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Larry Donnelly 'I felt my late father was telling me to reconnect with old friends'

Our columnist finally returns to his home town of Boston after the post-Covid travel ban is lifted.

IT WAS WITH a range of emotions that I anticipated a recent long weekend trip back to Boston. Like most emigrants, I had not been to the place of my birth since before March of 2020, when the pandemic struck and our lives changed. And like many emigrants, I had suffered the loss of a loved one, my father, in the intervening months.

A family holiday this coming Christmas was planned long ago, but at the behest of my wife and in order to tie up some loose ends, I booked a plane ticket to spend a few days reuniting with relatives and friends prior to the commencement in earnest of an academic term in which we would be returning to campus amidst a lot of uncertainty. At first, I had resisted her entreaties, wary of how I would handle having to truly grapple with my father’s death.

Most visits there over the last decade had revolved around him. Initially, he would show up at a very early hour to rouse me out of bed for the memorable long walks we used to catch up as father and son on all that mattered to us, with politics featuring at the top of the list. Latterly, when his mental and physical condition deteriorated, I undertook those long walks on my own to see him in a nursing home a few miles from the house I grew up in.

From loss to reconnection

His physical presence would not be felt this time. The anchor of my stays in Boston would not be there – at least not in the same way. And the walk my brother and I embarked upon on this mid-September Friday was to see the gravestone which now bears his name, in addition to my mother’s, who predeceased him by a number of years.

It was something I had been dreading, yet when we arrived at the picturesque Milton Cemetery, where there are nearly as many tricolours as star spangled banners planted next to graves, it was actually a sense of peace, not grief, which I experienced. It was as if, in the manner only he could communicate it, Dad was saying: “Good to finally see you. Don’t be wasting your time here. Go have fun with your friends – and don’t get carried away… you know what I mean.”

I took him at his word. And it was absolutely wonderful to see everyone. There were house parties, meet-ups at our favourite haunts downtown and closer to the old stomping grounds, and a glorious Saturday afternoon was enjoyed at Fenway Park watching the Boston Red Sox defeat the Baltimore Orioles.

We are all getting older, as are our offspring, and much of the banter centred on the harsh realities of the ageing process. Suffice it to say that it’s a good thing none of us is remotely sensitive. We are quite accustomed to the well-worn insults that are repeatedly thrown in our respective directions. The contents of and sales prospects for my forthcoming memoir, in which unnamed pals receive prominent mention, provided a whole new means of abusing me, offset ever so slightly by the ruthless detractors’ pre-orders for it.

Political analysis

Our conversations inevitably turned to politics and affairs in the “new normal” engendered by Covid-19 in the United States and in Ireland. The hot topic there was the race to succeed Martin Walsh as the mayor of Boston.

Having vanquished their Black American rivals, two women of colour, Annissa Essaibi George (the daughter of Tunisian and Polish parents) and Michelle Wu (whose parents immigrated to the US from Taiwan) proceed to the November final. Essaibi George has been characterised as a moderate and rather unfairly by some as the candidate of “old Boston” while Wu has been endorsed by many progressives.

It should be said that at a gathering of my friends – almost all Irish Americans from what might be described as quintessential “old Boston” families who years ago departed the city for the suburbs – the support for Essaibi George approached unanimity. Leaving aside what can be extrapolated from that informal poll and how the campaign may twist and turn, there was a widespread acceptance that, in current US Secretary of Labour Walsh, we may have seen the last Irish American mayor of the country’s most Irish city.

A point I raised was the Biden administration’s decision to maintain the ban preventing fully vaccinated Irish citizens from travelling to the US during the summer, despite restrictions on travel to here having been lifted. My buddies reacted with befuddlement to the move and concurred with the prevalent view on this side of the Atlantic that it did not make any sense.

On the other hand, they, Republicans and Democrats alike, did not take kindly to the criticisms they have heard emanating from Ireland and elsewhere in the European Union in the wake of President Biden’s chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan.

While admitting that it had not been executed well and voicing sympathy for those consequently imperilled, the general reaction ran along these lines: “We’re the ones who’ve been there for 20 years. Thousands of our people died. If the Europeans feel that strongly, then send in their own soldiers to try and sort things out.”

The sentiments of these Boston area natives are broadly shared, though perhaps more venomously, throughout the US President Biden, to the chagrin of old allies, is pivoting inward, but he is following the clear wishes of Americans in doing so. Even those who disdain him or may be angry temporarily at how events played out in Kabul ultimately believe that the country’s energy and attention should be focused on the home front – especially as legislative wrangling over a debt ceiling and a proposed massive package of infrastructure investment unfolds in a hyper-partisan climate in Washington, DC.

The deeper debates with my old crew invariably gave way to light-hearted chats and mutual expressions of how great it was to see one another after a lengthy passage of time and an unprecedented period of public health crisis.

As I texted to them before my plane left Logan Airport, “there really is nothing like being with the friends you’ve known forever.” I know that many fellow emigrants agree and I sincerely hope they get to do something similar as soon as possible if they haven’t already.

As I battled through the horrendous jet lag that follows an overnight flight from the US, my wife asked how it all went. “There’s no place like home,” I said. “I’m just lucky to have two of them.”

Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with His new book – “The Bostonian: Life in an Irish American Political Family” – will be published by Gill Books on 15 October and can be pre-ordered here.

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