Bill O’Donnell, the longtime columnist for the Boston Irish Reporter whose bona fides as a chronicler of all things Irish in the greater Boston area brook few comparisons, has put down his Reporter’s Notebook and called it a day, citing a need to take it easier. His final column appeared in the November 2017 edition of the BIR.
In a poignant note to BIR editors announcing his retirement, Bill thanked them for providing the space each month to a “scraggety, aging, half-assed wannabe to use the freedom (not absolutely, thank God) to say the truth aloud in ink-driven form, truth without shame or reticence.”
He added: “I am moving along in time, having served in a wonderful enterprise with imaginative colleagues beside me as we stood in service to that one great imperative – truth.”
Here's a selection of notes and comment from Bill O’Donnell in the BIR over the years
“We Remember 9/11 – It has been a fast-moving, fraught decade since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on America. The recent Seals raid that removed Bin Laden from our midst did not solve America’s political, financial, or social problems but it told a world too often doubtful of America’s spine and resilience that we can still take care of business.
“I clearly remember that September day when the planes crashed into the two towers and the Pentagon and into that Pennsylvania field because we were in Ireland, outside Dundalk to be precise, following an overnight flight into Dublin. It was great fun to be back and along with favorite in-laws. The four of us, Jean and myself and my sister-in-law Pat and husband Will had left Logan the evening of Sept. 10 and arrived at the airport after a fast flight from Boston very early in the Irish morning of the 11th.
“The five-hour time difference meant we were with our hosts at the Trainor family home well before the planes crashed in Manhattan. We saw the second plane, United Airline Flight 175, on live television crash into the South Tower of the World Trade Center at 9:03 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time; American Airlines Flight 11 had struck the North Tower of the Center 17 minutes earlier, which we did not see.
“We spent the next two weeks traveling through northeastern Ireland, to places like Waterford, Cork, Mayo, Galway, Clare, and Kerry. It was, after our scores of Irish visits over the years, the most unsettling and surreal but memorable of our trips there. The Kindness of the Irish, the reaching out, the understanding and, yes, the tears from strangers once they knew we were Yanks, was profound in its communion, the benchmark Irish oneness with America. The warmth of the Irish people in those wary, uncertain days is a fresh and recurring memory.
“After several frantic days trying to reach our daughter by phone we finally talked, uncertain if our return flight date or time could or would be honored. We learned that our daughter Erin, 28, had lost a friend from years earlier, a Girl Scout pal she hadn’t seen in years. The news that Amy Jarret, the former scouting friend, had been a crew member among the 65 people on United Flight 175 brought the substance and sadness of the 9/11 loss into even more painful focus for her, for us … and so it has remained.”
“NY Times Student Deaths Article “A Disgrace” – What should have been a straight-ahead story of the accidental deaths of six young Irish students here on J-1 student work visas was badly botched by the New York Times last month. In the Times story of the collapse of an apartment balcony in California that killed the six students and badly hurt seven others, the Times focused on student partying and the “raucous life in a college town at night” before it moved onto the lead: the tragic loss of life of students who were celebrating a twenty-first birthday party on a balcony possibly flawed in its construction. The possibility that there were faulty materials in the balcony that had been further weakened by weather and overcrowding is also being investigated.
“Not only did the story essentially and cruelly overpower the fact of the deaths of the young students by citing two incidents elsewhere with other students that zeroed in on wrecked apartments and visiting student misbehavior, but it also went on to call the J-1 visa program “a source of embarrassment for Ireland.” This surely comes as news to the Irish government and program officials who have been fully supportive of the program links with Boston and other US cities.
“Back in the 1990s, I worked with scores of students on work-study programs that came to Boston from Irish venues, north and south, nationalist and unionist. They came from Belfast, Dublin, Derry, Letterkenny, and other places. The students were welcomed into the homes of Boston-area host families and split their duty schedules between relevant college courses and work that reflected their future work specialities. In all the time I ran these programs we had just one young man who was sent home early. He had come to the states from Ireland with a drug addiction problem and returned home for medical attention. In the main, these were great young people, eager, curious, hardworking, and a credit,to Ireland and their respective programs. I loved working with those young people.
“The Times apologized for its misguided coverage of the balcony tragedy following a barrage of critical stories about the report. The article, however, remained for a time on the newspaper’s website.
“I recall writing in a previous column about a San Francisco apartment that was wrecked by several J-1 visa student renters. What I recall well was a media follow-up to that San Francisco incident that detailed a number of students and other program participants showing up to work, volunteering and actively cleaning, repairing, and repainting the wrecked apartment, in essence apologizing for the bad behavior of program colleagues who did the damage and had returned to Ireland.
“That important “good news” aftermath of the San Francisco apartment assault was not mentioned in the Times article. A negligent omission! Ireland and the young people who come here representing Ireland north and south deserve far better at the hand of one of America’s most prestigious journals.
“Returning to Kerry – the Flahertys and the O’Donnells – My cousin Dan Flaherty died twenty years ago at age 53. As he left us, he was doing what he loved: tending his sheep atop the mountain overlooking the farm below that he shared with his wife Eileen and daughter Margaret. I love all the Flahertys, but I reserve a special place for Dan. He was a community leader, a regular in the Castlemaine players group, and a much-loved performer in his neighborhood musicales. And from our first meeting almost 30 years ago, he was my friend. The following account of that first meeting with our Irish family members was published 29 years ago and I dedicate it now to Dan Flaherty and the cousins in County Kerry and beyond.
“Reaching back back into the past and confronting your beginnings has grown compulsively popular and very much the buffed personal journey to take in recent years. Much of the allure of the genealogical mania has rightly been attributed to Alex Haley and his book and TV series “Roots.” But for Irish Americans who have found the excellent Irish Catholic Church records compelling, and the proximity of their native land a boon to ancestor-hunting, the roots of the old country have long held a potent fascination
“John F. Kennedy, as president, visited his forebears’ homestead in June of 1963 and the photographs showing him with his Wexford cousins quickly became the focal point of his Irish pilgrimage —and front page, happy-time news around the world. Who can forget the beaming young world leader standing near the humble Dunganstown home of his grandfather surrounded by his equally delighted Irish relatives. That image contributed greatly, at least among the American Irish, to the upsurge of interest in Ireland and those who came before us.
“Yet despite all that and a personal, quiet longing to someday visit the birthplace of my mother’s parents, Tadgh Flaherty and Annie Griffin Flaherty, I had resisted the temptation on many earlier Irish trips to “intrude” on ordered lives and separate worlds. The attempt to connect with ancestors in Ireland was simply something I would get to later. I had no idea, of course, if any Irish relatives were still alive and living in Ireland, and if so, what their reaction might be if a “Yank cousin” and his trailing family actually presented themselves at their front door.
“Just a kernel of family lore: I knew from early on that my maternal grandparents had come to this country from Ireland around the turn of the century. I could vividly recall the difficulty I had as a youngster trying to decipher my grandparents’ brogues on our Sunday excursions to Dorchester from Somerville. But beyond that meager kernel of family history, I knew nothing further. But this year, 1983, I told myself on our annual visit to Ireland with my wife Jean and daughter Erin, it would be different.
“The trail began close to home in Dorchester, when my mother’s brother Timmy handed me two long-forgotten Irish registry certificates. The papers confirmed that both grandparents were born and baptized in the district of Castlemaine, a small farming community over the Slieve Mish Mountains from Tralee in County Kerry.
“The next portion of the link was St. Gobnait Parish in Castlemaine. The church pastor, Father Casey, who, when we knocked on his door, didn’t seem at all surprised either at our visit or our request for information. After introductions and cold drinks for his three visitors, the priest produced from a nearby cabinet what looked to be a Dickensian ledger book, the official record of baptisms in the parish. Almost before the good Father could complete his apology about the parish’s “poor record-keeping,” he was tracing his finger along the neatly scripted entries of a century ago. It was all there: both my mother’s parents’ baptismal dates and godparents’ names. All the godparents would show up later as sponsors of a succeeding generation of new births.
“All told the entire process, exclusive of the hospitality, at the parish office had consumed less than ten minutes. Our next stop, as directed, was at the “Keel Church” some two miles away on the main road where Tadgh and Annie were christened; Tadgh in 1875, Annie in 1878. I couldn’t keep my eyes off a large, ornate crystal baptismal font where a century earlier both, as infants, had been christened. I had difficulty reconciling the two elderly Irish I knew from Lafield Street in Dorchester and the two babies that began their lives on St. Gobnait’s altar here in Kerry in the late-19th century.
“But now, leaving the church, it was time (ready or not) to meet the cousins, who Father Casey told us were only minutes away. Our first stop was a small farm at the curve-end of a slim dirt road in the Shanachill section of Castlemaine. There a man pitching hay listened patiently to our story, nodded knowingly, and directed us to a farm building up the road where, he assured us we would find “your cousins, the Flahertys.” And so we did.
“We wouldn’t meet Dan, who was in Tralee, until later that evening, but his brother George, a bachelor who owned and worked a nearby farm —another second cousin (our grandfathers were brothers) welcomed us with conversation, tea, and open arms. George introduced his mother, Margaret Flaherty, widow of George’s father Dan Sr. George explained that he had long expected cousins from the states would someday come calling, and there we were. During the following talk-filled hours as we sat in the farmhouse kitchen we discussed decades-old leavings and homecomings, births and deaths, and the sudden-new family history of both the stateside and Kerry Flahertys.
“Extended family” time – Photographs of Irish relatives I had never met nor would ever meet, were taken down from the mantle and the term “extended family” took on a new dimension. I would learn from George and Dan the adventurous lives of the peripatetic Flahertys of Ireland. I discovered that four brothers, Matt, Tom, Dan, and Tadgh (Tim) had emigrated to America in search of that better life. One brother, Dan, father of the Dan I was sitting across from, homesick for the gentle, rolling farm country surrounding the River Maine, would return home after nine years in America. The other three brothers, including my grandfather Tadgh, would never return.