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Former Congressman Brian Donnelly dies at 76

Brian Donnellycourtesey photo

Former Congressman Brian J. Donnelly, a Dorchester Democrat beloved in Ireland for securing visas for thousands of Irish immigrants, died Tuesday at his home in East Dennis after a long battle with cancer, according to an online death notice.

He was 76, and just two days shy of his 77th birthday.

“Brian had a contagious personality that drew people to him. He had a unique sense of humor that could make light of the most serious situations,” the notice said. “He would light up a room and had a way of making people feel valued and important.”

A father of two, Donnelly started out as a teacher and coach in Boston public schools. He spent five years as a Massachusetts representative, from 1973 to 1978, before moving on to Congress. There, he served as a US representative from 1979 to 1993, representing the 11th district, and was a member of Congress’ powerful budget-writing committee. In 1994, President Clinton appointed Donnelly as US ambassador to Trinidad and Tobago.

Donnelly made a bid for governor of Massachusetts in 1998 but finished third in the Democratic primary, losing to state Attorney General Scott Harshbarger, with former state senator Patricia McGovern placing second.


“During his time in Congress, Donnelly was a passionate advocate for his district, fighting relentlessly for his constituents and for causes he believed in,” the death notice said. “He was known for his bipartisan approach to legislating and was well-respected by his colleagues on both sides of the aisle.”

Donnelly grew up in Dorchester in a strong, hard-working, Irish-American family, according to the notice. His parents were Lawrence P. Donnelly and Louise P. Donnelly. Donnelly graduated from Catholic Memorial High School in West Roxbury in 1963. He earned a bachelor of science degree at Boston University in 1970.

Donnelly’s nephew, Larry Donnelly, confirmed his uncle’s death on Twitter where condolences rolled in. “He was my uncle, my godfather and a best friend to Ireland. Thinking of my aunt and cousins,” Larry Donnelly wrote.


According to the death notice, Donnelly was “especially proud of his work in creating the “Donnelly Visa” program, which helped many in Ireland to emigrate to the United States and start a new life.”

In its early years, the primary beneficiaries of the program were Irish nationals, many who lived in Donnelly’s district.

Donnelly’s passing was noted “with great sadness” in Ireland by Micheál Martin, who is serving as Tánaiste, minister for Foreign Affairs and Minister for Defence.

Donnelly “became a national champion for immigration rights of Irish people living in the US, and especially undocumented Irish living and working there,” Martin said in a statement. “He worked tirelessly across the political divide to secure bipartisan agreement around a visa package that secured more than 25,000 legal residency visas to Irish citizens.”

“By delivering such a generous visa regime for the Irish at that time, he changed the lives of many Irish people, who went on to build prosperous lives in the US, giving back to their adopted country in many ways,” Martin said. “He never forgot his ancestral Galway roots and I was glad to see that he was able to undertake a visit to Ireland last year.”

Martin added: “On behalf of all of those to whom the ‘Donnelly Visa’ gave a legal path to allow them to follow their dreams, I want to acknowledge his great contribution to this country.”


Donnelly went on to retire on Cape Cod where he “spent many summers by the pool with his family soaking up the sun,” the obituary said.

Donnelly is survived by his wife, Virginia, their daughter, Lauren Donohoe, and their son, Brian, and his sister Louise Lydon.

As Donnelly wished, there will be no funeral service.

Tonya Alanez can be reached at tonya.alanez@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @talanez.