NEW ROSS, Ireland — Rachael Rollins, the Suffolk County district attorney, had the locals eating out of her hand with just one line.
“I’m black Irish,” she said, and the crowd in St. Michael’s Theatre roared.
As she raises eyebrows in Boston, drawing the ire of some judges and cops and others who think she’s too soft on crime, Rollins has become a popular, sought-after figure at conferences all over the United States and, over the weekend, at the Kennedy Summer School in County Wexford.
This might not sit well with her critics, but she was arguably the most popular speaker at the festival of Irish and American history, culture, and politics, held in the town where Patrick Kennedy sailed away from starvation 112 years before his great-grandson was elected president of the United States.
The people in New Ross loved her and were surprised to learn she has deep Irish roots. So was she. In preparation for her first visit to Ireland, Rollins did some research and learned that two of her great-grandparents were from County Mayo, near Westport.
Being from or having anything to do with Mayo creates instant, deep sympathy in Irish people, not just because Mayo has failed to win an all-Ireland football final in 68 years but because of the way they have failed, losing the championship game nine times since 1989, often in excruciating, Red-Sox-prior-to-2004 fashion.
When I introduced her to the audience here, I said that in addition to being a prosecutor, a mom, and a cancer survivor, we could add long-suffering to her resume, given Rollins’s newfound Mayo ties. The DA liked that one.
The vast majority of Rollins’s predecessors were white Irish guys. And here she was, the first black female DA in Boston, as Irish as most of them.
“Going to Ireland was incredibly fulfilling and at times emotional for me,” Rollins told me. “The people were so incredibly kind and welcoming. The country is gorgeous and the food was absolutely delicious.
“I have been to Barbados several times, where my mother’s parents are both from, but this was my first trip to Ireland. And I was welcomed with open arms. The people are incredibly knowledgeable about politics — local, national, and global, and my panel on the upcoming US presidential election was spirited and thoughtful. I wish we had that kind of debate back here in the States.”
It might also surprise Rollins’s critics who dismiss her as a rabble-rouser to have heard her on that panel urge caution to fellow Democrats as they try to take Donald Trump out next year. Rollins was the voice of reason, warning her party not to go so far left that Trump can hold onto swing states Hillary Clinton lost.
Rollins said visiting the old Kennedy homestead outside of New Ross was far more powerful an experience than she expected. When she saw the words “Suffolk County” on the Kennedy family tree exhibit, she said she got chills.
She said the Kennedy story still resonates, not just here but all over the world, because it is a story of immigration, that if given a chance to assimilate and rise, immigrants will.
“Seeing the family’s humble beginnings and knowing how far they climbed in local, national, and global politics is amazing,” she said.
“Also, being reminded that 150-plus years ago it was the Irish that were the scorned, called criminal immigrants, accused of being rapists, practitioners of an alien religion, who were going to take away jobs and benefits from Americans. Sound familiar? We are more similar than we think. And unfortunately, things are just as they have always been. But it is from that similar plight that I now see why the Irish rose to and remain in power here in Boston.”
Here, in a country that has elected two different women president, Rachael Rollins is, as the Irish like to say, a star. And one of them. Not for nothin’, but she just might get more votes in West Roxbury and Southie next time she’s on a ballot.