Last Sunday the vivacious Massachusetts state senator Linda Dorcena Forry burst onto the stage at the Boston Convention Centre singing If You're Irish, Come Into The Parlour and dancing to a full band. As the host of the annual South Boston St Patrick's Day breakfast, a fixture on the Massachusetts political calendar, she made an unforgettable entrance.
“Do not adjust your television set,” the black Haitian-American woman with an Irish husband told the audience watching the three-hour television special at home. “There is nothing wrong with the picture on your TV. That’s right. I’m a woman.”
The crowd erupted with applause. A political star was born. For the next three hours the politician from the strongly Irish neighbourhood of Dorchester had the 700-strong crowd in the palm of her hand.
Forry is the first non-male, non-white and non-resident of “Southie,” Boston’s most Irish of Irish enclaves, to host the breakfast that some date back to 1946 when Boston mayor James Michael Curley wanted somewhere to meet friends before the city’s St Patrick’s Day parade.
By the 1950s, the event was well-established. Former South Boston Senate president Bill Bulger, brother of arch criminal Whitey Bulger who was convicted of 11 murders last year, made the pre-parade breakfast his own after he began hosting it in 1971. He established a brand of merriment that turned the event into a "roast", where political rivals would poke fun at each another.
Traditionally hosted by all elected South Boston representatives, the role of MC falls to the area's sitting state senator. Those duties fell to Forry, state senator for Dorchester-South Boston. The previous host, city councillor Bill Linehan, wanted to remain on as host this year, turning the issue into an embarrassing media spat. Forry ridiculed Linehan throughout the breakfast. He wasn't there to defend himself; he was in Limerick for its St Patrick's Day parade.
As the first woman and the first black politician to hold the Dorchester-South Boston seat where more than 70 per cent of the people are white, Dorcena Forry has broken a barrier. In one funny pre-recorded television clip, she was shown in a tracksuit training " Rocky -style" to fit in with Southie's traditions of eating fast-food, double or triple parking, and protecting the deckchair outside your house.
All of the high-profile speakers at the event, from newly elected Boston mayor Marty Walsh to US senator Elizabeth Warren, heaped praise on the ground-breaking host and her performance.
“Have a good look, everybody,” State governor Deval Patrick, who is black, said, hugging Forry on stage. “This is what a Forry and a Patrick look like these days.” The crowd cheered again.
The multiracial nature of the event remained at odds with the biggest controversy of the weekend: the continuing refusal of the South Boston parade to permit openly gay marchers to participate.
There was little mention of it at the breakfast. Taoiseach Enda Kenny, who marched in the New York parade despite a similar ban on public expressions of gay pride, didn’t refer to it in his speech. Kenny hit a few bum notes as he dished out stats about Ireland’s falling bond yields and recovering economy to an audience who wanted gags with their eggs and bacon. Still, they applauded out of respect for having the first Taoiseach speak at their event.
In well over a dozen speeches over five days of engagements, Kenny returned to the same themes about Ireland’s economic resurrection and making the illegal Irish in the US legal.
In one of the more peculiar references of his US trip, the Taoiseach offered this preamble to explain why a proposed EU-US trade agreement was necessary: “We are here at a time in human history where one billion people starve, one billion people are obese and 4½ billion people in between are faced with a situation where for the first time in mankind’s long evolution dietary problems have outpaced medical problems.”
For the estimated 70 million (another of Mr Kenny’s figures) worldwide who claim Irish heritage, there couldn’t be a better ambassador for the changing face of the Irish diaspora than Linda Dorcena Forry.