Locals in Ireland anticipate first visit from Walsh as Boston mayor
Tour, seen as return to roots, includes region with Mass. ties
In honor of the homecoming, the family house in Rosmuc, an Irish-speaking village of 500 in the craggy, desolate hills of Connemara, got a new coat of paint. A nearby church planned a special Mass for the return of a man described as “Connemara’s Kennedy.”
Further out the coast, the village of Carna is preparing for what a local newspaper portrayed as “the biggest day in its history.” They are painting too, and mowing grass along the stone walls.
“My niece asked the other day, ‘What’s happening? Everybody is painting and fixing all around,’” recounted Maureen Senuta, an Irish immigrant from Carna who left 40 years ago for Dorchester but keeps in touch with home. “Somebody said, ‘The mayor is coming! The mayor of Boston is coming!’ ”
Martin J. Walsh will return to Ireland on Friday for his first visit since being elected mayor of Boston.
“They’re preparing as if it was the pope coming,” Senuta said. “It’s a big thing. They’re very proud.”
Over 11 days, Walsh will traverse the northern half of the island, driving some 800 miles from Galway to Donegal, then heading to Belfast and to Dublin. He will be feted by Irish officials, will tour businesses with ties to Boston, and will visit the shrine at Knock, where he prayed as a boy after being cured of cancer.
Walsh will also wade into the volatile politics of the sectarian divide in Northern Ireland and appear on a national television show in Dublin that is the Irish equivalent of “The Tonight Show.”
But the heart of the trip will be in rural Connemara, returning to the farmland, bogs, and rocky shore where he spent summers as a child.
His parents emigrated separately in the 1950s and met at a Boston dance hall on Dudley Street.
They frequently brought their two boys back home and the children forged indelible bonds with their Walsh relatives as well as O’Malleys, Mulkerrins, Cotters — aunts, uncles, cousins, and neighbors.
“While the president of the United States coming to Ireland is a very big thing, this is more personal. Here’s a laddie coming back to his roots,” said Mayor Donal Lyons of Galway, who will host a reception for Walsh at City Hall. “I’m sure it’s a proud moment for his mum that they are coming back nearly as heroes to the place she was born.”
There is a well-worn path to Boston from Connemara. The region has a rugged beauty, but it has some of the poorest agricultural land in Europe. Work has long been scarce. For generations, people have left in search of economic opportunity, and many followed their grandfathers, aunts and uncles, or siblings to Massachusetts.
“Boston to the west of Ireland and particularly Connemara is really looked at as their capital,” said Seosamh Cualáin, a member of county council who lives in Rosmuc. “There are so many people from Connemara that go to Boston. I had three uncles there myself. They’re all buried in Boston.”
Walsh will also spend three days in Northern Ireland, the corner of the island that remains part of the United Kingdom.
He will meet relatives of victims of the Ballymurphy Massacre, in which 11 civilians were killed in 1971 by the British army. He will also visit the Apprentice Boys Museum, a pro-British institution in Derry, and tour East Belfast, a unionist stronghold.
“We think it’s important that he sees every side and hears every story,” said Máirtín Muilleoir, the former lord mayor who signed an agreement with Walsh that made Belfast and Boston sister cities. “There’s no sense in coming here and just meeting people who are Irish nationalists. I think he’ll be moved by stories on all sides.”
Walsh’s entourage will be intimate. His mother is already there. The mayor will be accompanied by his longtime girlfriend, Lorrie Higgins; his corporation counsel, Eugene L. O’Flaherty, a close friend who also spent significant time in Ireland as a child; and O’Flaherty’s wife.
Sergeant Winifred Cotter, the head of Walsh’s police security detail, will also be on the trip. Cotter is Walsh’s cousin and her mother grew up in Carna, according to Connacht Tribune.
The overwhelming majority of the trip will not be paid by tax dollars, according to press secretary Kate Norton. Walsh and his companions will use their own money and campaign donations, Norton said.
Cotter’s travel expenses will covered by the city because she will be working as Walsh’s security. Norton said she could not provide an estimate before the trip of how much it will cost.
Walsh has been to Ireland up to 30 times and as recently as 2010.
He can remember visiting as early as 1972, when he was 5 years old. The family would go every few years. His mother often took the two boys for the summer and their father joined them for a week.
The day Walsh formally announced his candidacy in April 2013, he joked about the excitement building in Ireland for his run for mayor. It was all over the radio, and a local newspaper printed a picture of Walsh with President Obama under the banner headline: “Great for Galway.”
“If I could get some votes from there,” Walsh said over lunch that April. “That’s my unnamed precinct in Connemara.”
Like all trips back, Walsh will relish the taste of Irish sausage, texture of fresh brown bread, and sips of Cidona, a sparkling nonalcoholic apple juice.
He will visit his grandparents’ graves, think about his father, who died in 2010, and replay memories of his childhood.
“I’ll go back to the pier at the end of the road and I’ll take a walk through the fields and think about being a kid,” Walsh said this week.
But this will be special, Walsh said, returning for the first time as mayor.
“There’s so much pride,” he said. “I clearly didn’t grow up there, but in a sense it is going home.”