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James Michael Curley’s ardent defender dies at 95

Helen McDonough was among the last links to storied politician

Helen and Joseph McDonough (right) delayed their wedding for six months so that James Michael Curley (left, alongside his wife, Gertrude) could attend. Curley was in prison in 1947.

FAMILY PHOTO/1948

Helen and Joseph McDonough (right) delayed their wedding for six months so that James Michael Curley (left, alongside his wife, Gertrude) could attend. Curley was in prison in 1947.

When tight finances forced James Michael Curley to lay off some of his domestic staff, Helen McDonough, an Irish immigrant fiercely loyal to the former governor and Boston mayor, headed to the Back Bay to seek work with a wealthy family that employed her sister.

But during the interview, the lady of that house shunned Mrs. McDonough’s job reference from Curley with a curt, “oh, we all know he’s a crook,” according to “The Rascal King,” Jack Beatty’s acclaimed 1992 biography of the politician.

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“He’s no crook,” Mrs. McDonough retorted as she stood to leave. “I don’t like what you’re saying about the governor. I wouldn’t work for you if I never worked again.”

Curley had hired Mrs. McDonough, then Helen Morley, as a maid and cook soon after she arrived in Boston in 1938, the last of 12 siblings to flee an impoverished childhood in Ireland. She was always grateful and in her eyes he could do no wrong. “She never saw anything that Curley did that was anything but upright to her,” said her son John of Brookline, a former state representative. “She saw only the good in him.”

Indeed Mrs. McDonough, whose funeral Mass will be said Monday morning, delayed her wedding day so Curley could finish his second prison term and escort her down the aisle. She died last Monday in Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge after her health failed during recent months. Mrs. McDonough was 95 and had spent most of her adult life in Waltham.

Having outlived Curley and his children, Mrs. McDonough was surely among the final living links to that storied era of Boston politics. “She may well be the last,” Beatty mused in an interview. “I just can’t imagine anybody else.”

Helen McDonough also worked as a nurse’s aide in Waltham and volunteered at her church in Belmont.

The distance between Mrs. McDonough’s Irish childhood and Curley’s expansive Jamaicaway home could be measured by more than an immigrant’s ocean passage.

‘She never saw anything that Curley did that was anything but upright to her. She saw only the good in him.’

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The youngest of 12 children born to Ned Morley and the former Nora McGuire, she grew up in a thatched-roof cottage in Knock, a small village in County Mayo. Legend says an apparition of the Virgin Mary appeared at a village church in 1879, an event that has drawn pilgrims to the site ever since.

“My mother was a religious person from a very early age,” said her son Gerry of Cambridge.

Like her 11 late siblings, Mrs. McDonough was eager to leave behind her childhood for the promise of the United States. Only one brother returned to live in the family home.

All the children pitched in with agricultural chores. “She said that when she was 3 years old she was handed a bucket and told to go out into the field and fill it with stones,” said her son John, who is now a professor at the Harvard School of Public Health.

Born in the waning months of World War I, Mrs. McDonough had early memories of soldiers searching her family’s home for weapons during the Irish Civil War in the early 1920s. When she couldn’t learn the Irish language, she dropped out of grade school and began working for nuns in a convent. In 1938, with the world on the brink of another war, she boarded a ship bound for the United States.

Not long after arriving, she began to work for Curley and his wife, Gertrude. Her sons said she quickly became more than just a member of the domestic staff. “She had a very difficult childhood and adolescence in Ireland, and I think she had real issues with self-esteem,” John said.

In Boston, Mrs. McDonough and the Curleys “took to each other immediately, and she really became like a daughter to Curley and his wife, Gertrude,” John said. “That was the first thing that gave her self-respect and self-esteem, and she carried that with her the rest of her life. She remained very, very close to the family through a lot of tragedies.”

In addition to two fraud convictions, for which he was pardoned by President Harry S. Truman, Curley outlived seven of his nine children. When Curley’s son Paul died at 32 of a heart attack in 1945, the Globe reported that Mrs. McDonough was the one who discovered his body when she went to summon him for breakfast at 8:30 a.m.

During the 1940s, Mrs. McDonough also accompanied Curley to Washington, D.C., when he served in the US House. Wherever Curley went people followed.

“She remembers people lining up even when Curley wasn’t in office, lining up outside the house looking for food, looking for favors, looking for help with their problems,” Mrs. McDonough’s son Gerry said.

While working for the Curleys, she met Joseph W. McDonough, an immigrant from the Connemara region of County Galway. They got engaged and initially set a wedding date in 1947. Because her father was in Ireland, Curley agreed to walk her down the aisle at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Jamaica Plain, but he was serving a sentence in the Danbury, Conn., federal prison on a mail fraud conviction when the wedding was first scheduled. The couple postponed the date six months, into 1948, to accommodate the prison term.

After she stopped working full time for the Curleys, Mrs. McDonough remained close and even helped with some chores. “I know she cleaned the drapes every year,” Gerry said.

She also worked for many years as a nurse’s aide at Waltham Hospital. After retiring, she cared for her husband as his health failed. He had managed First National grocery stores and died in 1997 at 84.

“They had bonded over hard work as a constant, and both conveyed that to all of us,” their son John said. “Her whole life she was always working hard at everything she was doing and always did everything as strenuously as she possibly could.”

In addition to her sons Gerry and John, Mrs. McDonough leaves another son, Joseph P. of Hamden, Conn.; a daughter, Barbara A. McDonough-Williamson of Billerica; a stepdaughter, Sandra Buck of Edinburgh, Scotland; and eight grandchildren.

A funeral Mass will be said at 9 a.m. Monday in St. Luke’s Church in Belmont. Burial will follow in St. Patrick’s Cemetery in Watertown.

After her husband died, Mrs. McDonough turned much of her attention to her grandchildren and volunteering her time at St. Luke’s.

“She would get up every morning around 4:30 and would get down to the church around 5 for the 6:30 Mass, and would get the church ready single-handedly,” John said. “She would get down there winter, spring, summer, or fall.”

Mrs. McDonough was also given a set of keys to open the church every morning and once showed them to her son, who recalled that “she said rather gleefully, ‘John, I have the keys to the kingdom.’ ”

Bryan Marquard
can be reached at bmarquard@globe.com.
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