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Lenahan O'Connell: A hundred years of grasping chances

By Peter Stevens, special to the BIR, June 27, 2013

On June 6, 2013, Lenahan O’Connell celebrated his 100th birthday. While a handful of people achieve that milestone, it is safe to bet that few do so with a life lived so large on every front. From family and the law to the very history and politics of Boston from the 20th to the 21st centuries, Lenahan, a rock-ribbed Boston Irish Democrat, has done it all, and has done so with a keen sense of justice, humor, hard work, and a commitment to people, whether his clients or those in society who need the most help.

In 2009, Lenahan, scion of one of the state’s most prominent political and legal families – his extended clan boasts attorneys, judges, three Congressmen, business luminaries, and physicians – told the BIR’s Greg O’Brien, “Life is not altogether chance, and the best training attainable is none too good...I don’t believe in chance. A man largely makes his own chances. The opportunities are always there. The thing to do is grasp them.”
Those words reflect not only Lenahan’s personal credo, but also that of his Irish forebears who are testimony to the quintessential Irish American success story of paving the way for the next generation and the generations to follow.
Born a century ago, when Fenway Park was barely a year old, the subway system was only sixteen years old, and men named Curley, Fitzgerald, and Lomasney (“The Mahatma”) were exerting the growing political clout of the Boston Irish, John Thomas Lenahan O’Connell was one of Joseph Francis O’Connell’s and Marietta (Lenahan) O’Connell’s twelve children. Raised in Brookline and then Brighton near Cleveland Circle, he and his family were parishioners of St. Ignatius of Loyola parish.
From his parents, Lenahan learned the lessons that would shape his entire life. His mother was the daughter of John T. Lenahan IV, a brilliant attorney and congressman from Pennsylvania. Joseph F. O’Connell, Lenahan’s father, was raised in Dorchester, graduated from Harvard Law in 1897, founded the family law firm on Milk Street a year later, and served two terms in Congress. After losing an election to James Michael Curley, O’Connell devoted himself to the law again. Both of Lenahan’s parents imbued him with their love of words, and he remains a voracious reader.
Lenahan takes enormous pride in his Irish heritage, his father’s ancestors hardscrabble farmers from Co. Cork, his mother’s family hailing from Co. Mayo.
As a youth, Lenahan’s intelligence was obvious to all. He was educated at Boston Latin, English High, and then Boston College. Living at home while attending college, his many jobs over the years included potato-packer at the A & P and more importantly, summers working at his father’s law firm. Following his graduation from BC, in 1934, he followed his father’s footsteps to Harvard Law, but not with the same results. He grades fell short, and he was asked to leave. He had little love for Harvard and planned to go into the business world. His father would have none of it, steering him back to the law, sensing that his son was cut out not only to take up the family profession, but also to excel as a lawyer. The elder O’Connell was right.
Lenahan resumed his legal studies, this time at Boston University School of Law, graduated in 1938 and, naturally, joined the family firm. Soon afterward, at a popular Summer Street seafood restaurant named Litchfield’s, he met the owner’s pretty daughter, Patricia Halloran, and in 1942, they married. They would have three sons.
In addition to his law degree, Lenahan had graduated from the Massachusetts Military Academy with a lieutenant’s commission. With World War II raging, he was called to active duty in 1942, assigned to the Army’s Judge Advocate School at the University of Michigan, and later served as an artillery officer with the 79th and 86th Divisions. He then went on to serve with the Judge Advocate General Division in New Guinea, the Philippines, and Occupied Japan.
Throughout his long and outstanding legal career in Boston, he was also a prominent figure in public and community service. From 1948 to 1952 he was an assistant prosecutor; in 1962, he was named in 1962 by Boston Mayor John F. Collins as a trustee of the Boston Public Library’ he has served as a trustee for the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and a member of the American Ireland Fund, the Eire Society of Boston, the American Irish Historical Society, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, and the Charitable Irish Society.
One of Lenahan’s proudest achievements is the family history he wrote, and a passage from it serves as an apt assessment of his own life and that of his family:
“Justly so, the history of the O’Connell family...serves as a microcosm of the Irish people, who, denied their basic rights and liberties for centuries, chose exile and undertook perilous ocean passages to come to America. Those exiles who survived, prevailed, and carved out their niche in the United States serve as a continuous living testament to the determination of the Irish people to endure and succeed.”
What is certain is that Lenahan O’Connell’s boundless intellect, achievement, and involvement are the cornerstones of 100 remarkable years.
Some material for this article was taken from a profile of Lenahan O’Connell written by Greg O’Brien and published in the Boston Irish Reporter in April 2009.