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Working with the inimitable ‘Tip’

By Joe Leary, Special to the BIR, special to the BIR, August 2, 2012

Tip O'Neill meets with his friend, Joe LearyTip O'Neill meets with his friend, Joe Leary

In early 1990, through the intercession of two friends, the famous Dr. Tom Durant of MGH and the speaker’s nephew, Brian O’Neill, Esq., I first met the then-retired O’Neill at his office in Washington. My mission was to request that he become a spokesman for the Partnership, signing letters endorsing our work in Ireland, and joining our National Golf Tour as chairman.
I was, of course, very nervous and had practiced what I was going to say all that morning because I was about to meet the man who had served his district in Massachusetts in Congress for 35 years, the last 10 of them as manager of our national House of Representatives. He had dealt with, agreed and disagreed with, and compromised with Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, and Reagan. Memorably, he had called Ronald Reagan “Herbert Hoover with a smile” while fighting the Republican right and calling their possible election “a Christmas Party for the rich.” And he had challenged many tough, brilliant men and more often than not won his point with them.

While fidgeting in my chair, I saw the speaker as he came into the room from his apartment above the office. He was in his late 70s at the time, wearing a light blue cardigan with his well-combed mass of white hair coming down over his forehead. It wasn’t so much his size that impressed me; it was the immense sense of power that he seemed to exude.
He sat down at his desk and after his son Christopher joined us, we began to discuss the Partnership. I could tell right away this was not going to be easy. The speaker did not suffer fools gladly. During my pitch, he interrupted to ask, “Are you in the IRA, Leary?” No sir, I answered quickly. “How do I know that?” he said. Well, you can talk with the British Embassy or the Irish Embassy, they both know our role in Northern Ireland, I replied.
Almost immediately, “Tip” said, “Okay, I love Ireland and I’ll help you. Write what you want and I’ll sign it.” With that, Christopher, a Washington lawyer, wisely spoke up and suggested that he review what we write. I thanked the speaker and he was on to other business. I was still nervous when I left.
That was the beginning of our relationship with Speaker O’Neill, who continued to work with the Partnership until his death in January 1994.
He helped grow the Partnership and gathered donors from nearly every state in the United States. In the direct mail business at the time, what are called “donor acquisition mailings” rarely made money. It always cost a certain amount to gain new donors. We mailed 100,000 letters to Irish names with O’Neill’s signature and much to everyone’s surprise we gained 2,000 new donors (a very good percentage) and created substantial funds for Partnership projects in Ireland. His reputation was obviously persuasive to all political parties – clear testimony as to how the American people felt about “Tip” O’Neill. We mailed 200,000 more solicitations over the next two years with the same results. The direct mail experts were astounded.
The speaker loved Ireland and was a frequent visitor, especially to play golf. We asked him if he would like to present some of our grants to Irish schools and disadvantaged areas. As Brian O’Neill, who accompanied him to Ireland on several trips, has said many times, “My uncle loved to give away the Partnership’s money.” On one occasion, “Tip” visited the Ballymun Job Center in North Dublin with a Partnership check in hand. The Garda were not pleased that he would go to such a tough place. We still have the pictures.
On another trip, where he attended a reception at our offices on St. Stephen’s Green, O’Neill was joined by our chairman, General Kelley, to present a $100,000 grant to the Blennerville Windmill complex in Tralee. The folks from Tralee in County Kerry traveled to Dublin for the award. It was as if the speaker were a returning hero to the people of Dublin. The barely manageable crowds lined up in the street trying to get in, giving the police a difficult time. Former Taoiseach Jack Lynch came to pay his respects and they greeted each other like long lost brothers.
The speaker and the general were on opposite ends of the political spectrum in the United States. But when the 1983 bombing of the barracks in Lebanon tragically took the lives of 220 Marines, leading some Democratic members of the House of Representatives to call for the head of Gen. Kelley, the Marines Commandant, the speaker would have none of it. His loyalty to Massachusetts came into play; he was from North Cambridge and the four-star general, a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was from West Roxbury. The congressman called the general during the furor and told him not to worry; he would take care of his West Roxbury neighbor.
On another trip to Dublin we arranged a breakfast at the speaker’s frequent hotel, the Westbury, for him and a visiting member of our board of directors, Frank Kelley, Michigan’s attorney general. I was privileged to be there as Tip told joke after joke and Kelley wrote them done as fast as he could, noting that they would be great at home. He was laughing so hard – we all were - that it was hard for him to write.
There was so much to this great man that I could go on for pages. The Partnership was proud to be associated with Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill Jr. Men like him don’t come along very often. I will never forget the experiences.
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Donegal will salute ‘Tip’ O’Neill’s roots with Diaspora award
Next month, Co. Donegal will host the first annual Tip O”Neill Diaspora award to mark the centennial of the last US House speaker’s birth. Following is a brief sketch of the life and times of the legendary Cambridge native:
Irish-American through and through
Tip O’Neill knew he was Irish before he realized he was American. His grandfather Patrick emigrated from famine-ravaged Mallow in Cork with his two brothers in 1851 to work for the New England Brick Company in North Cambridge, Massachusetts. His father, also a union bricklayer, married Rose Tolan, whose people hailed from Buncrana in Donegal.
Raised in the “New Dublin” section of Cambridge, Tip was schooled in the Irish language by the sister of Terrance McSweeny, until she decided his family was too much assimilated and discontinued his lessons. In the days when Eamon deValera addressed tens of thousands in Boston, Tip’s house sported a “We gave to the IRA” sticker in its front window. When children across America played “cowboys and Indians,” Tip and his friends, growing up along the route followed by Paul Revere from Boston to Lexington and Concord, played “Patriots and Red Coats.”
Irish immigrants in the United States had a universally difficult time, but their reception in Boston was especially harsh. The Puritan English who preceded them despised them for their poverty, ignorance, and religion.
Although he had dropped out of school in the fifth grade, Tip’s father, Thomas, Sr., was very talented. He was elected to the Cambridge City Council and later, through civil service examination, became Cambridge Commissioner of Sewers, where he supervised the work of 1,000 city employees. During the dark days of the Great Depression when access to work was the most important political currency, Tom, Sr. was regarded as a significant local power.
Tom, Sr., imbued in his son the importance of loyalty; integrity – the imperative to lead a clean and honest life; responsibility to his fellow man; never to forget whence he came; and, that public service is an honorable and noble calling.
The community of working class Irish Americans in which he lived and his Roman Catholic faith strongly reinforced the imperative for social justice instilled in him by his father. It was inculcated in him by the Church and his parochial grade school and high school education at St. John the Evangelist parish in North Cambridge. The Jesuits at his alma mater, Boston College, where he received a classical liberal arts education, further honed the importance of social justice. Most importantly he wanted to work for that time when the people of his own Irish American community could fully share in the opportunities that America offered.
The mechanism he chose to accomplish that goal was politics. Never an ideologue, Tip O’Neill did however hew strongly to a political philosophy centered on people: politics was a vehicle to improve the lives of a country’s citizens, and government has a moral responsibility to aid those who need help. This “bread and butter” philosophy held that all Americans should have the wherewithal to feed, house, educate, and care for their own. To attain this goal, he dedicated fifty years in elected office to ensure that the government would encourage: an economy where everyone had access to honorable employment; education to allow people the opportunity to advance to the extent of their abilities; medical care and decent housing for Americans to live healthy and secure lives. He firmly believed that with each family so equipped, the nation would prosper.
Entering the State House: 1936
He was first elected as a Democrat to the Republican-dominated Massachusetts State legislature in 1936, representing the working class immigrant neighborhoods of North Cambridge. In the late 40’s, Congressman John McCormack believed that the time was right to recruit men returning from World War II to run for the state legislature, He encouraged Tip to travel around the State persuading popular young leaders to run as Democrats. For the first time in 168 years, the Democrats won the State legislature by the narrowest of margins, and Tip O’Neill was elected Speaker – the first Irish American and the first Catholic in Massachusetts ever do so and the youngest up to that point in time.
On to the Congress
In 1951, Congressman John F. Kennedy gave Tip advance notice that it was his intention to run for the Senate. Tip, whose highest ambition had been to be elected governor, saw the opening of this Congressional seat as a stepping stone to that goal. In a very tough campaign, Tip narrowly won the Democratic primary race by enlisting the support of independent as well as Democratic voters. Winning the primary in this congressional district was tantamount to being elected as no Republican could displace the Democrat in the general election.
In Washington, Tip soon became a protégé of Majority Leader John McCormack of Boston. As such Speaker Sam Rayburn invited him to join the powerful Rules Committee, overseeing those procedures that would govern each piece of legislation going to the floor of the House. Tip’s position on the committee allowed him to help expedite LBJ’s Great Society legislation. Thus he had an important hand in seeing that Medicare, Medicaid, Vista, and early childhood programs were adopted. Millions of federal dollars found their way to the cities as block grants. Throughout his tenure as a member of Congress, Tip strongly supported social legislation which would protect the weakest in society: Pell grants for college students, free school lunches, medical research, particularly on cancer, housing programs, and above all Social Security.
A man of vision, he labored with other visionaries to tie the North End to the rest of Boston by raising federal monies for the Big Dig.
A war and a scandal
Two important issues significantly influenced Tip’s congressional career: Vietnam and Watergate. He was the first of the mainstream Democrats to break with President Johnson over Vietnam. It was an unpopular move in his home district where many from the working class neighborhoods were fighting in the conflict. From 1966 to 1975 he fought to limit funding for that war.
It was as majority leader that he faced his next great political challenge. Shrewd enough to see the profound corruption of the Nixon administration, he quietly mobilized the members of the House to prepare for impeachment. Twenty one months after winning a landslide election, Richard Nixon resigned as President.
Homing in on the Troubles
Most Irish-Americans, separated from the Emerald Isle by more than a hundred years, two world wars and a depression, had little understanding of the disturbances taking place in Northern
Ireland. Tip’s first trip of many to Ireland was with his wife, Mildred, as part of a Congressional delegation in 1956. He subsequently led many delegations to Ireland to be briefed on the political situation in Northern Ireland. He was the first senior American government official to meet with all of the leaders of the political parties in Belfast in the early 80s.
Through the Congressional Friends of Ireland, annual St. Patrick day luncheons on the Hill, speaking engagements around the country, and interventions with President Reagan, Speaker O’Neill ensured that John Hume’s message of non-violent political discourse was the tactic of choice in resolving the Troubles.
Cited by Cork as a Freeman
He was proud of being named a Freeman of Cork during the 800th anniversary of that city in 1985, an honor that had previously been bestowed on Eamon de Valera and President Kennedy. In 1986 at an event honoring his retirement from Congress, the government of Ireland under the Taoiseach, Garrett Fitzgerald, conferred Irish nationality on the Speaker and Mildred O’Neill. At Tip’s passing in 1994, Taoiseach Albert Reynolds said of him: “At every stage of his life he was a close and warm friend of Ireland.”

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