The Boston Irish Honors 2017 Exemplary Boston Irish Journalist: Kevin Cullen

Editor’s note: When Boston Irish Reporter publisher Ed Forry approached Kevin Cullen about accepting a Boston Irish Honors award for his exemplary career in journalism, Kevin told Ed that he would “jot down a few words” of background information on his life and times. Those “few words” follow:

I was born in the old Richardson House, which was then part of the Boston Lying-In Hospital that later merged with Brigham and Women’s Hospital. My mother was from South Boston and my father was from Malden, where my family settled and where I grew up.

My paternal great-grandparents were from Cork – they were Flemings – and the Cullens were from Dublin. My great-grandfather was a labor activist who supposedly knew Jim Larkin, the renowned early 20th-century Irish trade union activist. The Cullens were never big on their Irish roots, as least as I can remember.

My maternal side was a different story. Irishness was very much at the fore of the family’s identity.

My mom’s parents were from Connemara. My grandmother, Brigid Connolly, grew up in Carraroe, and came to Boston as a domestic, working initially for a family on Beacon Hill when she was a teenager. My grandfather, Martin Flaherty, was a better-than-average hurler from Camus. When I hitchhiked there as a student in the late 1970s, I was told by locals that he was from Upper Camus. I looked around the barren countryside and couldn’t believe there was an Upper and a Lower Camus. It just looked like one big-ass bog to me.

My grandmother took care of me for a while when my mom was sick and she spoke to me in Irish all the time. Years later, I would be startled when I heard words in Irish that stirred memories in me.

That said, my grandparents, who were married at what was then St. Peter’s and Paul’s in Southie, were determined that their kids would assimilate as much as possible. Even though they were native Irish speakers from the Gaeltacht, they did nothing to facilitate their children learning Irish. In fact, they used Irish as their private language so they could talk in front of their kids without the kids knowing what they were saying. I find that very sad. But it was very common in that day and age, and the Irish were determined to be less foreign and more American. One of the casualties was the Irish language in America.

Much later, when I was a student at Trinity College, I hitchhiked out to Connemara one day and went into a pub somewhere around Carraroe. It was the middle of the day, and the only people inside the pub were the bartender and a couple of old-timers at the far end of the bar. I sat down in the middle, not wanting to be seen as pushy. I got talking to the bartender over a pint and, of course, my family came up and I said my grandparents were from the area.

“What were their names, and where were they from?” the bartender asked. When I told him, he walked down to the old-timers and spoke to them in Irish. They were drinking Guinness bottles, as the old folks did in that era. No draft for them.

The bartender came back and said, “This fella knew your grandfather.” So I walked over and shook their hands. I could say hello in Irish, and I understood when one of them, the one who supposedly knew my grandfather, asked my name. But the torrent of Irish that followed was indecipherable to me. I shrugged, and said, “I’m sorry, but I don’t have Irish.”

The man who had been talking to me, chuckled, turned to his friend, said something, and shook my hand again and it was pretty clear that was the end of the conversation.

I went back to my pint down the bar and eventually got the bartender’s attention. “What did your man say after I told him I didn’t speak Irish?” I asked him. He scrunched up his face and said, “Ah, nothing.” “No,” I said. “I’d really like to know.” The bartender shrugged as he began pulling my next pint, and said, “He said you’re [expletive] useless.”

About Mom and Dad
My mom, Margaret “Peggy” Flaherty, was in the first graduating glass of Gate of Heaven High School in Southie, 1938. She became a telephone operator, working out of the exchange in what is now Chinatown. My dad, Joseph Cullen of Malden, was nicknamed “Duke.” He had to have been one of the few white kids of his era who was named after Duke Ellington. My father was a jazz nut, from a very young age. He and my Uncle Chub were the only white guys in a club in the South End when they saw Duke and his big band perform before the war.

My parents met during the Second World War, at a USO dance in Park Square, when my dad was home on leave (he had enlisted in the Navy right after Pearl Harbor). My mother’s boyfriend from Southie, whom everyone expected she’d marry, had been killed in the war the previous year.

My dad served in the Pacific throughout most of the war and came home after VJ Day. After he and my mother were married at Gate of Heaven, they lived in Southie for a while before settling in Malden after he became a firefighter for the Malden Fire Department.

I went to Catholic school, Cheverus, through the eighth grade. I was an altar boy at Sacred Hearts in Malden. My mother wanted me to go to Malden Catholic, but I was constantly getting in trouble with the nuns over Catholic dogma. I liked to question things; they didn’t. I didn’t feel like starting over with the brothers at MC, so I went to Malden High.

Some of my uncles were Boston cops and firefighters. I thought about taking the Boston firefighters exam, but my uncle, Bozo Flaherty, who at the time was on Engine 39 on D Street, urged me to go to college and take the exam later. I got accepted at four or five other colleges, but went to UMass Amherst because it was the only one I thought I could afford.

I played soccer at UMass, was actually recruited to play. A kid from Dorchester, Julio Avila, and I had work-study jobs in one of the dining halls while we tried to play Division 1 college soccer. Julio was really good, but while very fast, I wasn’t very skilled and early in sophomore year, when it was obvious I wasn’t going to play much if at all on the varsity, and after my coach told me he didn’t want me working for the student newspaper, I quit the team.

By this time, I had been pretty well bitten by the journalism bug. One of my professors, Howard Ziff, was a real mentor. One of the turning points in my life was when, in my sophomore year, I enrolled in an Irish history class taught by Professor Joe Hernon. Joe had his students read a lot of Irish literature, because he said you couldn’t understand Irish history if you didn’t understand Irish literature. I began reading Joyce, Yeats, Synge, O’Casey, Behan. At the same time, my roommate, Mike Power, who hailed from a big family in Mission Hill, turned me onto Irish folk music: first, Tommy Makem and the Clancy Brothers, then, Planxty and De Dannan and the Bothy Band, among others.

Revising my outlook on life

Around that time, I experienced what the social scientists call Third Generation Return, when you begin to strongly identify with the land of your foreign-born grandparents. I decided to spend my junior year abroad. The UMass exchange program had a relationship with University College Cork, but I wanted to live in Dublin. Between Joyce’s “Dubliners” and the history of the Rising, I was obsessed with Dublin.

The folks at the UMass exchange office told me I’d have to do it on my own because they had no formal connection with schools in Dublin. UCD struck me as being too far out in the suburbs. Trinity was right in the heart of the city, and that’s where I wanted to be. I wrote a letter to the registrar at Trinity and, shockingly, they wrote back. To this day, I have no idea why they accepted me.

The year I lived in Dublin changed my life completely. I fell in love with Ireland, its people and its culture. I hitchhiked a lot. It was common back then. Especially because the buses went on strike all the time. I brought my guitar to Clare and, in a nearly deserted O’Connor’s Pub in Doolin, sang Neil Young songs with a farmer who wore shit-caked Wellies and played a mean tin whistle. Turns out, it was the legendary Miko Russell. Who knew?

I took the train up to Belfast, and was walking down the Falls Road when a British Army patrol came walking toward me. I was stopped, and when I tried to explain who I was, one of the officers told me to knock off the phony accent. I showed him my passport and he muttered something under his breath and tossed it back at me. I remember thinking: If this is how they treat me, how do they treat the locals?

Even then, in my head, I thought that someday I’d come back and write about all I saw in the North.

I had hoped to finish my degree at Trinity, but when the administrators there suggested they might not accept all or even most of my UMass credits, I came back to the States and finished up at UMass in 1981.

My first job out of school was working for a reporter at the Transcript-Telegram in Holyoke, an old mill city in western Massachusetts that had seen better days. Holyoke has a big St. Patrick’s parade and I when I wasn’t covering cops, politics, and the courts, I was the fulltime parade reporter. One year, Maureen O’Hara was the parade committee’s choice for the JFK Award. I rode around in a limousine with her, and told her that “The Quiet Man” was my favorite movie of all time. She seemed unimpressed, and was more intrigued by the people hanging out the windows in the Puerto Rican neighborhoods we drove through. I’m not sure that Maureen O’Hara had a full measure of Holyoke when she agreed to attend the festivities.

I learned a lot in that city. It was like going to graduate school for journalism, except that I got paid $200 a week to start.

Reporting in Boston about Boston

After Rupert Murdoch bought the Boston Herald, his editors began trying out young reporters whom they could pay much less than the old crew from Hearst. I did one of those three-day tryouts and they hired me. When I called my mother in Malden to say that I was coming home, she said, “That’s nice. Did you know there’s a fireman’s exam on Saturday.” My mother thought newspaper reporters were ne’er do wells, and the ones she knew were.

Charlie O’Brien, the managing editor at the Herald, handed me a letter on my first day, saying, “This is the reason you were hired.” It was a letter, crudely written in broken English, from a Haitian woman from Dorchester I had interviewed during my tryout. Her son had been shot to death by a man the Boston Police had arrested. She told me her son’s shooter was his cousin, and his best friend, and that it was an accident, but the police wouldn’t listen to her.
After my story appeared, without a byline because I was on tryout, the DA’s office reduced the charge from murder to manslaughter. The woman wrote a letter addressed simply to The Boston Herald, to thank them for the polite young man who came to her house and who told the truth.

For whatever reason, I was the only reporter to knock on that woman’s door. I have not forgotten the power of being polite and decent to people, especially when they are in the midst of a traumatic event. Nor have I forgotten that woman’s kindness, either.

I led a Damian Runyonesque life at the Herald, where I was the chief crime reporter, though, truth be told, everyone at a tabloid is a crime reporter at some level. I cashed my check at JJ Foley’s in the South End and built sources at the bar, which was peopled by homicide cops and EMTs and paramedics from the city’s EMS.

For reasons I can’t remember, I stood for and was elected president of the editorial union at the Herald. It would have made my trade unionist great-grandfather proud, but I wasn’t a very good labor leader. My only, and lasting accomplishment was to get our union to affiliate with the Newspaper Guild, which succeeded in narrowing what was then a huge pay gap between Globe and Herald editorial workers.

Reporting in Ireland on Ireland

Shortly after that, in 1985, the Globe headhunted me and I became the first Murdoch-era Heraldite to join the Globe. The first should have been Brian Mooney, who, when asked by a Globe headhunter what was wrong with the Globe, gave him a laundry list of faults. Shortly after Mooney’s honesty got him passed over, I was asked the same question, and I replied that the only thing wrong with the Globe is that they hadn’t hired me yet. I really did say that.

Working at a tabloid was fun, but I wanted to have more than fun; I wanted to have a real impact, and I wanted to go abroad, especially to Northern Ireland, where there was an ongoing a story that I thought was badly under covered. The Globe afforded me those opportunities by sending me to Northern Ireland regularly, usually two or three times a year for a couple of weeks at a time. I began spending more time on the ground in Ireland than any other American reporter, most of whom lived in London and spent little time in Northern Ireland, and even then, usually just Belfast.

I resisted writing about politics and focused on how the conflict affected ordinary people in Northern Ireland. Republicans assumed I was sympathetic, loyalists assumed I was hostile. I tried to be as fair as possible, but, as they say in Northern Ireland, if you stand in the middle of the road, you’re gonna get knocked down.

By 1997, with the chance of a lasting peace in the offing, Globe editor Matt Storin decided to station me in Ireland fulltime. If it was just me, I would have moved to Belfast, but with my wife Martha and my two young sons Patrick and Brendan in tow, I took up residence in Dun Laoghaire, in South County Dublin, because I had a lot of friends in the area, and I wanted my wife to have a support system with me on the road so much. Besides, if the peace process blew up, so would Belfast.

I spent the next year chronicling the peace process, and cursing the lack of a bypass road in Drogheda, where I got stuck for ages every time I drove home from Belfast.

Being a witness to the Good Friday Agreement, and all of that leading up to it, felt like being in the middle of history, all of it good, although some of the violence right before and after was horrific. I talked to an old priest, not long after he prayed over two friends, one Catholic, the other Protestant, who were shot to death by loyalist gunmen trying to derail the peace talks. I cried while writing about the murder of the Quinn brothers, little boys burned to death by a loyalist firebomb during the Drumcree standoff after the agreement was approved by voters. A little girl, their neighbor, told me she heard one of the boys, trapped on the second floor, yelling that his feet were burning. I was numb, walking around Omagh after the rump of the IRA who refused to accept peace left a car bomb that killed 29 people. After filing my story, I went to give blood.

A new deal with an old colonizer

Watching prosperity boom in the South while the booms ended in the North was exhilarating. Ireland was confident enough to strike a new relationship with its old colonizer, as equals. I watched the inferiority complex and victimhood melt away, and it was a wonderful time to live in Ireland. I didn’t want to leave Dublin, as we had a good family lifestyle, and being the Boston Globe guy in Ireland mattered. But my editors wanted me to be the European correspondent, and insisted I move to London, so we packed up and lived there for a few years. I covered the wars in the former Yugoslavia long enough to know that I didn’t want to be a war correspondent. Traveling through Europe on someone else’s dime, however, made it worth 70 straight days, minus being expelled from Serbia in the Balkans for a few days.

I have done a lot of other things at the Globe. I was part of the Spotlight Team that outed Whitey Bulger as an FBI informant who was protected by the FBI while he murdered and maimed. I was part of the investigative team that won the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for exposing the coverup of sexual abuse by priests, and the newsroom team that won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News for coverage of the Marathon bombings. And I was a Pulitzer finalist in commentary the same year. I became a Glopbd columnist in 2007, and the next year won the Batten Medal, awarded by the American Society of Newspaper Editors for writing about the poor and marginalized. I was awarded that Medal a second time in 2013. In 2014, I won the Mike Royko Award, named for the famous Chicago newspaperman, as best columnist chosen by the American Society of Newspaper Editors.
And with my colleaghue Shelley Murphy, I wrote a book about Whitey Bulger, but then who didn’t? Still, the book was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Prize for non-fiction.
I thought Harvard had standards until they gave me a Nieman Fellowship. A year off in academia was a nice break, but I wanted to get back to the actual craft of journalism. The newspaper business is in decline. I can never retire because my pension will not cover my rent. But I still like what I do. I still think what people in my profession do is important. At our best, we bear witness to those with no power and hold those who have power accountable. I like to tell stories, mostly about ordinary people, often about decent people, and sometimes about those who are abused by those who have more power.

As the grandson of immigrants, I’m especially sympathetic toward immigrants. Our country is growing meaner, more petty, and nowhere is that more evident than in the demonization of immigrants. I write about them regularly, and what pains me most is that the worst invective, the most racist emails I get whenever I write about immigrants, the name on them is invariably Irish.

I wish my grandmother Brigid was alive because I know she’d give them a dressing down. And I’d recognize the swear words in Irish.