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Brian Donnelly, former US representative and ambassador, dies at 76

Mr. Donnelly, at his Quincy headquarters during his run for governor in 1998.LANDERS, Tom GLOBE STAFF

In his first state representative race more than 50 years ago, the toughest campaign in a two-decade career as an elected official, Brian J. Donnelly was among more than 20 candidates who “looked like they came from a Dublin phone book,” an observer quipped.

He prevailed over all those other Irish names in 1972 and went to work, rarely seeking attention for his accomplishments during three terms as a Dorchester Democrat in the State House and seven terms in the US House of Representatives. Often he didn’t notify the media about federal funding he helped send home.

“They don’t teach kids in Dorchester to run around patting yourself on the back,” he told the Globe in 1990.


Mr. Donnelly, who left Congress in 1993, in no small part because he wanted to spend more time with his two children while they were growing up, brought his family with him while serving as US ambassador to Trinidad and Tobago from 1994 to 1997.

He was 76 when he died Tuesday in his East Dennis home, several days after being diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia.

By the recollections of many colleagues and reporters in that era, Mr. Donnelly never held a news conference to trumpet his accomplishments during his 14 years as representing the 11th Congressional District.

“I don’t think people ever got a sense of his importance — particularly during a period that was an extraordinarily difficult one for Massachusetts, the recession of the early ‘90s. Brian just produced on a constant basis on a whole variety of things,” Chester Atkins, a former four-term congressman, told the Globe in 1998, when Mr. Donnelly was seeking the Democratic gubernatorial nomination — the only race he ever lost.

“He put together the legislative blueprint for federal support for the tunnel and artery project,” said Atkins, then a Massachusetts Democrat. “The same is true for the harbor cleanup. In large measure, federal support for that money was Brian’s creation.”


A descendant of Irish immigrants, Mr. Donnelly was also instrumental in securing approval for a program that allowed many immigrants who had been living on under-the-table income, including a large number from Ireland in Massachusetts, to become US citizens.

That legacy is still revered in Ireland, which he visited last fall, even while facing continuing health challenges from a throat cancer diagnosis more than a decade ago.

Mr. Donnelly “became a national champion for immigration rights of Irish people living in the US, and especially undocumented Irish living and working there,” said Micheál Martin, who serves as Tánaiste, Ireland’s minister for foreign affairs and minister for defense, 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.”

A champion of Irish causes, Mr. Donnelly represented what was then touted as the nation’s most Irish congressional district, extending from Dorchester, Mattapan, Hyde Park, and Roslindale on through Quincy and Weymouth, and into Brockton.

The visa legislation opened “opportunities for Irish immigration,” said then-House Speaker Thomas Foley, a Washington Democrat, in 1990, on the cusp of Mr. Donnelly’s final re-election to Congress. “He was a real leader in that area.”

Mr. Donnelly’s leadership, however, went beyond advocating for those who shared his Irish-Catholic background and immigrant roots.


“He’s one of the people I admire the most and look to for advice,” Foley, who died in 2013, said at the time.

The youngest of four siblings, Brian Joseph Donnelly was born in Boston on March 2, 1946, and grew up in Dorchester’s Lower Mills section.

He told the Globe that his father, Lawrence P. Donnelly, was a highway engineer for the state, and his mother, Louise Kelly Donnelly, was a homemaker, who had been a waitress.

“I’m a Democrat with a big D,” Mr. Donnelly said in 1998, when he was running for governor.

An uncle, Francis Kelly, was a former attorney general and lieutenant governor. Other politicians lived nearby or were family friends.

“I grew up in a house where people like James Michael Curley and John Kennedy were revered,” Mr. Donnelly said. “Politics was absolutely part of the culture.”

After graduating from Catholic Memorial High School and Boston University, he taught and coached in public schools for a few years before running for office.

He spent three terms on Beacon Hill, during which he married Virginia Norton, in 1976. They had known each other from Dorchester, where she had been a counselor at the YMCA. He was a lifeguard and taught swimming classes at that YMCA.

In 1978, he ran for Congress, winning in a field of seven candidates.

An inside player’s inside player in Washington, he served on premier panels such as the Budget Committee and Ways and Means.


“He is afraid of no one,” Barbara Kennelly, a Connecticut Democrat and former US representative who served with him on Ways and Means, told the Globe in 1990. “The way he handles himself, he knows he has clout, and he saves it until there is something he really wants. The guy is good. A lot of us wish we were that good.”

In 1998, Atkins recalled that Mr. Donnelly was “an easygoing, friendly guy that anybody would want to have a beer with. Ultimately, people feel comfortable talking with Brian and opening up to him. He’s the antithesis of the new-school, blow-dried, press-release, superficial kind of politician.”

For the same campaign profile, the late J. Joseph Moakley, who was then a US representative from South Boston, said Mr. Donnelly was “not a congressman who lives by news releases. He wasn’t the first one out of the committee room to say ‘I did this, I did that, I did this.’ Brian was a true worker. He believed in things and worked to get them done.”

Ultimately, the commute to and from Washington to see his family on weekends became too much of a burden, and Mr. Donnelly decided not to seek re-election in 1992. He also declined to run for US Senate or Boston mayor in the 1980s and ‘90s.

“Family was the most important thing to Brian,” his wife said.

When he flew home, “he was always careful to spend one of those weekend days just with his children,” Virginia said. “He was a wonderful father, a perfect role model as a father.”


Still, as Mr. Donnelly once told the Globe, “Saturday I spent with the kids. But on Saturday night, there’d be three more functions. On Sundays, I spoke at more Communion breakfasts than most bishops.”

In addition to his wife, Mr. Donnelly leaves a daughter, Lauren Donohoe of Corona Del Mar, Calif.; a son, Brian Jr. of East Dennis; a sister, Louise Lydon of Milton; and three grandchildren.

Those who knew Mr. Donnelly well were not surprised that he insisted no memorial service be held, his wife said.

During his congressional years, Virginia said, he even declined social invitations to other politicians’ Cape Cod homes. “He said, ‘I’m not going to do it. I want to be home with my own family,’ " she said.

That devotion continued during his time as a grandfather to Charlie, Billy, and James.

“Most of all I’ll miss our nightly summer sunset walks with my three boys who idolize you,” his daughter wrote on Instagram, adding that “as I told you on your final day, we will be OK … but we will always love and miss you.”

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.