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The senator is preparing breakfast- History in the making: Dorcena Forry to host St. Patrick’s Day fete

By Ed Forry, February 27, 2014

Congressman Stephen F. Lynch and Rep. Nick Collins joined State Senator Linda Dorcena Forry and Dorchester’s Donna Gittens, left, at Castle Island in South Boston on Sunday as the elected officials filmed video in preparation for the annual St. Patrick’s Day Breakfast. Forry will host the event on March 16. 	Photo courtesy Sen. Forry’s officeCongressman Stephen F. Lynch and Rep. Nick Collins joined State Senator Linda Dorcena Forry and Dorchester’s Donna Gittens, left, at Castle Island in South Boston on Sunday as the elected officials filmed video in preparation for the annual St. Patrick’s Day Breakfast. Forry will host the event on March 16. Photo courtesy Sen. Forry’s office

On Sun., March 16, the date of this year’s traditional St. Patrick’s Day Breakfast in South Boston, state Sen. Linda Dorcena Forry will make history. Her first turn as the host of the much-ballyhooed event will provide a political, cultural, and gender “hat trick” at a venue in South Boston that has always been where the Boston Irish “boyos” ruled the podium. As a Haitian American woman, a resident of Dorchester, and the first non-Irish-American host, Dorcena Forry will turn three stereotypes of the breakfast on their heads.

Dorcena Forry, who has been planning the program for her debut while working to raise the tens of thousands of dollars necessary to fund the event, said recently that Jack Hart, a former state senator from South Boston, and Congressman Stephen Lynch, also of South Boston, both of whom have been breakfast hosts, have been helpful to her in setting up the breakfast. “They have been key advisers and their teams have been stepping up to help my committee. So has Nick Collins as well,” she said, referring to the South Boston state representative who was her rival last year in the election for the state Senate seat.

Like past hosts, Dorcena Forry has remained coy about details big and small ahead of the breakfast, a big one being the name or names of guests from outside the Massachusetts political world who will be attending, and a small one being the nature of the planned skits. “We’re having fun, that’s all I can say,” she said, adding, “The set is going to change a little bit. Every host puts their own stamp on it.”

Asked about the historic nature of her hosting, Dorcena Forry said, “This event has always embraced the idea that everybody is Irish on St. Patrick’s Day.” She and her husband, Bill Forry, the editor of the Dorchester Reporter and associate editor with the Boston Irish Reporter, have four children, two boys and two girls. She has been to Ireland three times, she said, adding that celebrating Irish culture is something “we do anyway” at their home.

The breakfast will be telecast by New England Cable News beginning at 9 a.m.

Historically speaking, there are other urban myths about the breakfast that aren’t completely accurate. If you ask many in these parts how long the breakfast has been a tradition and how it has been run and by whom, the answers might run from “always” to “since the first parade” (officially in 1901). Many people would also assume that the event has always been a “political roast.” The facts are murkier, and a case can be made that the breakfast started as a dinner or banquet.

South Boston’s St. Patrick’s Day Breakfast owes a historical nod to the Charitable Irish Society. That venerable organization can lay virtually undisputed claim to the first St. Patrick’s Day event not only in Boston’s, but also in America. It was also the first to feature food and drink. On March 17, 1737, in the heart of Puritan Boston, 26 men gathered to commemorate a decidedly “Improper Bostonian” event. They were Irish-born individuals living in a place where most locals loathed anything that smacked of “popery”; celebrating a Catholic saint’s holy day could well have proven a risky proposition.

They pulled it off because they were Protestant; however, since some had been Roman Catholics who had “embraced” a new faith, their devotion to Protestantism may have been seen as wanting. The religious question aside, the men drew up a charter that professed their pride as sons of the Emerald Isle – and they were meeting on the day dedicated to Ireland’s patron saint.

The first Charitable Irish event did not take place in Southie. Of the first members of the Society, the historian James Bernard Cullen has written: “An important part of the membership of The Charitable Irish Society was the Irish Presbyterian Church, established in Boston in 1727. They first worshipped in a building which had been a barn on the corner of Berry Street and Long Lane [now Channing and Federal Streets]; and this unpretentious building served them, with the addition of a couple of wings, till 1744.”

Despite the Boston community’s continuing, and deeply rooted, prejudice against Catholics of the eighteenth century, the society ignored the religious restriction in 1764, just 27 years after the initial gathering, and it has held a dinner each St. Patrick’s Day since, save for a few gaps (the Revolution years, for one), toasting the old country and its patron saint.

The Society’s centennial celebration, held on March 17, 1837, featured a format that seems a distinct precursor to today’s South Boston breakfast. The festivities offered a special list of guests composing a “who’s who” of Boston’s movers and shakers: “Gov. Edward Everett, Mayor Samuel A. Eliot, Hon. Stephen Fairbanks, President of the Massachusetts Charitable Mechanic Association, the Rev. Mr. John Pierpont, the Hon. John P. Bigelow, Hon. Josiah Quincy, Jr.” and numerous other luminaries. Fairbanks delivered an address testifying to the fact that Boston Irishmen, Protestant and Catholic, were indeed making their way in the city. In no way was the event a roast, but it was a meeting of notable politicians and businessmen.

The historical seeds of the breakfast also began to sprout – and do so in Southie – as Irish Catholic immigrants landed in Boston in ever-increasing numbers in the 1840s and staked their claim to a new life in America. One of the early manifestations of the local Irish love for their old sod’s patron saint was the Shamrock Society, a social club that gathered on March 17 to defiantly toast the saint and “sing the old songs,” the revelers’ voices pealing from Dooley’s, the Mansion House, and Jameson’s. No single building, however, would long serve to hold the growing numbers of local Irish longing to celebrate the day in a bigger way. As one historian noted, “No banquet room was broad enough to comprehend all the Sons of Erin, even had they the price of dinner.”

Dinners and banquets, but not yet official “breakfasts,” followed the St. Patrick’s Day parades organized by the Ancient Order of Hibernians, which boasted some 8,000 members in Boston alone by 1900. Bands, organizations, refreshments – all were handled by the Hibernians’ Entertainment Committee. In the hands of Ward 17 boss “Pea Jacket” Maguire and other Boston Irish leaders, fun, festivities and pride in Irish roots ruled the city on March 17.

Come March 17, 1901, the blare of bands and the vibrations of marchers’ feet pealed above South Boston’s streets in the first official, city-sanctioned South Boston St. Patrick’s/Evacuation Day Parade. In its wake came post-march celebrations. Dignitaries in natty overcoats and top hats and figures such as Mayor Thomas Hart stepped from the open, horse-drawn carriages in which the city’s “high and mighty” had ridden in the parade and dashed into venerable Faneuil Hall for an official St. Patrick’s Day banquet.
It was hardly the politicos alone who partied on after the parade. Hordes of marchers and spectators streamed back to South Boston where the celebration of “all things Irish” continued in parish halls, in private homes, and at watering holes throughout the ward. A throng of Boston Irish jammed every inch of Gray’s Hall, nestled at the junction of I and Emerson Streets, for the South Boston Citizens’ Association banquet.

According to John Allison in his “History of the St. Patrick’s Day Breakfast,” the first public mention of the St. Patrick’s Day Breakfast came in the in March 1909 in the South Boston Gazette. At the Bellevue Hotel, Mayor George Hibbard hosted an 11 a.m. breakfast before the parade, the revelers including local and state politicians and military officers. Still, the breakfast was not held in 1910-1911, so it had not become an annual event, and certainly not one paid for by the city, as Hibbard’s event had been. Interestingly, no speeches were made nor were any jibes exchanged at the 1909 gathering.

Only when the city appropriated funds for the breakfast was it held intermittently between 1910-1920. In 1921, there was no breakfast, but 1925 brought both a breakfast and a pair of St. Patrick’s Day controversies. First, the Post Office in Boston seized a shipment of shamrocks from Ireland, then released them for the breakfast and parade under pressure from politicians and civic groups. Then came a row over invitations to the breakfast when J. Philip O’Connell, Boston’s Director of Public Celebrations, reserved 24 of 90 seats for city officials, but the Evacuation Committee griped that he did not leave them enough seats for other dignitaries. Newspapers’ coverage of the disputes referred to the St. Patrick’s Day gathering as the “Mayor’s Breakfast.”

Perhaps the most notable aspect of the 1921 event was the resemblance it bore to today’s breakfast. “Himself” – Mayor James Michael Curley – made “a witty speech” in which he leveled barbs at friends and foes alike. E. Michael Sullivan then stood and sang “The Wearing of the Green.”

Of the 1925 gathering, Allison writes: “These traits identify this breakfast as a very close ancestor of today’s event. However, it was still not an annual event. By World War II there was no mention of a breakfast.”

City Councilor Joseph Scannell hosted Mayor Maurice Tobin at an informal gathering before the 1941 parade, but there were few mentions in the papers of any St. Patrick’s Day gathering during the war years of 1942-1944. In March 1945, the Boston Gazette related that supporters of Mayor John Kerrigan wanted to hold a breakfast reception for him before the parade. In a move that would be incomprehensible today, Kerrigan nixed the idea because he “did not want any political demonstrations.”

Politics and a turf war of sorts surrounded both the intermittent breakfast and the annual parade in the years after World War II. From 1901 on, the South Boston Citizen’s Association had ruled the St. Patrick’s Day roost. But Allied Veterans Council members argued that because the parade was largely “a military procession,” they should run it and the pre-parade gathering. In 1947 the two organizations held separate “corned-beef banquets” before the parade; the following year, both organizations not only held pre-parade meals, but also appointed their own chief parade marshal. Curley, who, as mayor, traditionally selected the marshal, appointed the Veterans Council’s choice, and, Allison writes, “suggested that the Citizens’ Association nominee could be the chief marshal’s adjutant.”

From 1951 to 1960, the pre-parade meal was a luncheon – actually two luncheons. The City Council luncheon, hosted by the mayor, was held at the South Boston Athletic Club, and state officials attended an affair at Dorgan’s Old Harbor restaurant on Columbia Road at the foot of G Street, with state Sen. John Powers serving as host. Eventually, Powers’s event superseded the mayor’s, with the papers anointing him “St. Patrick’s Day toastmaster,” a precursor to the role that William Bulger would later take to a whole new level of wit and rhetorical flourishes.

What makes the 2014 breakfast so noteworthy is that at least since John Powers ran the show at Dorgan’s, the sitting senator of the First Suffolk District has followed suit. That “suit” has always been filled by an Irish-American men with names like Powers, Moakley, Bulger, Lynch, and Hart. Now, it is Linda Dorcena Forry’s turn to host a traditional breakfast gathering that has not always been the annual tradition that so many assume. Her debut will mark a new and fitting chapter in the annals of Boston political and social history.

Gintautas Dumcius, the news editor of the Dorchester Reporter, contributed to this report.