Brian Donnelly (1946-2023)
Former congressman and champion of Irish immigration reform Brian Donnelly died in February, aged 76. Over his 24-year career in public service, Donnelly was most widely recognized for his sponsorship of what was aptly called “Donnelly visas” which enabled over 25,000 Irish immigrants to make a fresh start in the U.S.
A Massachusetts native with roots in Galway, Donnelly was born in Boston and raised in Dorchester to Lawrence and Louise Donnelly. He grew up in St. Gregory’s parish, graduated from Boston University in 1970, and taught and coached briefly for Boston Public Schools before he entered the political sphere. He served in the lower state legislature, then was elected to Congress in 1979, where he faithfully represented a constituency including Boston wards 15-18 and the cities of Quincy and Brockton for over a decade.
When an immigration reform bill was making the rounds in 1986, Donnelly saw an opportunity for thousands of residents of his district, and rallied other congressmen to apply an amendment to increase the number of visas available to Irish natives “adversely affected” by earlier immigration laws. When the amendment was rejected, they formed an opposing bloc to keep the bill from passing without it.
“I’d heard so many stories in Boston – and particularly around the Irish community in Dorchester – of people who were in the US without a work permit who couldn’t go home for family funerals and other important events,” Donnelly recalled in an interview with the Connacht Tribune. “The Immigration Act was going through Congress at that time; a once-in-a-generation chance to make a difference. But we needed our wits to make sure it worked for the Irish.” And it did work. Though lauded for his part in the process, Donnelly downplayed his role.
“So much in life is about three things – the right person in the right place at the right time. I guess I was that person.”
Upon leaving Congress, Donnelly served as ambassadorship to Trinidad and Tobago, from 1994-1997 before retiring from public life.
He was a “Democrat of the old school who thought the party should be there for people who live paycheck to paycheck and work with their hands for a living. That was his animating principle. He wasn’t someone consumed by ideology, he wanted to get things done,” Donnelly’s nephew and godson Larry Donnelly offered Boston Irish in a heartfelt send-off. “He never had to fake authenticity. He was a very real politician. That’s why he was so loved by so many people.”
Donnelly is predeceased by his brothers Lawrence and Paul. He leaves behind his wife Virginia, sister Louise, children Lauren and Brian, and grandchildren Charlie, Billy, and James.
Thomas R. Donahue (1928-2023)
Labor and democracy activist Thomas Donahue died in February, aged 94. While his 16-year tenure as secretary-treasurer of the A.F.L.-C.I.O. was his most high-profile position in the political world, Donahue worked tirelessly in support of workers’ rights and protections in a career that spanned several decades.
A third-generation Irish American, Donahue was one of four children born to Thomas Sr. and Mary Donahue in the Bronx, N.Y. He found his vocation in labor relations, working his way through a bachelor’s degree in the field from Manhattan College with a part-time job as an organizer for the Retail Clerks International Association. Leaving Fordham with a law degree in 1956, he racked up experience, eventually becoming an assistant secretary of labor in the Johnson administration.
Donahue came into the A.F.L.-C.I.O. as an assistant to founder George Meany, then took up the deputy position to Lane Kirkland while he was president, responsible for promoting, lobbying, and bridging the gap between labor and environmental activism. He took his role very seriously, asserting in a report to the council that “the only effective answer to organized greed is organized labor.” When Kirkland was removed in 1995, Donahue served as the interim president for a few months, but lost the next election to the opposition due to accumulated frustrations with a wave of labor policy failures.
He went on to serve on the National Endowment of Democracy in 1997, noting, “It’s a delusion to believe that just because there are no longer dictators in X number of states or that the Communist system has died that democracy will flourish. It won’t. It needs to be assisted and supported in every possible way.”
Donahue was honored with the Democracy Service Medal in a St. Patrick’s Day celebration.
“Tom was an innovator, intellectual and a visionary labor leader who was ahead of his time,” current A.F.L.-C.I.O. president Liz Shuler and secretary-treasurer Fred Redmond shared in a tribute. “Long before the future of work and the impact of technology on workers became a robust policy debate, Donahue was creating a blueprint for unions that encouraged experimentation with new approaches and technology to expand worker organizing and increase the labor movement’s influence.”
Donahue is predeceased by his son Thomas, who died in 2018. He is survived by his wife Rachelle Horowitz, daughter Nancy, and six grandchildren.
Delia Roche Kelly (1948-2023)
Irish ex-pat and socialite-turned-business owner Delia Roche Kelly died in February at age 74. The child of affluence more than proved her mettle when forced to tread her own path, taking New York by storm with her resilient sense of humor and fierce passion for life and all of its tumult.
The second of seven children born to Matt and Patricia Gallagher, Kelly was raised in Dublin on a lavish estate – the returns of her father’s good fortune as a real estate developer. She married Michael Roche Kelly at age 20 and had two children, Michael and Alannah, by the time she was 23. In 1979, she went on tour with the London Royal Ballet Company and launched a brief television career as a presenter on RTÉ’s Positively Healthy broadcast. Her marriage broke up in 1981, followed quickly by the collapse of her family’s finances. She moved to New York and was met with a warm welcome (in the form of Dom Perignon and Waterford glasses) by true-blue friend Courtney Kennedy.
The concept for a supper club was born, and was soon “Delia’s” a fixture on the lower east side. The club would host John F. Kennedy, Jr.’s birthday parties, any number of the N.Y.C. Irish community, and celebrities, including Uma Thurman and Oprah Winfrey before Kelly sold it in the 1990s.
She met her long-term partner, Val Mikhailov, in 1987. He was the love of her life – and vice versa,” Kelly’s daughter Alannah told the Independent. “She spent most of the time living in her home in the Upper West Side in Manhattan with Val. Mum just enjoyed life to the full in New York.”
In addition to Val, Delia leaves behind siblings Maureen and Kathryn, children Michael and Alannah, and grandchildren Harper and Bennett.
Angela Lansbury (1925-2022)
Beloved actress Angela Lansbury died in October 2022, aged 96. While best known for her long-running stint as the lead on the detective show Murder, She Wrote, her accolade-studded career made Lansbury a household name spanning generations of stage, film, and television audiences.
She was born in London to actress and Belfast native Moyna McGill and Edgar Lansbury. Her career started with a bang at age 17 with a supporting role in Gaslight, earning her first of three Oscar nominations and a firm foothold in show business. Lansbury made a home on the stage as well, winning her first of five Tony awards as the title character of the 1966 musical Mame. She put down roots in Ballycotton, County Cork in the 1970s. “I find it an extraordinarily warm and informal place to live,” she explained to the Irish Post in 2014. “On the street people say, ‘Hi, how are you?’ and I say ‘I’m grand; how are you?’ It’s a very easy-going place to be.”
Murder, She Wrote was an opportunity for Lansbury in many ways: a new medium, a chance to shine in the lead, and an exercise in creative control. “I wanted her to be real. I didn’t want to have to put on any kind of veneer for 24 hours a day,” she told The New York Times. “I could do what I do best and have little chance to play – a sincere, down-to-earth woman.” She did not waste that opportunity. The show ran for 12 seasons and four TV movies with a laundry list of iconic guest stars, Lansbury received 12 Emmy nominations for her performance, and set a Guinness World Record as Jessica Fletcher: Most Prolific Amateur Sleuth.
Actor Josh Gad summed up countless testaments to the actress’s enduring legacy. “It is rare that one person can touch multiple generations, creating a breadth of work that defines decade after decade,” he tweeted. “Angela Lansbury was that artist.”
Lansbury was graced with an honorary Oscar in 2013, a damehood of the British Empire in 2014 (approved by the Irish government, as she was a dual citizen), and a lifetime achievement award at the Dublin International Film Festival in 2016. She leaves behind her brother Edgar; children Anthony, Deidre, and David; three grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren. She is predeceased by her husband of more than 50 years, Peter Shaw.
Patricia Young O’Connor (1928-2023)
Former officer and long-standing member of the County Cork Association of New York, Patricia Young O’Connor died in March at the age of 95. Her accolades include recognitions as a 50-, 60-, and 70-year member, and 2007’s Cork Woman of the Year.
Born in Dunmanway, County Cork, O’Connor was a middle child of 14. After immigrating with her family to the U.S., she eventually settled in Rockaway, N.Y. Fervently proud of her home, she became a key member of the Cork Ladies Auxiliary Association, serving as president 1960-1963. After the group merged with the Men’s Association in 1983, O’Connor took on the role of recording secretary, which she held for 17 years, attending each event faithfully as a “great ambassador for the Rebel County,” to which the organization attested in the statement released on her death. She was named a delegate to the United Irish Counties Association as well.
Friends Denis and Bridget McCarthy offered an online tribute:. “In grateful appreciation, knowing Patricia Young O’Connor,” they said, “who was a wonderful woman, a blessed soul, and tremendous advocate of her Cork Irish heritage.”
“My beloved sister was an example to me and so many other people for her kindness, generosity, and her unfailing encouragement,” O’Connor’s sister, Grainne Kearns, added. “Patricia deserves her reward, to sit beside her Maker and loved ones.”
O’Connor was preceded in death by her husband Denis; son Liam and daughter Myra; and siblings Jim, Tom, Myra, Eamonn, Fachtna, Berna, Gay, and Kieran. She is mourned by her remaining siblings, Eithne, Brian, Coleman, Grainne, and Stella; children Brendan, Mona, and Bess; grandsons Michael and Denis; and numerous nieces, nephews, and cousins.
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