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The real "Irishman": The story behind Scorsese's new gangster epic

Martin Scorsese's The Irishman reflects upon the life of WWII veteran Frank Sheeran as he became the number one hit-man for the infamous Bufalino crime family.

After watching the film on Netflix, I found myself taking to the web to investigate the true story behind Robert De Niro's Frank Sheeran.

The film is based on the book ‘I Heard You Paint Houses’ by Charles Brandt. The author interviewed Sheeran and wrote about the crimes he committed whilst working for Mafioso Russell Bufalino. He also delves deeper into Jimmy Hoffa’s disappearance in 1975. Sheeran had confessed to killing Hoffa in a mafia affiliated attack. However, FBI agents still dispute his claims as there are other suspects with more evidence related to the disappearance of the labour union president.

Early life
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Francis Sheeran grew up in Philadelphia during the Great Depression. He worked for a carnival barker and competed in dance competitions as he had a good reputation for the jitterbug (the dance you’ve probably seen your grandparents do). After the unexpected events in Pearl Harbour, Sheeran was conscripted to the U.S. Army and served in North Africa and Europe for 411 days. The average service period was 100 days.

He claimed to have participated in several war crimes such as killing German prisoners of war and the Dachau massacre. In the film The Irishman, we see a flashback of him forcing German soldiers to dig their own graves—shooting them in cold blood.

Working for the Mafia

After the war, Francis started doing dirty side jobs for the Bufalino crime family. It was in this period that he started building on his reputation as a hit-man and a trusted member of the Italian-American Mafia, despite him being Irish. During the conflict between the Bufalino and the Colombo crime families, Sheeran was even tasked to kill Mafioso Joey Gallo.

Betraying a trusted ally

Bufalino introduced Frank to Jimmy Hoffa, the president of the biggest labour union at the time. The pair became close as Sheeran became Hoffa’s right-hand man and helped extinguish Hoffa’s competition from other unions (through murder mostly). Years later Hoffa is convicted of fraud and is sentenced to jail.

When he was freed there was widespread concern from the Mafia that Hoffa would attempt to regain his position in the union. This created a conflict between the mob and Hoffa, resulting in Russell Bufalino ordering Sheeran to murder his former friend.

The hit was organised to happen on the 30th of July 1975 in Detroit. Sheeran had agreed to meet up with Hoffa as they had a meeting to attend, luring him into a house and allegedly shooting him at the back of his head, twice. Whether this is true or not, Hoffa’s disappearance had been one of the biggest mysteries in criminal history.


After the disappearance of Hoffa, Sheeran’s family had suspected his involvement in the case and started distancing themselves from him. His daughter Peggy, who was very close to Hoffa, had stopped talking to him. About five years later, Sheeran would be found guilty of 11 charges of labour racketeering and was sentenced to prison for 35 years at which he served only 13. During his time in prison he development arthritis and began getting ill. His last days on earth were spent trying to make contact with his daughter. She refused.

He had approached Charles Brandt and had started walking him through his past. Sheeran also had spent some time repenting to priests and praying for forgiveness. On December 14, 2003, Sheeran died of cancer in his nursing home in Philadelphia.

My take away

Since Roma, Netflix has been producing more and more high calibre films. Scorsese successfully manages to keep the audience engaged for 209 minutes as he does what he does best; telling a story.

There is no clear evidence proving that Frank Sheeran did, in fact, kill Hoffa. The lack of evidence is the main reason why historians doubt the allegations and remain unsure as to what really happened on July 30th 1975. It’s up to a person to believe whether Sheeran’s dying confessions were true or not.  The Irishman reignites the conspiracies and theories surrounding the case.

What we do know though, is that Martin Scorsese strikes again in this amazing new project.

Figure out for yourself if Frank Sheeran killed Hoffa, by streaming The Irishman on Netflix.
Featured image: Niko Tavernise / Netflix