Boston Irish Politics

Charles Vallely '06, English 171, Sages and Satirists, Brown University, 2005

Tip O'Neill, then Speaker of the House, sits in his office and lights a sizeable cigar just beneath his large afnd bulbous nose. The cigar looks like it came straight from Winston Churchill's personal humidor. Tip wraps his full index finger around it, and offers one to Mike Barnicle, a young columnist from the Boston Globe. Tip is in his early 70s, with a full head of white hair, a bulky frame, and a Boston accent. He knows Barnicle from the late 1960s, when Barnicle worked as an elevator operator in the Capitol. Tip waits, with the stogie hanging from his lip, for Francois Mitterand, the President of France, who was in Washington at the time to address a joint-session of Congress.

Mitterand enters the office. Tip rises to meet him, shakes his hand, and turns to Barnicle to introduce him to M. Mitterand.

"Mr. President," he says, "I want you to meet the greatest writer" — he takes the cigar from his mouth — "in America."

Mitterand smiles nervously. He's never heard of Barnicle. He's certainly never read his 750 word columns on the Boston busing riots of the 1970s. But he wants to be polite.

"Mr. Barnicle," says the leader of the Fifth Republic, "we are familiar with your work."

Two Boston Irish boys — one from Cambridge, the other from Fitchburg — waiting in a smoke-filled room for the President of France. Of course, one is second in line to succeed the president, but that doesn't change the fact that he drops his r's from the ends of his words, and tacks them on at the end of "idea". Or that his skin burns in the blink of an eye when exposed to the Cape Cod sun. Or that he's been nicknamed after a baseball player, James "Tip" O'Neill, for most all of his life. Two Boston Irish Boys, God love 'em — the Big Wig with the Churchill, and the Greatest Writer in America — having some Frenchy over to talk politics. They're in the Capitol. Sure. But they might as well be at Doyle's in Jamaica Plain, talking about the Central Artery traffic, or the state-rep job in the 8th Suffolk, or the Red Sox and how they'll never win. All with Franky from France, who enters through a cloud of smoke and says that he and the rest of his country are familiar with all of this. Jesus Christ. God love 'im.

Or, at least, that's how I've always imagined it. That's what I thought when my father first told me that story, as we drove on Mystic Ave., away from the heart of the Big Dig. His left hand rested on the wheel, as his right held an imaginary Churchill. The Speaker's accent came all too naturally to him. His M. Mitterand, on the other hand, was somewhat lacking in authenticity. But he repeated the punch-line, as he often does, enough times until it sounded right — enough times until the exact cadence was etched into my memory.

* * *

In 1980, Kevin White, mayor of Boston from 1968 to 1983, unveiled two bronze statues of James Michael Curley, which stood in a small, circular courtyard named "Curley Memorial Plaza." Curley — also known as "Boss," or "The Purple Shamrock," or, as author Jack Beatty called him, "The Racal King" — was the centerpiece of the Boston-Irish Political Machine of the first half of the 20th Century. A first generation American, born to parents from County Galway, Curley served four terms as mayor of Boston (1914-1918, 1922-1926, 1930-1934 and 1947-1949), and one term as the Governor of Massachusetts (1935-1937). He also served two terms in the clink: in 1904, he was elected to the Board of Alderman while in prison on fraud charges; in 1947, he was convicted of mail-fraud, but pardoned by President Truman after five months.

Curley mobilized his Irish Catholic constituents, doing what machine bosses usually do. He gave them all municipal jobs and created a network of favors — a network of McDonoughs, O'Learys, Flannagans and O'Malleys. At the height of his power, you couldn't get a job unless your name began with an "O" or a "Mc." "Irish Need Not Apply" took on a different meaning — the job was theirs for the taking.

He also stuck it to the Boston Brahmins — the old, blue-blooded families like the Adamses, Cabots, Quincys, Winthrops, Eliots, and Emersons — encouraging them to move from their Beacon Hill town-houses into the suburbs, which further skewed the electorate in his favor.

Few political tactics were below Curley. One such tactic sounds more like a trick a teenager pulls to get his friend in trouble: Curley had his cronies ring doorbells at odd hours of the night, and when the potential voter came to the door, the cronies asked them to vote for whoever Curley was running against at the time. The voter, bleary-eyed and agitated, slams the door shut, and decides right then and there to never vote for whoever-that-was. For whoever had the gall to send his people around hours before the sun rose. For whoever didn't have the name Curley, God love the bastard.

The two statues of this incorrigible rogue stand behind Boston City Hall — a hulking eye-sore of pre-cast concrete — and in front of Quincy Market. Actually, only one of them stands, as the other sits on a park-bench about seven feet away, with his right hand on his knee, and his left elbow resting on the top of the bench-back. The standing Curley is smack-dab in the center of the circular brick plaza, which seems to emanate out from his feet. He wears a swallow-tail coat and a tightly-buttoned vest, which his ample and rounded gut threatens to bust through. By the looks of it, Curley never turned down a steak-dinner, and he must have received the offer every night.

Though not a physically imposing figure, Curley stands confidently with his arms at his sides. He looks ready to bump chests with somebody — anybody — if his stomach weren't in the way. He looks ready to go out on the stump, and stick his gut out even further. He looks ready to pound a lectern with a clenched fist, look a Putnam dead in the eye, and keep pounding that lectern for working families in South Boston, Dorchester and Charlestown.

But the other Curley, well, the old bastard just sits there. He wears the same vest and the same tailcoat, but his stomach doesn't protrude, because of the arch in his back. He sits there on the periphery of the circling bricks, with the "Purple Shamrock" bar behind him, staring down at the other end of the bench. He sits there like he's sitting in his 21-room mansion in Jamaica Plain — the one with the Italian marble fireplace, the three-story spiral-staircase and the shamrocks carved into all 30 of the window shutters. Fuckin' beautiful. That "two-toilet Irish" bastard, God love 'im, sitting there with his crystal chandelier overhead, looking down at the bench, as the other Curley stands for the working man in front of him.

* * *

My father's father, James Leo Vallely, was a Boston Irishman, but not a Curley Man. Not at first, at least. James Leo, later known alternately as The Judge, was elected to the Massachusetts legislature in 1939, from West Roxbury. He was a reformer, opposed to Curley and his spoils system. But his political career was put on hiatus during his second term, when he resigned to join the Navy as a pilot, lawyer, and administrator of a squadron on the USS Essex.

When he returned to Boston he struggled to find a job. The Hub was still The Boss' town, and he wasn't in the Boss' corner. But he had his wife, Marge, and three kids — James 2d, Mary and Martha — to think about. Jesus Christ, how the hell was he going to get a job without that McScoundrel?

He couldn't. So he had a couple of friends set up a meeting with the Purple Shamrock, swallowed his pride, and asked for a job. Curley gave him one. He made James Valley a junior official in the Corporation Council Department. Nothing big — a small job, actually — but a job nonetheless. Curley brought him in. He made him a Curley Man.

And a Curley Man he became — lock, stock, and barrel. He changed his alliances, and actively supported Curley in 1949, during his final mayoral bid. Edward O'Connor wrote a novel about the race, substituting the fictional Frank Skeffington for Curley. The book was entitled The Last Hurrah. That it was: Curley lost on November 8, 1949, to the reformer, John Hynes. After years of being oiled by patronage, the Curley machine came to a grinding halt. And on January 6, 1950, the twelfth and final day of Christmas, Hynes swept the system clean of Curley, firing the O'Shaughnessys, Mulligans and Boyles — his whole fraternal pack of those loyal Irish boys — and, along with them, a Vallely.

On that day, the day of the Epiphany, Marge Vallely gave birth to her and James Leo Vallely's fourth child and second son, Thomas John Vallely. My father, born on the Last Hurrah, f'r chrissake.


My father remembers his first book-report well. It was the first day back to the Newton public school system, after a summer on the Cape. The girl who went before him — no older than 10 years of age — gave an ambitious presentation on Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities. My father then stepped before the class, and presented on a book he had read at least a half a dozen times over the summer months: the manual for an outboard motor. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

But the second report he gave — the first on a real book — was on James Michael Curley's autobiography, I'd Do It Again. Curley, who never held a political office after his last mayoral bid, died on November 12, 1958, before my father gave his book-report. But his status as a cultural hero, for the Irish Catholic community, lived long after.

"I always wanted to be mayor growing up," my father said.

And why not? Greatest City in America, covered by the Greatest Writers in America, with the Red Sox playing a 20-minute walk from the golden dome of the State House. What more could a 10 year-old ask for? There was no position higher, no dream loftier, than the mayorship of Boston.

And for an Irish boy, no dream seemed more plausible: the mayorship of Boston is an Irishman's job. The first Irish Catholic mayor of Boston was Hugh O'Brien, elected in 1884. Then came Patrick Collins, elected in 1902. But these were real straight-off-the-boat Irish Irishmen. The first Boston-born Irish mayor was John Francis "Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald — John Fitzgerald Kennedy's grandfather. Some say they called him "Honey Fitz" because of his amiable personality; others say it was because of his lovely singing voice, which he couldn't resist using, either sober or drunk, on the stump or at a ballgame, cheering on his beloved Sox. Either way, here was a real charmer, a master of what author Robert Dallek called "The Irish Switch": Honey Fitz could shake someone's hand while talking to another and winking fondly at a third. Just beautiful. God bless the stubby-legged, Irish-switchin' bastard, working three people at once like some Irish Charisma Machine.

Honey Fitz got the job again 1911. Curley followed in 1914, serving his first term. Then Curley served another term, from 1922 to 1926. But when he was elected a third time, at the end of 1929, he began the Irish-American monopolization of the Boston mayorship. The next seven mayors (including another term for Curley), over the next 63 years, were Irish-Americans. Curley. Frederick Mansfield. Maurice Tobin. John Kerrigan. Curley again. John Hynes. John Collins. Kevin White. Raymond Flynn. All Irish-Americans until Mayor Tom Menino, an Italian-American, broke the chain in 1993. And even though Hynes brought down the Curley machine, he was still an Irish lad. Still a member of that fraternity that sat in the Big Chair, smoked big cigars, and had convention centers, bridges, streets and memorial plazas named after them.

In 1966, when Collins was mayor, my father took his first step towards becoming mayor himself. He worked for Foster Furcolo — an Italian-American, and governor of Massachusetts from 1957 to 1961 — in his campaign for attorney-general. At the age of 16, he drove Furcolo's "sound truck," which was, essentially, an ice-cream truck that blared Foster's theme over a crackling PA system. The theme-highly unoriginally, but extremely catchy-was set to the tune of the "The Bridge on the River Kwai" theme. The first line, which my father sings with a cadence remembered 40 years later, went like this:

Let's go, for Foster FUR-ca-lo! For Democratic! Let all the people know!

I'm not sure what came after. But I don't think it matters much, because it's all there in that first line — the candidate's name, the Democratic Party, and spreading the word. All set to the famous River Kwai Whistle. What else would you need? Maybe, in a few neighborhoods, an explanation for why the candidate's name ends with an "o." But other than that, you've got the perfect campaign tool: 16-year-olds, some who might want to be mayor someday, driving old ice-cream trucks around Boston, literally drumming up support with an old movie jingle.

* * *

When my father served in the state legislature, as the representative of the 8th Suffolk District, he got a call from his mother, Marge. It concerned her brother-in-law, Frank Myers, a veteran of the Second World War.

"Thomas, you know I've never asked anything of you in your life," she said. "But you must find a way to get your Uncle Frank into the Chelsea Soldier's Home."

Marge was, as my father told me, a "very proper woman" — certainly not one to ask for strings to be pulled. But Uncle Frank was in bad shape, and the waiting-list at the Chelsea Soldier's Home was long.

My father put the phone down, and picked it back up. He dialed a man who was the general counsel to the Massachusetts House of Representatives and a legal consultant for the Red Sox. He was what my father called a "go through guy," which meant that, while Marge never partook in the Favors Game, he played quite frequently. Daily, even. No, he played more than that. As his name suggests, he lived the goddamn game. Because this man's name, believe it or not, was Deals Donovan.

John "Deals" Donovan. A man of both politics and the law with the nickname Deals. Sure, there are lots of ethical and wholly legal deals to be made in both fields. Politics and the law are, by nature, systems that facilitate deals. But bearing the nickname Deals intimates that ethics and legality have not always taken precedence. And as far as I know, everyone called him Deals. "John" was simply something for paperwork.

"Deals," my father implored, "I need to get my uncle into the Chelsea Soldier's Home, and I was wondering if I could ask you for help."

"Tommy," Deals replied, "that's not a problem. I think he can probably go over there tomorrow afternoon."

"Oh, thank you, Deals."

"Tommy, we'll get everything set up so he can stay there for the rest of his life."

"I appreciate it, Deals."

"Tommy, I know you appreciate it very much. By the way, Tommy, there's a bill coming up to make my brother Bobby's job a life-time job. So, maybe we could have your uncle and my brother set for the rest of their lives."

Bobby was, not coincidentally, commandant of the Chelsea's Soldier Home. Deals was, of course, living up to his name.

"Deals," my father said, "that's the kind of stability our veterans need."

When the bill came up on the floor of the House — in the room of Honduras mahogany, with the Sacred Cod, a five-foot long carving given to the House in 1784, hanging above-my father pushed the green button on his desk. His vote lit up on the big board at the front of the room for all to see.

Two members of the House — both Republicans — looked up at the big board and scratched their heads. My father was a reformer from a "silk-stocking" district and adamantly against the boss leadership that, among other things, tried to get a life-long appointment for the brother of Deals Donovan.

"Tommy, Tommy, you voted wrong," they said, almost nervously.

"No," my father said. "I'm a veteran. You guys don't understand the veteran situation."

The bill died on the floor with only a handful of votes for Bobby Donovan's commandant monopolization. It didn't stand a chance. My father's vote, I imagine, stuck out like a lighthouse in the middle of the ocean. And at the top of the tower, in a comfortable room, sat Uncle Frank. . . the very next day.

That Irish Bastard, Deals Donovan, pulling strings to get a vote for his brother. Tom Vallely, that Irish Son of a Bitch, throwing away a vote for Deals, his uncle, and, most of all, his mother. Jesus Christ. Deals Donovan — sure, boy-putting Uncle Frank in the veteran's home. A vote in the State House-built in 1798 on John Hancock's Brahmin land coming down to two familial obligations. Two strains of Irish-American blood.

* * *

As it is for many ethnicities, blood is a big part of it all. It's why old family friends look at you with delighted disbelief and say that you look more and more like your father every day. But, no, their spouse disagrees, you look more like your mother, because of the eyes, or the hair, or the nose. It's why you name your first-born after yourself, and hope that he makes good on it. It's why the old Irish-American sentimentalists say they still bleed green.

My blood-tie ended the day of my birth. A sort of reprise of the Last Hurrah. Born on May 20, 1984 — 57 years to the day after Charles Lindbergh took off aboard the "Spirit of St. Louis" — I was put up for adoption by people of German and Norwegian blood. My biological parents couldn't muster a single Irish drop. On June 1, I was taken home to 137 Marlborough St., right in the heart of the 8th Suffolk District.

Adoption was never a topic of discomfort growing up. In fact, I felt all too comfortable with it, and like to think I got some mileage out of it. At a young age, I played the adoption card for the sake of individuality: none of my 2nd Grade friends could lay claim to such an eccentric personal trait. I particularly relished my Norwegian heritage, which I equated with Vikings. I imagine there were days when I told my astounded grammar-school comrades that, yes, I was directly related to Leif Erickson.

But adoption always seemed to linger in this realm of myth-of fjords, helmets with horns, and cross-country skiing. Otherwise, it never had much bearing. I never felt alienated from my family, or ever thought that I should. The blood-tie seemed trivial, or like nothing at all. This was the only thing that astounded my grammar-school comrades more than my Viking ancestry. It made no sense to them that I was not curious about the whereabouts of my "real parents," or that I didn't have grand plans of hunting them down, and reconnecting with my Nordic roots. They harped on the term "real parents" like a politician propagating a talking-point, and as if Tom and Tory Vallely were part of a dream-world. For them, the blood-tie was the only thing that was real. It meant absolutely everything.

Perhaps it never struck me as important that I wasn't carrying on the Vallely blood-line — the Irish-American male legacy — because I can not only pass as an Irish-American, I could probably pose for Irish tourism brochures-puckering up to the Blarney Stone, or crossing the Trinity campus with a tome of George Bernard Shaw under my arm, or enjoying a pint in a Kilkenny pub. I have the smallish, upturned nose (not the Tip O'Neil variety), the large face, the blue eyes, and impossibly pale skin. Going to the beach is more of a task than a diversion. Of course, on top of it all, there is the clincher — the red hair. And it's not a subtle auburn or reddish blonde. If anything, it's closer to orange. It might as well be the flag of St. Patrick draped over my head. When my parents were told that I was of Norwegian and German descent, they must have meant that I actually came from some place equidistant from those nations' capitals, Oslo and Berlin. Like Dublin, f'r chrissake.

I have to be Irish — and, Jesus Christ-God bless me if not. God bless the bastard who doesn't bleed green.

* * *

My father left public office in 1986, after pulling out of the race to represent the Eight Congressional of Massachusetts — a position vacated by Tip O'Neill's retirement. His chances were dealt a devastating blow when Joseph Patrick Kennedy II — the first son of Robert Francis Kennedy — entered the race. That self-entitled Boston-Irish legacy bastard, with his silk ties and tennis lessons, his summers at the Compound and a name meant for the ballot. Tommy V. changed his campaign slogan to "vote for the Other Guy". But the writing on the wall spelled out Kennedy's name in bold, history-laden letters.

At the time, I was two years old. I remember nothing of my father's time in office, and only have one story that directly links me to his political career: on the day he announced his candidacy for the Eight Congressional, my Aunt Maeve, who was babysitting me at the time, lost me in the headquarters. I disappeared. The only story of myself that I have, and I'm nowhere to be found.

Accordingly, my childhood conception of politics is quite different. I never wanted to be mayor. For me, politics centered on the singular event of Election Day. Because on that day, in the late afternoon, my mother or father would take me to the Johnson Building of the Boston Public Library-only four blocks from our "silk-stocking" district townhouse. We approached the grey Modernist façade from Exeter St., and the people holding signs on the sidewalk came into sight as we cleared the corner of Boylston St. We passed by, maybe said "hi" to a familiar face or two. Then we entered the library and descended into the basement to wait in line for someone to emerge from one of the veiled voting blocks. When the time came, we went in and drew the curtain closed. I sat on my mother's or father's lap, as they went through all of the races on the face of the antiquated machine. Mayor. State Rep. Treasurer. Comptroller. Yes or No on Question 4. On 6. On 8. The Sullivans and the Kellys must have peppered the face of that board.

But this was all build-up to that one final decisive moment — the voting coupe de grace — when my mother or father gave me the sign to grab the red-lever, and pull down with all my weight so that the machine emitted the satisfying sound of a quick churning and a thud, as the very gears of democracy turned.

Jesus Christ, that was politics. That, and never — under any circumstances — using the library bathrooms, because they weren't safe, not even on Election Day in the Greatest City in America. Politics meant holding it in until the gears had been turned and we had made the four-block march back to our two-toilet home. No Deals, no Honey Fitz. No smoke rising from Tip's cigar from beneath his large nose, as M. Mitterand breathes it all in, takes a good look at the Irish bastard and says he's familiar. Familiar with this-Jesus, Mary and Joseph.

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Last modified 24 May 2005