By Ray O’Hanlon
A political event of near seismic proportions took place in the vicinity of Boston last week. Voters went to the polls in the Democratic party primary in the 8th Congressional District and decided not to send an Irish American to Congress.
The heavens didn’t exactly fall, but the aftermath of this most traditional of primary contests does signal a change to all those who consider Boston politics, in the 8th District at least, to be the exclusive preserve of the leading Irish American/Democratic Party vote getter.
The chosen Democrat this time around is rooted not in Ireland, but Italy. Michael Capuano, mayor of the town of Somerville, is poised to inherit the seat being vacated by Rep. Joe Kennedy.
In the primary, Capuano beat Ray Flynn, former mayor of Boston and U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, as well as several other Irish candidates.
Should Capuano eventually go to Washington, he will join Boston Mayor Tommy Menino in the city’s growing Italian-American political elite. Flynn, meanwhile, has now been succeeded and beaten by sons of Italy in his political backyard. Between both events he spent his time in, of all places, Italy.
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The current governor of Massachusetts, Paul Celucci, is also Italian American although with Irish roots on his mother’s side. So what’s up? Is Massachusetts, and Boston in particular, losing its once overwhelming Irish political hue.
Well, not exactly, according to Kevin O’Neill, professor of History and specialist in Irish Studies at Boston College.
"The 8th has always been a diverse district and it’s been a long time since you could speak of it as an Irish district," O’Neill told the Echo.
O’Neill describes the race for the 8th — which, depending on your point of view, Capuano won or Flynn lost — as being a little crazy.
"There were six candidates within five percentage points of each other and no one broke out of the pack," he said. "Flynn attracted both positive and negative votes."
In addition to the crowded field, the "Irish vote" was broken up between four distinctly Irish candidates, Flynn being only one of them.
"The Irish vote was split, but nobody really worried about it," O’Neill said. "Italian Americans coming in first is a logical extension of ethnic politics in Boston. Italians have long been junior partners in the coalition led by the Irish. But Irish Americans are becoming less ethnocentric in their voting."
Higher echelons of leadership
O’Neill believes that Boston’s Irish might be losing their once absolute grip on grassroots politics. But this is not due to any overall decline in influence. Quite the contrary.
"Irish Americans have moved into the higher echelons of leadership in the political, economic and cultural life of the city," he said.
Still, there are those who will lament the passing of an era. The area covered by the present 8th District — which includes Cambridge and Harvard, Brighton, Allston, Somerville, parts of the South End and Roxbury — has been a political battle ground since the days when Irish politicians in Massachusetts were of a breed that considered politics a right of passage to manhood, victory an absolute imperative.
The wars between Boston Yankees and the emerging Irish upstarts in the late 19th and early 20th centuries are the stuff of legend in Boston. The 8th was part of the front line, its streets the trenches. The district gave political birth to the "Rascal King," Mayor James Michael Curley, who dominated city politics for the better part of half a century. It started John F. Kennedy on the road to Washington. The late Tip O’Neill began his journey to the speaker’s chair from the 8th. Joe Kennedy, son of Sen. Robert Kennedy, took over by something approaching divine right.
So for those Irish Americans who consider Massachusetts politics a simple process of replacing Irish with Irish, the defeat of Ray Flynn is indeed something of a landmark.
And Flynn wasn’t the only big name Irish casualty in the primaries. Former Rep. Brian Donnelly, whose name is attached to thousands of green cards in Irish-born hands, was beaten in the race to choose a Democrat to challenge Gov. Celucci in November’s election.
The Irish of Massachusetts will survive this political jolt. As O’Neill pointed out, they no longer depend on politics for direct employment or patronage.
And in the words of Thomas O’Connor, author of "The Boston Irish," "They might do well to concentrate on those areas of city life they feel are most in need of their special knowledge."
Still, it’s hard not so see last week’s result as a last hurrah of sorts, another link with glorious times past now cut and lost forever.