Meditation on an Irish Family Story

Following is the speech BIR Publisher Ed Forry gave after he received the Eire Society’s Gold Medal Award last Friday night at the society’s annual banquet in the rooftop room of the Parker House.

I think it was Army General Barry McCaffrey who said, “When I get a very generous introduction like that, I explain that I’m emotionally moved, but on the other hand I’m Irish and we Irish are very emotionally moved. My father was Irish and he would cry during beer commercials.”

My friend Peter Meade, himself a Gold Medal honoree, told me that his own father was in the audience once, when he delivered what he thought was his finest, most compelling speech. Afterwards he asked his dad what he thought and his dad said, “Well it was a very complex, speech, my son, and I thought you missed several good opportunities to stop talking.”

So tonight, I will take Mr. Meade’s advice and keep it short. There’s an old Jesuit maxim that there’s no such thing as a bad short speech.

I want to express my deep gratitude to the Eire Society for this honor. When I look at some very accomplished Irish men and women who are previous recipients – last year’s honorees John Cullinane and Michael Donlan, before them Seamus Heaney, Ambassadors Bill Shannon and Brian Donnelly, my great friend and mentor Bill Bulger, Speakers Tip O’Neill and John McCormack, President John F. Kennedy – they are all enumerated in tonight’s program. And tonight, the name Forry is added to the list.

Believe me, it is not false modesty to tell you that I cannot understand how this kid from Vera Street, on Codman Hill, St. Gregory’s parish in Dorchester can assert any claim to stand among them. What I do, in my life and for my living, is publish some newspapers, all of them called The Reporter, all about where I live and the people I know – two weeklies in Dorchester, in Mattapan, and ethnic papers about Haitian people and Irish people.

With my late wife Mary Casey Forry we began to publish The Boston Irish Reporter 20 years ago. Our mission was then and continues to be telling the stories of Boston’s Irish.

One very special moment tonight is that my cousin Brenda Forry has agreed to sit here with me and give the benediction. Sister Brenda is a member of the leadership team of the CSJ – the St. Joseph nuns, and her work in parish ministry, full of faith and compassion and love, has been awesome. She recently celebrated 50 years in her vocation. Brenda, when people remember that the name Forry is on this 2010 Gold Medal award, I hope they will think of you as well as me.

Let me also pause and remember the inspirational life of the late Msgr. Tom McDonnell. Those of you who were here at last year’s dinner will remember that Father Tom prayed the invocation. It was perhaps his last public appearance, as he passed several weeks later.

I am so very grateful to the board of trustees for believing that I belong with these others. I recall brief moments in my life when my path crossed with some previous honorees:

I was a BC High junior when Jack Kennedy visited the campus, and I remember my exhilaration when we learned he had won Chicago, and would be the new president. Many of you can probably recall that feeling – we told ourselves, one of our own, an Irish Catholic, was now the President of the United States. I was 16 years old, and oh, how bright those horizons seemed to me then.

I had the great honor of meeting Nobel laureate John Hume, in my view the hero of the Northern Ireland peace process. My pal Jim O’Brien brought him to my office one day in the early 1990s and he spoke of his commitment to peace and non-violence. He had a home in Donegal, and he told me there were two portraits on his walls: JFK and Martin Luther King.

There was a Forry on the staff of Speaker John McCormack – our aunt Kate, Kathleen Forry, was his secretary here in the Boston office in Room 1410 of what we now call the McCormack Building at Post Office Square. What a hero he was to me, a true political hero. He had a photo of himself from a party convention he had chaired, where he was known as “The Great Compromisor.” Wouldn’t it be wonderful if political discourse today could boast of someone of John McCormack’s timbre.

Of course I grew up with Richard Cardinal Cushing. Back in the day at St. Gregory’s, the school began with the Cardinal on radio leading the rosary. He was a constant in Boston Irish life for many decades, and when Peter Stevens compiled a series about the great Boston Irish figures, we selected Cushing as the Boston Irish Person of the 20th century.

The Irish Reporter mission is this: We tell the stories of Boston’s Irish. It has been a journey of discovery as we reported about so many people who share our lives and our have ancestry. It is said the 20th was the Irish Century in Boston, and looking back, I am in awe of so many marvelous people, all the compelling stories we have been privileged to tell. Tom Durant. Tom Flatley, the Corcoran brothers, John, Leo and Joe. The passionate Jack Driscoll. Dr. Mary Jane English from Regis College by way of Brighton and Mt St Joseph Academy. The great Jess Cain of WHDH, an Irish Catholic kid from Philly who made Boston his home for 50 years. Phil Haughey, Sr. Lena Deevey, Dr Larry Ronan. We had the opportunity to tell their stories, everyone of them an inspiration for now and for the ages.

On Monday night, I met for the first time Tom Shields, whose MRI business has improved so many lives. He told me that profile we did of him – written by my contributing editor Greg OBrien – was the best thing ever published about him. I thanked him, but I told him the thanks belongs to Tommy himself and his lifetime of good works. All that we did was sit with him and tell his story, one more story of Boston’s Irish.

It took me some time in my younger years to decide to go into the business of publishing newspapers. My late wife Mary Casey Forry – herself the daughter of Irish immigrants from Leitrim and Mayo – was the president of our little family business, and in every way a full partner. We were both in our late 40s when we made our first trip over to Ireland. And it was then I discovered the great Irish American pastime – looking for family roots.

Mary’s were easy. She had family still in Leitrim and in Sligo town. When she first met her Uncle Michael, she said she felt like she was seeing her long dead dad once again! I have since been back six or seven times, and have yet to meet any of my own Irish cousins, But each time the feeling grows that I am returning home … to Ireland.

I want to conclude by briefly telling the story of my family, the Forry family of Dorchester. There were five of us – John, Mary, Eleanor, Joe and myself. John appeared in early 1931, a year and some months after the Wall Street collapse of ‘29. I was born in 1944, about a year before WWII ended.

Our father, John Forry Sr., was born in Lynn in 1901, the oldest son of Patrick J. Forry from Sligo and Hannah Forry from Waterford. When he was still a boy, the family moved to South Boston. Our mother, Eleanor J Toomey, was the last child of Tim and Nora Toomey. Both born in County Cork, they lived in Southie, at 510 Broadway. All of my grandparents emigrated to Boston from Ireland sometime around 1890. I only knew one of them – Grandma Forry, Hannah; the other three had passed away before I was born.

My Dad John Forry worked 49 years on the Boston Elevated, later the MTA and now called the MBTA and the T. When he retired they gave him a time at the Walsh Post, a pile of handshakes, and a watch. When he died in 1978, my mother was able to sell the two-family on Vera Street and move into a senior apartment building.

The boys in my family – John, Joe and myself – were expected to get an education, preferably at good Catholic schools. The girls, not so much. We boys all were sent to BC High, and we all took degrees at Boston College. Mary and Ellie went to work when they finished high school.

In my house, we knew we were Irish, but our Irish roots were defined less by the awful struggles of that island and more by the Americanized Irish tales of Broadway, Tin Pan Alley and Hollywood. Bing Crosby, Carmel Quinn and Dennis Day embodied our Irishness. If you’re Irish, Come in from the Parlor and Mick McGilligan’s Ball were our anthems. John Ford’s The Quiet Man gave us the quaint, bucolic images of the land of our ancestors, and Trooper Thornton’s quest to win the hand of the red-haired Maureen O’Hara was our cherished fantasy.

We even had a vague sense that the English government was not our biggest fan, but the details were a little fuzzy. In a word, we were assimilated.

I knew little about my grandparents and their lives over there. I knew simply that they all were born in the 1860s, they came to Boston in the 1890s, and they met and married, worked and sacrificed, made their homes comfortable and Catholic, and brought 15 or so children into this world – two of whom would repeat the cycle, meet and marry, and eventually, thank the Lord, bring me into the world.

I was the last grandchild of these four Irish émigrés, but I know so little about their lives in Ireland

The playwright Sean O’Casey once wrote, “Every action of our lives touches on some chord that will vibrate in eternity.” For me the tug to find out what I could became more powerful with each visit.
And so it was, last August, on a 12-day visit with my dear friend Della Costello. I found my way to the province of Connaught, the county of Sligo, the town of Castlebaldwin. There, from a window of my room at the glorious Cromleach Lodge, looking across Lock Arrow and a range of mountains, I realized that over those hills somewhere close was where my grandfather Forry had once lived.

It was an area called Kesh, tucked among the hills off the main roads. I knew I had some time to wander, and I felt an urgency to explore. This time, I said, let me see if I can find the Forry ancestral home, the place where, 120 years ago, I came from. As is often the case when we Yanks go looking for our roots, I found an Irishman – Pat Ward – who knew a lot about the history of the land and its people, and was willing to help. He’s the owner of the only local in Kesh, the historic Fox’s Pub on the Boyle road. He was certain my granddad, or some of the Forry family, my cousins, would have frequented Fox’s.

He called on a lady down the road who now lived in a house she bought 60 years ago from a man named Jim Forry. And I realized he was the uncle of my cousin Jackie Forry from Lynn!

At the house, I met the new owner, Mrs Cawley, who is just 86 now. I told her my name. “Now which Forry are you?” she asked me. “The home place of the Forrys,” she told Pat Ward “was, you know, where Angela Healy lives. The old house is just down the lane from there. That’s where they lived before they came down here.”

Five minutes later, Pat Ward had taken me down the road. I stepped out to see this wondrous vista: The hills, the fields, the trees. A small, almost hidden valley surrounded by a gently rolling countryside. As I gazed I realized I was seeing with my eyes the same hills, the same countryside that my grandfather saw through his eyes 120 years ago.

There was no house still standing, but I walked the field, across the meadow, and through the mud in the certain knowledge that I was walking in the footsteps of my father’s father, PJ Forry. I stayed there for just a few moments, but those few precious moments seemed like … forever.

And I knew then, what so many of us know and understand in our bones, in our soul at such times: On that day in August, in that field in Kesh, County Sligo, Ed Forry, the kid from Vera Street, on Codman Hill, St. Gregory’s parish in Dorchester, had come home.

PJ, this is for you.