac Giolla Easbuig – must constantly be on our guard and speak – nay shout – out, when we see something wrong.
In the end, we only get what we accept.