Brian Donnelly left us a remarkable legacy

Brian Donnelly, the Lower Mills guy from St Gregory’s parish who served six years as a Dorchester state rep and fourteen years as a member of Congress, will be memorialized this month when the Irish Cultural Centre gathers to present the first “Brian Donnelly Award for Leadership in Public Service” at a reception on Sept. 21 at the Omni Parker House in downtown Boston.

The event will honor Donnelly’s legacy, with proceeds to support the cultural programs at the centre in Canton, say the organizers.

The inaugural awardee will be Jim Brett, himself also a former Dot state legislator and, for more than two decades, the head of the New England Council. Brett, a lifelong advocate for persons with disabilities, chairs President Biden’s Committee for People with Intellectual Disabilities.

“Brian Donnelly’s commitment to public service spanned his entire career,” the ICC stated. “One of his most passionate projects was creating the Donnelly Visa, which helped many in Ireland to emigrate to the United States to follow the American dream. This program extended to other nations and has had a profound impact on tens of thousands of families who now proudly call America home.”

I was fortunate to have known Brian and his brother Paul from early on – they lived a couple of blocks from my house in Dorchester. They were raised in a family of generational ties to politics: In the first half of last century, their mother’s family was active in Meetinghouse Hill; an uncle, Francis “Sweepstakes” Kelly, served in the Boston City Council and was elected as the state’s lieutenant governor and attorney general. Brian entered politics in 1972, winning election in his first attempt for public office. In 1978, he won a tight race to succeed Congressman Jim Burke, and stayed in the US House through the Carter, Reagan and George H. W. Bush presidencies.

In 1993, after stepping down from Congress, my family and I joined him on our first trip to Ireland, where he was awarded an honorary degree from University College/Galway. Before we left Dorchester, Brian told me, “You’re going to love Galway. It’s a wonderful university town, full of life.” He cautioned me, though: “You’re going to see people there who you will swear you know from Lower Mills. They look just like people we know, but it’s not them – it’s their cousins.”

I knew that he had an aunt who owned a small dry goods store in town, and when we stopped at Brian’s favorite local pub, Richardson’s Bar at #1 Eyre Square, it was festooned with Boston memorabilia and Donnelly campaign signs, so I imagined I was bound to see faces that looked familiar.

Sure enough, as I was walking down the street near the Spanish Arch, I saw a guy standing on the corner, smoking a cigarette, and in the early evening twilight, he looked just like one of the Donnellys from Lower Mills. When I get closer, I realized it wasn’t a Donnelly cousin; it was Brian himself, out catching some early evening breezes. He clearly loved that city, and he loved the heritage that propelled his career.

Later that year, Bill Clinton appointed him as ambassador to Trinidad & Tobago. On his return to Boston in late 1997, he sought the Democratic nomination for governor of Massachusetts. But he came up short in the ’98 primary, and his party’s candidate, Scott Harshbarger, lost the election to the interim incumbent, Paul Cellucci.

So ended Brian Donnelly’s political life. He settled with his family in his home on Cape Cod, and regrettably, many of his longtime friends lost contact with him.

The memorial event this month will be a bittersweet one for this Brian Donnelly admirer. It was just ten months ago that he made a return visit to Ireland – his “farewell tour” – visiting with relatives, and meeting with US Ambassador Claire Cronin. We reported on his visit, and hoped it signaled a time for him to connect with old friends. But it wasn’t to be. He passed away on Feb 28, 2023.

What will long linger with this award is the recognition by his hometown of Brian’s legacy of honorable and meaningful public service. To me, that legacy, and a life well lived, adds up to something truly special.