ROSMUC, Ireland — When he arrived at his grandparents’ house in Roskeeda, a sleepy village surrounded by the sea and old ghosts, Marty Walsh put his bags down and walked straight out the back door, over the gray stone wall, into the field.
He just stood there for a while, taking it all in.
“That’s where he played as a boy,” his mother, Mary, was saying, sitting in the 400-year-old house where she and five sisters and a brother shared two small bedrooms.
“He was on his own in the field,” that brother, Peter O’Malley, said of his nephew, the mayor of Boston. “Then he took Lorrie down to the pier.”
It was that pier, Marty Walsh told his girlfriend, Lorrie Higgins, where his grandfather, Joe O’Malley, took him out on a boat.
There is nothing foreign about Marty Walsh’s first foreign trip as mayor. These are the fields he ran through, the walls he climbed, the sea he fished as a child. The smell of freshly cut turf. The mountains in the distance. A silence only occasionally disturbed by a barking dog or the cacophony of the magpies.
“When we touched down in Shannon,” the mayor told me, “I was thinking about my parents. They were just kids when they left here. It’s the immigrant story, really. Leaving your country with nothing, looking for work. Coming back here made me think of that, the courage you need to leave everything you know and start in a different place, a different culture.”
Mary Walsh was sitting in the house where she grew up, and we were talking, and she doesn’t remember being courageous. Anxious, maybe. And just a kid.
“I was 17,” Mary Walsh said. “My cousin, Margaret Beatty, came over on the plane with me. It was TWA. It was a 15-hour flight.”
She went to stay with an aunt in Norwood.
John Walsh was 15 when he left Carna, a bumpy half-hour drive up the coast road from Rosmuc, for England, to work on the building sites. Later, he went to Boston. John Walsh and Mary O’Malley grew up 20 miles away from each other in Ireland, but it might as well have been 200 miles in the Connemara of the 1950s. Their families had never met.
“We didn’t have phones,” Mary (O’Malley) Walsh said. “We didn’t have cars.”
They met at a dance at the old Intercolonial in Roxbury. Mary was working as a child minder. John was building piers down on the South Boston waterfront. They fell in love on the dance floor and were married at St. Mary’s in Dedham.
On Saturday night, there was a Mass for Marty Walsh at St. Mary’s in Rosmuc.
Today, the Sunday Mass at St. Mary’s in Carna will be said for the repose of the soul of John Walsh, in the place he grew up.
And when Marty Walsh was diagnosed with cancer as a boy, it was to Mary that Mary Walsh prayed. “Holy Mary, mother of God,” she prayed, “if you heal my son, I will bring him to Knock.”
Six years later, Marty Walsh was a 13-year-old in remission, and his mother kept her promise and brought him to the Knock Shrine in County Mayo. Later this week, mother and son will return to Knock together for the first time since then.
“There have already been a lot of emotional moments for me,” Mary Walsh said, looking up to a photograph of her father, Joe O’Malley, a pitchfork over his shoulder, a wool cap on his head, in front of a haystack. “But I think Knock will be something else.”
Consider this: In 1974, Mary Walsh thought her son might die of cancer. And now, 40 years later, she is sitting in the house where she grew up, with her son, the mayor of Boston.
“I was worried about him,” Mary Walsh said, in those heady days after her son was elected mayor. “I was worried about his privacy. But I’m fine with it now. I understand.”
When Jack Kennedy went back to Wexford, to the county his forebears left when the Irish were starving by mountain, valley, and sea, he was introduced to cousins he never knew.
When Marty Walsh came back to Connemara, he hugged cousins he played with as a child in this rocky, russet land. Cousins who have lived in Boston and come home, here, to Rosmuc and Carna.
His aunt Barbara and uncle Jimmy Leahy drove down from Dublin. Two other aunts, Nora Halpenny and Bridie Torsney, kissed his cheeks and made him blush.
He took Lorrie and city corporation counsel Gene O’Flaherty and his wife Patricia to lunch down the road in Camus, to the Radharc Na Locha, the Lakeview in English, a coffee shop run by Paddy and Cait Flaherty.
Paddy’s brother Colie lives in Norwood, around the corner from where a 17-year-old girl named Mary O’Malley arrived with a small suitcase to stay.
“They’re coming for breakfast in the morning,” Cait Flaherty was saying. “The mayor is bringing his mum and his uncle Peter for breakfast. They’ll be most welcome. Because they’re home.”