Boston’s Man of the People: Marty Walsh

Mayor of Boston Marty Walsh
Mayor of Boston Marty Walsh

By Michael Quinlin, Contributor
February / March 2014

There was world renowned musician Yo-Yo Ma on center stage, playing an audacious solo of Danny Boy on his cello before 8,000 enraptured listeners. Mid-way through the performance and without missing a note he suddenly turned around to smile and nod at a pretty, proper Irish woman named Mary Walsh sitting behind him with her two sons, Martin and John, on either side. The mom and Ma exchanged a wink and a nod, then chuckled at each other, and soon the entire audience was smiling too.

It was a poignant, lighthearted moment, full of joy, sentimentality and emotion, as power brokers, sign holders, tax payers and well wishers gathered at Boston College’s Conte Forum to carry out this special ritual of democracy: anointing Boston’s new mayor,  a man who exudes a sense of purpose that seems especially  promising going into the New Year.

Martin Joseph Walsh, 46 year old son of Irish immigrants from Connemara in County Galway and denizen of Dorchester, Boston’s largest neighborhood, became Mayor of Boston on January 6, 2014, reclaiming a post that the Irish held for most of the 20th century but had been exiled from these past twenty years. The Boston Irish are back, and Walsh is the undisputed king of the castle known as City Hall.

But it’s not just the Boston Irish who have rallied around him, for Walsh is a man of the people but also a man for the people – all of them. With his immigrant background, blue collar roots, community involvement, personal struggles and populist style,  Walsh has connected with people from all walks of life over the past two decades, building an inclusive coalition of Bostonians who care deeply about their city and strive to improve it.  These are the people who elected him.

One of his enduring qualities, say Walsh’s family and friends, is his unfailing empathy for others, particularly for people who are struggling to better themselves.

“He loves to help people, all the time,” says Lorrie Higgins, his longtime partner of eight years, whom Walsh calls the love of his life and best friend.

“Marty has seen people’s struggles, has personally known struggle himself and has been the beneficiary of the love and compassion of his extended Irish family,” says attorney Jack Hart, former state Senator from South Boston and close friend.

“That’s why he connected with the voters of this city and why he deeply understands the struggles people face and will work hard to give everyone across the city the hope of a better tomorrow,” Hart believes.

At the inauguration, hope of a better tomorrow seemed to shine on the faces of those gathered: a melting pot of Asian, Black, Hispanic, and White, young and old, gay and straight, white collar and blue collar, American-born and immigrant.  This is the New Boston over which Walsh will preside.

Let’s call it New Boston with an Irish twist, for while Boston has become a minority-majority city for the first time in its history, with 51 percent of residents categorized as people of color, the election made it clear that politicians from the city’s Irish enclaves still have the knack for putting together successful campaigns.

In the primary, twelve candidates from African-American, Jewish, Italian, Cape Verdean, Puerto Rican, and Irish backgrounds entered the fray. Four were first-generation Americans born of immigrant parents, including Walsh.

The primary election left two candidates standing: Boston City Councilor John Connolly and state representative Walsh.  Both candidates conducted themselves in the finals with civility, passion and seriousness, thanks to the character of each man and due to the pressing issues facing Boston. But still, many pundits grumbled openly that “two white Irish guys” was not what they envisioned the New Boston looking like.

The inauguration itself showed how embedded the Irish are in the city’s religious, civic and political institutions.  On stage were Governor Deval Patrick, the state’s first African-American governor, and U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren, followed by a slew of Irish names like Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley, BC President Father William P. Leahy, City Clerk Maureen Feeney, Suffolk County clerk Michael Donovan, and city councilors named Linehan, O’Malley, McCarthy, Flaherty, and Murphy.

In the front row sat former mayor and U.S. Ambassador Ray Flynn, state Senate President Therese Murray, and a couple of lord mayors from Ireland.  Coincidently, even the African-American chief justice who swore Walsh into office was named Roderick Ireland.

The Boston Fire Gaelic Pipe Band serenaded the crowd as the flags were presented, followed by music from public and charter school children, representing a United Nations of voices. Yo-Yo Ma  took the music to its highest level, before handing over the stage to famed Irish tenor Ronan Tynan, who brought the audience to its feet, and to tears, with his amazing rendition of God Bless America.

The Miracle Boy 

In his novel, Billy Phelan’s Greatest Game, author William Kennedy observes, “Some men moved through the daily sludge of their lives, and then with a stroke…transformed themselves. Yet what they became [is] not the result of a sudden act, but the culmination of all they had ever done: a triumph for self development, the end of something general, the beginning of something specific.”

For Walsh, becoming mayor is surely the culmination of all that came before.  He struggled mightily in his early years, overcoming obstacles that would have waylaid a lesser man. At a recent youth summit at Roxbury Community College, teenagers from across the city nod their heads in unison when Walsh shares the motto he lives by, “Perseverance, not quitting. Hard work, not giving up.”

When Walsh says, “We are a city of second chances and redemption, a place where hard times have forged character throughout our history,” it’s as if he is referring to himself.

Walsh’s parents, John Walsh and Mary O’Malley, both emigrated from Connemara, Galway to Boston in the 1950s. John came from Callowfeenish in Carna, while his mother Mary hails from Ros Cide in Rosmuc.

Hart recalls that Walsh “recently spoke about how his parents came from Ireland to America with virtually nothing, even pointing out that his late father, as a child, went to school every day without shoes on his feet.”

“My father was one of fourteen children,” Walsh says. “He went to England in 1949, and worked on the roads for six years. He went there to send money home to his mom.”

John Walsh arrived in Boston in 1956, following his older brother Pat, who had come a few years earlier to New York before heading up to Boston. They both joined the Boston Laborers Local 223, with Pat eventually rising to become the local’s legendary Business Agent. Other siblings joined them in Boston: Matty, Bridget, Barbara, Anne, Peggy and Kate.

Marty’s mother Mary comes from a family of seven daughters and one son, says Marty’s cousin Joe O’Malley of Dorchester, whose father Peter is Mary’s only brother. She arrived in Boston in 1959.

“She came out to her aunt, Nora O’Malley Curran, in  Norwood, and lived there for two years,” Walsh says. She worked in suburban Brookline and Dedham, eventually finding work in a church rectory.

Shortly after her arrival, Mary and John met at Intercolonial Hall in Dudley Square, Roxbury, where weekly Irish dances drew immigrants and Irish-American GIs returned from the war.  They married, settled in Dorchester, and started a family. Marty and his younger brother Johnny grew up in a three-family house on Taft Street in St. Margaret’s Parish.It was a loving household, with uncles, aunts and cousins nearby, part of a vibrant Irish immigrant community that had settled St. Margaret’s and neighboring St. Williams parishes.

When he was seven years old, Marty was diagnosed with Burkett’s Lymphoma, a rare childhood cancer. He endured four years of radiation treatment and chemotherapy, having to wear a wig to school and spending months at Children’s Hospital. He missed most of second and third grade and had to repeat fifth grade. He received his First Communion at mass on Christmas Day, because doctors didn’t expect him to live long enough for his class ceremony the following May. His family came out from Ireland for the communion, and with the entire neighborhood at the church, watched him walk to the altar, alone, to receive the sacrament.

“They gave me six weeks to live,” Walsh recalls later. “The nuns at St. Margaret’s deemed me the miracle boy when I got better.”

Then, at age 11, doctors declared that Marty had beaten the odds and was now cancer free. His life returned to normal and he was a happy teenager, hanging out with his friends, and attending Newman Catholic High School in Boston’s Back Bay. Upon graduating high school, Walsh surprised and disappointed his parents by joining the union.

“My father didn’t want me to join the union, he wanted me to get a college degree, but I wanted to do it,” Walsh says.

Without a lot of schooling himself, John Walsh was a self-educated man with a great respect for learning and education, according to Bill McGowan, an immigration leader and accountant who did the Walsh family’s annual tax returns.  McGowan’s wife Bridget Reaney is from Connemara so they got to know the Walshes at various social occasions over the years. McGowan recalls John as “a fabulous storyteller who knew the history of Ireland like the back of his hand, he was consumed by it actually. Every time I came to the house it’s all he wanted to talk about.”

Eventually Marty would go to college, but he took the long and winding road.  Working hard and partying hard, he faced another challenge in his twenties when it became clear to his family and friends, and finally himself, that he was an alcoholic. He later describes the “feelings of guilt, shame, remorse, all the feelings you get as an alcoholic,” that prompted him to get clean and go into detox. That’s when he took the journey of self-discovery, as novelist Kennedy would describe it, and put his life in order. He moved from a laborer on the job site to a union official in the front office, then became a top official at the Boston Metropolitan District Building Trades Council. He took night classes at Boston College to earn his degree, eventually settling into a life of public service that would consume him, but ultimately rescue him.

There was some poignancy in Walsh’s inauguration speech when he referenced the daily prayer of the recovering alcoholic. Describing the enormous tasks he had just vowed to shoulder over the next four years, Walsh said, “These are big goals, but as President Lincoln said, ‘The best thing about the future is that it comes One Day at a Time.’”

Glad Tidings and Free Advice

During that speech, Walsh promised Bostonians that he would listen, learn and lead, and that’s what he’s done so far.  He’s convened public hearings on youth violence, human services, arts and culture, and public safety, soliciting ideas from the voters. He hired trusted political allies like chief legal council Eugene O’Flaherty, press secretary Kate Norton and policy chief Joyce Linehan. He named popular cop Bill Evans as police commissioner and brought Brian Golden, a former State House colleague, to the Boston Redevelopment Authority. Walsh hired former City Councilor Felix Arroyo, one of his opponents in the mayoral race, as Boston’s head of Health and Human Services, a testament to the inclusiveness he has promised.

In truth, the challenges facing Boston are similar to those facing most American cities: keeping the middle class vibrant through good jobs, affordable housing, and solid education; making sure the tax rate is fair and evenly distributed; and keeping health costs low and inner city crime even lower, all the while distributing resources and opportunities fairly across a city replete with boundaries of ethnicity, race, and class.

People who have followed Walsh’s career and know him personally are convinced he can do it, and they have offered him heartfelt encouragement.

Governor Patrick, his close ally at the State House, advised Walsh to always remember “The people…who look to you for a reason to hope, counting on you to see their second chances just as you have lived your very own. [To remember] not the powerful people only, but the powerless, the strivers and seekers who make this good city great.”

Ray Flynn, whose family came from Spiddel, says  “Marty Walsh will bring the traditional values of caring for the poor and needy which Irish Americans are noted for. The Walsh family represents all that is special about the Irish coming to America: hard work, family, public service and integrity.”

South Boston’s Bill Linehan, who was elected President of Boston City Council on inauguration day, promised to work together with Walsh, noting,  “I’ve known him for a long time. I truly believe he’s a team builder and a collaborator.”

And nationally, many Irish-American leaders are sending Walsh their best wishes, and some free advice.

“Congratulations to Mayor Walsh and I wish you the best of luck as you embark on your first term as Mayor of Boston,” wrote Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley, who Walsh has cited as someone who impressed him when O’Malley was mayor of Baltimore.

“One of the things I keep on my desk is an old “Irish Need Not Apply” sign as a reminder of our nation’s conflicted, yet awe-inspiring journey,” O’Malley continued. “No matter how difficult the challenges may be, remember that the journey of a great people is much more than one person, though every person is important.  It’s more than any four year period, though every four year period is important. It’s a journey that reminds us that we’re all in this together. This belief has sustained me during the darkest and brightest days as mayor of Baltimore, the city I love. I pray it will do the same for you.”

Michael E. Lamb, Controller for the City of Pittsburgh, with Connemara roots, believes “Marty’s blue-collar, working class, labor union background will be enormously helpful. He understands the value of family sustaining jobs and the important role of public education. His background has naturally instilled in him a sense of social and economic justice.”

His brother Jim Lamb, president of the Ireland Institute of Pittsburgh and a longtime Northern Ireland peace advocate, likes Walsh’s approach to building coalitions. “The unfortunate reality is that city politics – whether its in Belfast or Dublin, Pittsburgh or Boston – is all about turf and loyalty,” he says. “The only way to get anything done is to reach out and build those alliances with elected officials and other leaders, regardless of party.”

Speaking of Belfast, Walsh visited the city in 2010 to view the city’s new ice hockey arena, where the Boston Bruins played the Belfast Giants. Walsh met community organizers and discussed economic development. Lord Mayor Máirtín Ó Muilleoir recently sent Walsh a congratulatory message and invited him to visit Belfast again.

Irish-American leaders also hope Walsh takes an active role in the nation’s immigration reform movement.

“One of the first things you’ll see Marty address in the City of Boston is immigration,” says Bill McGowan, who helped create Boston’s immigration movement in the 1980s that led to the Donnelly Visa.  As a child of Irish immigrants, McGowan says Walsh has a special understanding of how immigrants contribute to American society.

Bruce Morrison, former U.S. Congress-man and a leading advocate for immigration reform in D.C., says, “Marty Walsh is the kind of grass roots political leader that gives voice to the needs of real people. One of those needs is to remake our immigration system so that it allows immigrants to contribute to the growth and prosperity of communities like Boston without undermining the job opportunities of those already here.

“Marty can speak up…for a system of future flows that keep the door open to traditional communities like the Irish, while welcoming newcomers from places that are new to the American experience,” says Morrison, who authored the Morrison Visa bill in 1992.

Rekindling the Connemara-Boston Connection 

A side benefit of Walsh’s heightened profile is that it shines a light on the deep-rooted connections between Connemara and Boston. While crediting Dorchester as the place that nurtured and shaped him, Walsh also speaks lovingly of his ancestral home of Connemara, a place that still fills him with pride and joy.

“Every summer I’d go over as a kid to my grandparents’ house in Rosmuc, where my mother is from,” Walsh told Boston Globe travel writer Thomas Breathnach.  I loved it there: planting cabbage or sowing potatoes in the fields, feeding the chickens or fishing on the pier.”

Today, the people of Connemara are proudly claiming Walsh as a native son.  The headline in the Galway Advertiser read, “Marty Walsh victory in Boston heralded as ‘great day for Galway,’” while the Connacht Tribune announced, “Connemara man elected mayor of Boston.”

Colm Gannon, an All-Ireland button accordion champion from Dorchester who moved back to Spiddel and opened his own music store, says that Walsh’s candidacy has filled Connemara with “the sense of pride and anticipation (that) is overwhelming. The place is filled with Marty Walsh bumper stickers and Marty for Mayor tee shirts. I can honestly say that the buzz throughout the whole campaign was electric.”

Likewise, a special bond exists in Boston for Connemara, as immigrants stayed true to their cultural traditions even as they assimilated into American life. Johnny Joyce, from Innishbarr in Lettermore, came to Dorchester in 1955, followed by several of his sisters who settled in Boston and Pittsburgh. Joyce’s home sickness promoted him and Martin O’Donnell to form the Boston Irish Rowing Club, where immigrants could gather to race their prized currach boats

on Boston Harbor and socialize afterwards.

Dorchester’s publisher Paul Feeney, whose parents came from Spiddel, wrote in his weekly Boston City Paper that Walsh’s victory was a testament to that immigrant community. “How proud we are of our parents and grandparents, our aunts and uncles from the old country who have inspired us all with their love of America, their deep religious faith, their hard working nature and the pride in their culture.”

Walsh’s cousin Joe O’Malley says,  “When I was growing up in Dorchester, you were either from Connemara or Kerry. Whether it was the currach races in Boston Harbor, or the ceili dances at the Irish Social Club, the Connemara community always came together. When Marty was running for state representative in 1997, everyone came out of the woodwork to help.”

It was the same with the mayor’s race,  when local notables like boxing champ Sean Mannion, Irish speaker Michael Newell, and sean nos singer Mairin Ui Cheide all volunteered on the campaign.

Mayor Walsh has a full agenda right now, but still, the nagging question around Boston is: Will he be going to Ireland anytime soon? It certainly seems so. Days after his November victory, Walsh spoke to Raidió na Gaeltachta, greeting the audience in Irish. He promised to visit Connemara in 2014, and rumor is that that trip will take place in April.

When he returns, Walsh will be assured of a royal welcome befitting a native son who has done Connemara proud. And meanwhile, here in Boston, it is apparent that there is no Last Hurrah for the Irish coming to this town anytime soon.

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