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Walsh begins Ireland trip, invoking JFK

Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh (third from left) spoke with Galway Mayor Donal Lyons, as Tipperary Mayor Michael Fitzgerald looked on.Andrew Ryan/Globe Staff

SHANNON, Ireland — An emotional Mayor Martin J. Walsh of Boston landed before dawn Friday on Irish soil and paid homage to Shannon Airport, the point of departure to Boston for scores of immigrants, including his parents, and the setting of a poignant speech by President John F. Kennedy.

After touching down here in a driving rain, Walsh was greeted by his mother, dozens of relatives, 10 mayors from across Ireland, and a throng of local reporters.

“Shannon is a place where the relationship between Ireland and America has taken flight,” Walsh said at a press conference. “Today we stand at the same trans-Atlantic gateway that brought my parents to America and brought American presidents to Ireland.”

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The Irish greeted Kennedy like a beloved king when he visited in 1963, mobbing the presidential motorcade as it wound through narrow streets. The trip culminated at Shannon Airport, where he told a crowd, “I am going to come back and see old Shannon’s face again.” Kennedy was assassinated five months later.

“We know that he never returned,” Walsh said Friday. “But we can take heart from the president’s final words, when he told the gathered crowd, ‘I am taking, as I go back to America, all of you with me.’ In an important way, that is exactly what he did. His time in Ireland changed the Irish-American relationship permanently.”

For Walsh, it marked his first visit to Ireland since he was elected mayor. The trip also represents the first trade mission by a Boston mayor in 16 years, he said.

During his 11-day tour of the island, Walsh said, he will discuss opportunities in life science in Galway and visit start-up incubators in Londonderry and Donegal. He said he will forge stronger ties between Boston and Belfast and meet with business leaders in Dublin, where Massachusetts companies have flourished.

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As he spoke to reporters early Friday at the airport, Walsh acknowledged that his first trip as mayor was a personal milestone. He spent summers in Ireland as a child, visiting family in the rural Connemara villages his parents left a few years before Kennedy’s momentous visit. Like the president, Walsh’s parents flew out of Shannon.

“My family’s American journey started more than 50 years ago right here in this very spot when my parents departed for Boston,” Walsh said. “Back then, the flight took about 13 hours to go across the Atlantic. Shannon was their gateway from the West of Ireland to Boston, and for so many other people Shannon has been the gateway from the West of Ireland to all of America.”

While Walsh spoke, his mother, Mary, sat in the front row beaming. She was awash in memories of leaving home at age 17. She thought about her late husband, and it made her lonely, she said, but she looked up at her son behind the podium and felt great joy.

“It’s very emotional, very emotional, the whole thing,” Mary Walsh said. “I’m very proud.”

During his trip, Kennedy touched on the same theme, and in a way foretold the story of Walsh and his family.

Kennedy spoke June 29, 1963, at Eyre Square in Galway, the largest city in the county where Walsh’s parents grew up.

“If the day was clear enough, and if you went down to the bay and you looked west, and your sight was good enough, you would see Boston, Massachusetts,” Kennedy said, according to President John F. Kennedy Library and Museum. “And if you did, you would see down working on the docks there some Doughertys and Flahertys and Ryans and cousins of yours who have gone to Boston and made good.”

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Walsh made good. He is the son of a union laborer who followed his father into construction. He rose through the ranks of organized labor and served 16 years in the Legislature before becoming Boston’s first new mayor in 20 years.

The purpose of his trip was to build on the country’s historic bond with Boston, Walsh said. He noted that Irish companies have planted roots in Boston, including Primark, which will be the anchor tenant of the development of the former Filene’s Building in Downtown Crossing. Boston companies such as Liberty Mutual are also thriving in Ireland, Walsh said.

“Ireland is a different place now than when my parents left,” he said. “Young Irish people coming to Boston today are as likely to possess programming and marketing skills as they are strong hands and a willing heart.”

When Walsh took questions, an Irish reporter fired off a lengthy inquiry in Gaelic, the native Irish language. Walsh listened intently and responded briefly in Gaelic.

“For the American reporters,” Walsh said with a smile, “the question is about immigration, undocumented immigrants, and particularly the Irish community.”

Walsh’s parents spoke Gaelic at their home on Taft Street in Dorchester. His skill with the language impressed even the Irish.

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“I can tell you 50 percent of the audience couldn’t understand that question,” said Mayor Alan Coleman of County Cork. “And he answered it.”

Some in the crowd saw echoes of Kennedy.

“Could you see him in the White House?” asked Noel Grealish, a member of the Irish parliament. “He sounded like Kennedy and certainly looked the part.”


Andrew Ryan can be reached at andrew.ryan@globe.com.