Boston mayor credits Irish aunts with his victory

US-born Marty J Walsh says he is proud of his Irish heritage

Martin J Walsh, the new mayor of Boston, jokes that it was his two Irish aunts, one travelling from Galway and the other from England, that "put me over the top" in his election win earlier this month.

The son of Irish emigrants, a Democratic state representative in Massachusetts of 16 years, "Marty" had his aunts out "knocking doors and visiting people" in the lead-up to the November 5th ballot.

Walsh (46) maintains a strong allegiance to one of the headlands east of Boston – Connemara. His late father John was from Callowfeenish in Carna, while his mother Mary O’Malley (71) comes from a few parishes further away, in Ros Cide, Ros Muc. The couple emigrated to Boston in the 1950s and settled in Dorchester, an Irish stronghold outside the city.

Boston’s mayor-elect used to visit Connemara every year. On each trip back, he visits the grave of his grandparents at the Atlantic-sprayed cemetery on Mweenish, the island a few miles out by road from Carna.

"It has been a couple of years since I have been back but I plan on going back after the new year," he says. Walsh will be sworn in on January 6th, replacing Thomas Menino.

Walsh's story is remarkable. At the age of seven, doctors gave him six months after he was diagnosed with Burkitt's lymphoma, a form of cancer.

A special First Communion was held at Christmas because doctors feared he wouldn’t make it to the following spring.

He was treated with radiation and chemotherapy and beat the cancer.

“Having cancer at a young age I didn’t really understand what that meant but as I got older I realised it was a very serious time in my life,” he says.

As a twentysomething, Walsh and two friends were the victims of an early-morning shooting on St Patrick’s Day in 1990, caught up in the aftermath of a bar fight between two other men in Dorchester.

Walsh has also struggled with alcohol; he last tasted alcohol on April 23rd, 1995, and since then has helped others battle the bottle. His own fight gave him an advantage in his recent election, he says.

“Overcoming alcoholism gives you strong inner strength and the ability to deal with issues and look at life a day at a time rather than worry about things on a larger scale. I take my life a day at a time and do the challenges in front of me for that particular day and my job for that day,” he says.

“As far as being a candidate it gave me a certain amount of drive. I didn’t look at the end of the campaign – I took a day at a time. That gave me a competitive edge over a lot of people in the race.”

Labour was Walsh’s route in politics. Seeing his uncle, the well-known Boston union leader Pat Walsh, in action gave him a taste for representing others and, through a job in construction, he found himself involved in a local building union before running and becoming a state representative in 1997.

The hard-working ethos inspired by his parents and being the son of Irish emigrants has shaped him, creating “a different dynamic”.

Irish heritage
"I look at the story of my father and mother growing up on a farm in Ireland and working hard and never getting anything handed to them . . .That is very much part of my Irish heritage. I am very proud of my Irish heritage," said Walsh, who like his mother, is an Irish speaker.

Campaigning on inequality, improving public education and fighting gun violence, Walsh has pledged transparency and inclusion in government. His election and that of Bill de Blasio in New York, who ran on an equality platform, show public disillusionment with the wide gulf between the rich and the poor. The working class is just looking for “representation and opportunity” to improve their lives, he says.

“It is up to us to work with the business community, work with rich communities, to create opportunities for the middle class and the poor,” said Walsh.

Walsh urges Democrats and Republicans in Washington to end their political stalemate and address issues such as immigration reform that affects many immigrants in the US, including the Irish.

“Both parties need to start looking across the aisle and start putting the American people first and stop putting their personal feelings on issues first. That’s not right. They are hurting themselves,” he said.

As Boston puts an ugly episode in its history behind it with last week’s sentencing of Irish- American gangster James “Whitey” Bulger to life behind bars, Walsh says the crime boss doesn’t represent Irish Boston. He doesn’t categorise him like that, he says, just like he wouldn’t “go after” the culture of the Boston marathon bombers, the Tsarnaev brothers. “They were just bad people.”

Walsh recognises the first anniversary of the bombings in April will be emotional, particularly because he knows the family of Martin Richard, the eight-year-old who was killed in the bombings, from Dorchester. He has already thought a little about how, as mayor, the city will handle the anniversary.

“Boston is a strong city. What this bombing did was actually bring Boston together,” he said. “We are going to make sure that people feel safe coming to the marathon and that we move Boston forward.”

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell

Simon Carswell is The Irish Times’s Public Affairs Editor and former Washington correspondent