GALWAY, Ireland – For a few hours last Saturday, Marty Walsh was just another Yank on holiday, enjoying the sights and sounds of Clifden, one of Co. Galway’s loveliest and liveliest towns. Your mayor had just enjoyed a sailboat ride and a quiet lunch with his partner Lorrie Higgins and two other traveling companions. Now, as he strolled through the scenic village with other tourists, he was incognito in blue jeans, sneakers, and an old-school Red Sox ball cap; mercifully, he was off the grid, stopping to buy scones and desserts for his mother at a local bakery called Walsh’s.
The respite would not last long. Later that evening, he began a series of public events with a Mass celebrated in his mother’s home village of Rosmuc, followed by a reception that went late into the night.
The first five days of Walsh’s first trip abroad as mayor were a blur of bonfires, parties, church services, and endless photo opportunities— with the mayor getting rock star treatment at every stop. In a few places, the frenzy to get photos with him was such that he had to be hustled into a waiting car, often by his cousin, Winnie Curran, a Boston Police sergeant who is accompanying the mayor on the trip.
Martin J. Walsh may not be a household name throughout Ireland, at least not yet. But here in the west of Ireland, and especially in the southern parts of Connemara where John Walsh and Mary O’Malley were born and raised, he is a celebrity of historic importance, a modern-day chieftain with a deeply personal connection to thousands of people, most of whom still speak Irish as their primary language. The Gaeltacht, as that Irish-speaking region is called here, is most certainly Marty Walsh country.
It may have tested the patience of his security team at times, but the mayor himself has cheerfully accommodated every request. “It’s such a big thing for everyone in both villages. They’re just super excited, especially the kids who have seen the news in the papers and on the radio. I think they view it as a chance to meet somebody famous. I don’t think of myself as someone famous, but they do. And even some of the adults, they know the family and my uncles all these years. They’re overwhelmed.”
Said Walsh: “I was born in St. Margaret’s Hospital. My home is Dorchester, Massachusetts. But I am also from Rosmuc and Carna in Connemara. It was the theme he carried throughout his public remarks in the region: The people here claim Marty as their own, and vice-versa.
The mayor began his 10-day visit by boarding a fully loaded Aer Lingus Airbus, that departed Boston around 7:30 p.m Boston time last Thursday and arrived at Shannon at 5:25 a.m. Irish time, about 40 minutes ahead of schedule. Walsh, who flew in coach alongside Lorrie, was greeted in the terminal by his mother Mary, who had flown to Ireland the week before to make preparations for her son’s trip.
A bus load of Connemara neighbors — who woke up at 3 a.m. to make the trip to Shannon— were on hand to greet Walsh as he made his way through the terminal. At the airport, officials hailed Walsh’s visit as the latest boost for the west coast of Ireland— and for the airport itself, which had suffered a five-year period of decline in the midst of a national recession. Flights have been scaled back as a result, but are now trending back up thanks in large part to renewed daily flights from Boston and New York. The mayor deliberately chose to fly in and out of Shannon — and not Dublin— on this trip.
“It sends a huge message about the strength of Shannon and the region,” said Rose Hynes, president of Shannon Airport. “And he lives that message himself.”
At a press conference in the airport terminal, Walsh fielded questions from the Irish press corps— and from three of the Boston area reporters covering the trip. Two reporters posed questions to Walsh in the Irish language, which he then translated for the benefit of the non-Irish speakers in the room.
The mayor described Shannon Airport as a special place in his personal history. “This is the very spot where my family’s American journey began,” he said, recalling that his late father John emigrated from Galway to England and then Boston in 1956. His mother flew from Shannon in 1959 to begin a life in Boston.
Later, after a breakfast with business and political leaders from the west, Walsh greeted a large group of well-wishers in the outer terminal of Shannon and gave interviews to Irish radio alongside his uncle, Peter O’Malley, a native of Connemara who also lives in Dorchester. He listened as the national Irish radio station, RTE, played a song about Walsh recorded by a group of schoolchildren from his father’s town, Carna. The school kids won a contest sponsored by the station, which had asked Irish-language schools to create a song in the mayor’s honor.
On Sunday, Walsh attended a morning Mass at St. Mary’s Church in Carna, the village where his father was born and raised. Following the Mass, the mayor and his mother took photos with scores of relatives and friends outside of the church and in front of Geraghty’s store on the Carna road. A car loaded with American tourists happened by, stopped, and two women— Kathy O’Leary and Mary Goode— jumped out to greet the mayor and take photos. Goode, a schoolteacher, had met Walsh before when he visited her former school, Dorchester Youth Academy in Fields Corner. “He was one of our biggest supporters,” recalled Goode, who lives in Scituate. “He would give out his phone number to all the kids and tell them to ‘call me if you ever need anything.’ “
On Monday, the mayor made official visits to government offices, including the County Council and the Galway City Council, where Mayor Donal Lyons, a Galway councillor, presented Walsh with a painting followed by the mayor presenting his counterpart with a Paul Revere Bowl. The mayor took photos with the council members, including Councillor Terry O’Flaherty, who has served as mayor of Galway for two terms.
In between meetings, Walsh made a quick visit to Shop Street in Galway’s city center, where he was quickly recognized by locals and American tourists alike and where, the mayor recalled, “There was a little kid walking by and he said to his mate, ‘Hey, that’s the mayor of Boston.’ The other little kid says, “What’s up, Marty?” like I’m in Dorchester. It was pretty funny.”
Later, Walsh, in speaking to the Reporter, said, “It’s amazing the interest in the mayor of Boston and the fact that there’s a tie to Ireland, it’s even more so. Today was one of the days we started talking business and the similarities between Boston and Galway are clear. Galway’s agenda is life sciences, biotech, incubator start-ups and that’s our as well. The construction industry here is similar to home, although we’re doing a lot better in Boston with construction, but really the cities are very similar. There’s real opportunity here for us to cultivate business here and when they do look to expand, Boston should be a natural first step.”
On Tuesday, Walsh crisscrossed Connemara, visiting six primary and secondary schools in the region before returning to the Carna to help lay a foundation stone for a planned Emigrant Commemoration Centre to be built with his help. Later, he spoke to a cheering crowd of nearly 500 people at the Connemara Boxing Club near Casla.
Walsh left Galway on Sept. 22 to visit Knock and Donegal before crossing the border into Northern Ireland for stops in Derry and Belfast, where he will cement a sister-city agreement and address the Belfast City Council and tour the headquarters of the Boston-based company Liberty Mutual. He went on to Dublin, where he appeared in a live interview on “The Saturday Night Show,” a nationally televised program with a large viewership.
He returned to Boston on Monday, Sept. 27. In an interview with local media at Shannon Airport prior to his departure for Boston, Walsh said that the trip had been productive.
“As Mayor of Boston my job is to go out there and market the city as best as we can,” said Walsh. “When I was here on this trip I tried to talk about tourism and inviting people to Boston and also around business development and making sure they know Boston is open (for business).
“As much as I enjoyed the family, this trip was really focused on the business connections and the government connections, making connections with other mayors from other cities here in Ireland and that’s important because in America a lot is built on the relationships with other mayors.
“I’ve learned a lot more about the (Irish) economy and more particularly about the business community here in this country.
“I definitely see Ireland as an economy that is moving again and I think there’s a lot of opportunity, not just for Ireland from Boston, but there’s a lot of opportunity for Boston from Ireland.”