Looking back at the last couple of hundred years of European history — on paper at least — you wouldn’t expect Italians, of all peoples, to have a major advantage over the Irish in terms of organizational acumen or systematic brutality. And yet, when it comes to organized crime in 20th-century America, the Mafia ran the table on the Irish mob, driving them all but out of business by the end of Prohibition.
Gangland historian T.J. English tells the tale in Paddy Whacked: The Untold Story of the Irish-American Gangster — a book the feds found on James “Whitey” Bulger’s shelves in his Santa Monica hideout in 2011, when they finally captured the last Irish Godfather after his 16 years on the lam. “Over the three-year period from 1931 to 1933,” English writes, “virtually every high-ranking Irish American bootlegger in the Northeastern United States was systematically eliminated, gangland-style.” As they went up against the wall, the great American genre of the mob movie was just being born, in films like “Public Enemy” and “Angels with Dirty Faces.” “The irony, of course,” English observes, is that “just as Jimmy Cagney emerged as the avatar of a new kind of street-wise Irish American style, the mobsters who inspired that style were dropping at an expeditious rate.” By the late 20th century, the old-school variety survived only in a few ethnic enclaves, like New York’s Hell’s Kitchen, or Boston’s Southie.

Adding insult to injury, the Mafia beat the Irish clans twice: once in the Prohibition-era turf wars over black markets, and again, more lastingly, in the American imagination. The Godfather, Goodfellas, and The Sopranos loom large; except for the occasional gem like 1973’s “Friends of Eddie Coyle,” the Irish Mob can’t catch a cinematic break.
That’s not for lack of rich material. The Whitey Bulger story is the most lurid, noirishly fascinating tale in mob history, one in which it’s hard to tell the gangsters from the G-men. The basic facts have been known since at least 1999, when, after 10 months of hearings, Massachusetts federal judge Mark Wolf issued a mammoth,661-page opinion outlining the devil’s bargain between the Boston FBI and its “Top Echelon Informants” Bulger and Stephen “the Rifleman” Flemmi.
But Black Mass, which opened last weekend, is the first big-screen attempt to tell the story straight. You can hardly count Martin Scorsese’s criminally overrated The Departed, a bloated, Hollywood star vehicle that’s as phony as a Shamrock Shake. The Southie mob boss of The Departed, played in scenery-chewing, self-parodic fashion by Jack Nicholson, is clearly based on Whitey, though for some reason the Bulger character takes his name from an Italian mobster, “Frank Costello,” né Francesco Castiglia, who adopted an Irish surname.