Letter from Wicklow

Family album: Above, my Uncle Brian and Aunt Ginny smile for the cameras during his unsuccessful campaign for governor of Massachusetts in 1998.



As I write, the proud veterans of the “Yes Equality” group, who campaigned to introduce same-sex marriage in Ireland by popular vote in a referendum held on May 22, 2015, are celebrating the anniversary of that historic triumph.  The Irish people strongly endorsed the principle that civil marriage should be available to gay and lesbian couples.
Newspaper headlines around the world heralded a seismic result.  Many commentators referred to the huge margin of victory as a repudiation of the Roman Catholic Church. As has been chronicled extensively, the church had exercised strict, uncompromising

authority over nearly every facet of Irish life since the foundation of the State – for far too long, frankly.

The vote for marriage equality was followed three years later by a similarly emphatic win for pro-choice advocates who persuaded approximately two-thirds of the electorate that the 8th Amendment to the Irish Constitution, which broadly prohibited abortion, should be repealed and a new, relatively liberal legal regime regulating the practice should take its place.  Abundant thought pieces have followed, juxtaposing the conservative belief systems of a substantial cohort of Irish Americans with the prevalence of more tolerant thinking in the old country.

Recent events, however, suggest that the reality is more complicated than the oft-reiterated narrative.  A disturbing video shot in the environs of a school in Navan, Co. Meath was circulated widely on social media.  It showed a 14-year-old boy with dyed blue hair being savagely beaten by a mob of classmates.  Whether the child is a member of the LGBT community or not, it is manifest that peers pummelled this young person repeatedly for one reason: Because he is different.

In inner city Dublin, a cluster of tents – where international protection seekers had been forced to live due to a vexed housing crisis discussed in this space previously – was set on fire by a mixed crowd of locals and hard right agitators from elsewhere.  Fortunately, no one was killed or injured. Again, the images shared on social media platforms depicted dozens of angry men and women shouting nasty epithets and congratulating one another for “evicting” the newcomers in their midst.

It might be comforting to dismiss what happened in Navan as an isolated incident perpetrated by a handful of misguided boys who are going to learn a lesson from it.  My own suspicion is that it is not, and that there are LGBT students throughout this island who endure physical bullying and other less obvious, though no less insidious, treatment on a daily basis.

Likewise, while I know that the vast majority unreservedly condemn the actions of those who torched rudimentary dwellings and meagre possessions on Dublin’s Sandwith Street, negativity and prejudicial attitudes toward those hoping to start a new life in Ireland are rife.  Protests – area residents in Co. Clare actually formed a blockade and cut off access to a disused facility being used to house protection seekers – against them are depressingly common.

In short, yes, the Ireland of 2023 is generally a welcoming, forward thinking place when compared to the past.  But what lies beneath the veneer is often darker.  To quote a slogan once employed to good effect by the Fianna Fáil party: “A lot done, more to do.”

Gaffes, yes, but Biden visit was a tremendous success
Leaving aside, for a second, the nitty gritty of politics and the 2024 race for the White House currently kicking off in earnest, President Joe Biden’s recent visit “home” to Ireland was a tremendous success.  Undeniably, there were a few gaffes.

His off-the-cuff, incorrect remark to distant cousin and ex-rugby star Rob Kearney about “having beaten the hell out of the Black and Tans” was one picked up by unfriendly politicians and journalists in the United Kingdom.  Unionists really should not have been overly aggrieved.  “Uncle Joe” has been unintentionally offending for decades!

What was unmistakable throughout the four days he spent in Belfast, Dublin, and his ancestral counties, Louth and Mayo, was genuine mutual affection.  Biden loves this place and its people and they loved him right back.  It is too early to assess the significance of this trip.

Yet in time, I think, it could rank up there with JFK’s storied 1963 pilgrimage in the hearts and minds of those of us who revere the sacred bond between Ireland and the United States.  Indeed, it may be sacrilege for a Massachusetts guy to say it, but Joe Biden’s commitment to, and understanding of, Irish affairs probably surpasses any of his predecessors, including President Kennedy.

I was lucky enough to have a front row seat for everything as I provided analysis on television and radio for the three full days of his time in the 26 counties for RTÉ, the national broadcaster, both in studio and at Dublin Castle.  It was an enjoyable experience.

At the personal level, the standout moments were seeing Air Force One land at Ireland West International Airport close to Knock, Co. Mayo, and then watching the president address a massive, boisterous crowd in the picturesque town of Ballina.  As all of us who have roots in the west of Ireland would attest, Joe Biden might have been “home” beforehand, but he was truly “home home” after his plane made it west of the Shannon!

RIP to my Uncle Brian
Sadly, my uncle and godfather, Brian Donnelly, a man who loved the west of Ireland, and Galway in particular, almost as much as his native Dorchester, died on the 28th of February, just prior to his 77th birthday.  A three-term state representative, a Congressman for 14 years, and the US Ambassador to Trinidad and Tobago during the Clinton presidency, Uncle Brian was best known for creating the Donnelly Visa, which allowed tens of thousands of Irish people a chance to live the American Dream.

Plenty has been written and said in the media by prominent individuals on each side of the Atlantic since he passed away.  The generous tributes have been a great comfort, especially to my Aunt Ginny and my cousins, Lauren and Brian.  Even Howie Carr, no fan of Democratic politicians, opined in the Boston Herald that he “wasn’t a bad guy” – an observation I know Uncle Brian would have chuckled at wryly.

Yet what absolutely blew me away was the reaction of friends, neighbours, and acquaintances here in Wicklow Town.  For weeks after the news of Uncle Brian’s death was announced, I was receiving sympathy cards and being approached on the street, after Mass, in the supermarket, at Wicklow Golf Club, and in the pub by well-wishers who wanted to convey their sympathies at the loss of a man whose extraordinary work on Ireland’s behalf they so appreciated and, in some instances, benefitted directly from.

A Donnelly Visa recipient put it best in a note to me some time ago: “Brian provided hope and a new life to many young Irish such as myself when opportunities in the economically depressed Ireland of the 1980s were very poor…perhaps you’d mention to him how thankful I am, and what an amazing gift he provided to us.  I owe a wonderful life to him.”
May my Uncle Brian rest in peace.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston born and educated attorney, a Law Lecturer at the University of Galway and a media commentator on politics, current affairs and law in Ireland and the US.  Twitter: @LarryPDonnelly