Confronting the past with clear eyes

Marchers in the 2013 South Boston St. Patrick’s Day Parade.
Yoon S. Byun/Globe Staff
Marchers in the 2013 South Boston St. Patrick’s Day Parade.

Katherine Zappone will make a little history Sunday when she becomes the first openly gay Irish government minister to march in the St. Patrick’s/Evacuation Day parade in South Boston.

If the Allied War Veterans Council didn’t reverse themselves and allow a group of gay military veterans to march, Zappone was going to skip the parade. She tweeted as much, just hours before the parade organizers announced that OUTVETS would be able to march after all, despite that pesky little rainbow on their banner that gives some guys in Southie the willies.

For Zappone, this is something of a homecoming. She is originally from Seattle, where she was grand marshal of that city’s St. Patrick’s Day parade a few years ago. But she met and fell in love with her wife, Ann Louise Gilligan, a former nun and native of Ireland, when they were both pursuing graduate degrees at Boston College in 1981.


They moved to Ireland as a couple in 1986, got married in Canada in 2003, then launched a legal challenge to have their marriage recognized in Ireland. That legal fight led inevitably to the 2015 referendum, in which Ireland became the first country to legalize same-sex marriage by a popular vote.

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That Zappone, Minister for Children, happened to be the Irish cabinet member dispatched to Boston this year was coincidence. But her story resonates, on both sides of the Atlantic.

Her father was an Army veteran who fought in World War II, part of the greatest generation. His world view was challenged when his daughter came out of the closet, and when she introduced Ann Louise to him.

“He was willing to have the debate with me, from a theological perspective,” Zappone told me, sitting in an office at the Irish consulate, overlooking Boylston Street. “He was trained by Jesuits.”

What Bob Zappone came to realize after those long talks with his daughter is that he loved her, unconditionally, and he came to love Ann Louise, too.


Katherine Zappone was sitting there Thursday, remembering her dad on the 6th anniversary of his death, on the eve of the day commemorating the patron saint of her adopted country, the patron saint of the city where she met the woman she has been with for 36 years.

While the idea of letting openly gay people march in St. Patrick’s Day parades in Boston and New York remains controversial to some, gay folks have been marching openly, loudly and proudly in parades the length and breadth of Ireland for a quarter-century. It’s just not a big deal there.

But even as Ireland has emerged as a more secular, diverse and tolerant society, it continues to confront a past far less rosy. Zappone has oversight responsibility for a commission investigating the discovery of the remains of babies and young children who were buried on the grounds of a home for unwed mothers run by nuns in Tuam, Galway, from 1925 to 1961. Investigators are trying to account for nearly 800 children believed to have died at the home over the years.

Initial findings, released this month, which found that children’s remains were located in what amounted to a sewage or waste water facility on the grounds has “really shocked the nation,” Zappone said.

Confronting institutional abuse is an ongoing process, she said.


“I’ve been meeting with survivors,” she said. “Grown men, breaking down in tears.”

In Boston, she met with immigrants, some of whom have been unable to go home for weddings or funerals because they are undocumented and have no way to legalize their status. As an immigrant herself, she gets it.

“St. Patrick was a migrant,” she said. “We’re celebrating one of the most famous migrants of all time. That’s something to consider.”

Katherine Zappone’s journey embodies many of the issues we’re struggling with, locally, nationally, globally. Tolerance for difference, remembering that at some point, somebody in our family was an immigrant, and the ability to confront the past with clear eyes.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GlobeCullen.