Conference Explores Irish-American Impact on Culture, Politics

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Former Boston Mayor Ray Flynn discusses Irish Americans in Massachusetts politics as former Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and Chancellor Marty Meehan listen.

By Jill Gambon

Though their ancestors may have arrived in the United States with little money and even less clout, Irish-Americans have had an enduring impact on local, national and even global politics, through grassroots organizing, a commitment to their values and a bit of luck. That was the consensus of panelists discussing Irish Americans and Massachusetts politics at a recent conference at the university’s Inn and Conference Center.

“We are all products of our environment. We bring with us the values of our family, our church and our community,” said former Boston Mayor and Vatican Ambassador Ray Flynn, who participated in the panel on along with former Maryland Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend and David Bartley, former speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives. Chancellor Marty Meehan moderated the wide-ranging discussion, which was part of the three-day “Irish in Massachusetts: Historical Significance, Lasting Legacy” conference.

Presented by UMass Lowell and Queens University Belfast, the conference drew more than 100 attendees and explored such topics as Irish history, sports, immigration and literature as well as the Irish in Lowell.

During the discussion on politics, panelists described how the discrimination against Irish Americans that limited access to jobs, education and other opportunities, was a formative experience for many.

Kennedy Townsend, daughter of the late U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, recalled that her Irish Catholic grandmother Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy never got over the prejudice she experienced as a young girl growing up in Boston, a city that was run by Brahmin elites.

“The prejudice that you experience when you are young stays with you. That sense of loss stays with you,” she said. Rose’s experience is something she imparted to her children, which shaped Robert Kennedy’s commitment to the civil rights movement, Kennedy Townsend said.

Flynn said the ability of Irish Americans to organize and mobilize at the grassroots level has changed the course of history in Massachusetts and beyond, from passing the state’s landmark special education law to impacting the Irish peace process. That tradition of citizen engagement is something that needs to be revived, he said.

“We need to get back to the grassroots movement,” he said.

The conference was the result of a 5-year-old partnership between UMass Lowell and Queens University that has also includes research collaboration, student exchanges and faculty visits. One of the most high-profile activities between the two institutions has been the Irish-American Heritage Archaeological Program, under which researchers have excavated sites in Lowell and Northern Ireland to trace the history of immigration. Artifacts recovered during the digs were on display at the conference.