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Kevin Cullen

Noel Whelan was out front in the fight for gay rights in Ireland

Kennedy Summer School founder Noel Whelan spoke at the 2018 Kennedy Summer School opening night events.
Kennedy Summer School founder Noel Whelan spoke at the 2018 Kennedy Summer School opening night events. (Kennedy Summer School)

My phone pinged at 4:35 Thursday morning.

I picked it up, the screen ablaze. It was a text message from a friend in Dublin.

It read: Noel Whelan died last night.

It was still dark out, the dawn chorus in full swing, and the words didn’t register at first, due perhaps to grogginess but more because of a sense that it didn’t make sense.

Noel Whelan was 50 years old. He was as full of life and ideas and genuine decency as any person I know.

But you never know, do you?

Noel lived in Ireland but had a special connection to Boston. He was a founder of the Kennedy Summer School, an annual festival of Irish-American history, culture, and politics in New Ross, the small port town in his native County Wexford from where Patrick Kennedy set sail for Boston in 1848 to escape famine.

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The Kennedy odyssey, from destitution in Ireland to respectability in Boston, all the way to the White House that became home to Patrick Kennedy’s great-grandson John F. Kennedy, symbolized to Noel not only the promise of America, but the idea that, given a chance, immigrants everywhere can assimilate and rise.

Noel lived and breathed politics, rejecting the cynicism many attached to it. His dad, Seamus, was a county councilor in Wexford. He flirted with the idea of being a politician himself, but came into his own as a political strategist and commentator.

Noel was a student of history and culture, and along the way he read and was inspired by Justice Margaret Marshall’s landmark decision that legalized same-sex marriage in Massachusetts.

When gay people in Ireland began filing lawsuits, hoping to emulate the path to marriage equality in Massachusetts, Noel had a different idea: bring it to the people, in a referendum. Let the mandate for equality spring from every farm and crossroads and housing estate in Ireland.

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Some people thought he was nuts. Catholic Ireland voting to legalize gay marriage? But Noel had a deep, abiding faith in the sense of fair play of most people.

Larry Donnelly, a Bostonian who is a law lecturer at the National University of Ireland in Galway, was friendly with Noel and understood the strategy Noel advocated.

“Noel sympathized with the righteous anger in Ireland’s LGBT community, which has for so long been scorned and shamed,” Donnelly told me. “But to convince a majority of the electorate to support marriage equality, he understood that the campaign had to reach out to skeptics and to use compelling personal stories, not uncompromising rhetoric.”

Noel knew intuitively that most Irish people knew someone who is gay, maybe someone in their family, maybe a neighbor’s kid down the lane, and when those stories of ordinary gay people longing to marry the person they loved spilled out on TV and radio and newspapers, the day was won.

There were many moving scenes on that sun-splashed day in May 2015 when the referendum results were announced at Dublin Castle. But the one that stays with Larry Donnelly is spying Noel, standing off to the side, crying, overcome with emotion. Leo Varadkar, Ireland’s first openly gay prime minister, walked over and comforted Noel, saying, “It’s for days like this that we do politics.”

It was a gesture rich in unifying symbolism, not just because Noel was straight and Varadkar is gay. They hailed from opposing political parties that trace their roots back to Ireland’s civil war.

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More than one circle was closed that day.

That night, Noel and his wife, Sinead, went to a gay bar to celebrate.

Noel learned he had cancer shortly after attending a Kennedy School conference at Boston College in April.

He leaves Sinead and their son, Seamus.

He also leaves many marginalized people in Ireland and beyond whom he helped, and many more he would have helped had he lived as long as such a good man should.


Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeCullen.