Larry Donnelly was born in Boston, Massachusetts he is an Irish-American law attorney, writer and political contributor living in Ireland. A legal research lecturer at the University of Galway, he is a regular political commentator on RTÉ Radio 1 and the nightly television news bulletin, RTÉ News on Two, also contributing to his local radio station Galway Bay FM. He has a political column in The Sunday Business Post.
Tell me about growing up what School and College did you go to?
I grew up in East Milton, Massachusetts, which abuts the city of Boston. I went to my local Catholic primary school, St. Agatha, and then to Boston College High School. I did my undergraduate degree at the College of the Holy Cross, where I majored in Classical Latin and Greek, and my Juris Doctor (Doctor of Law) degree at Suffolk University Law School. I qualified as an attorney in 1999 and practised law for two years at a Boston law firm prior to relocating to Ireland in 2001 to take up an academic post at what is now the School of Law at the University of Galway.
When did you discover your love for politics and writing?
I have been fascinated with politics for as long as I can remember. Coming from a political family, it was always the dominant topic of conversation and it was something that I developed a very strong bond with my late father – who taught me everything I know about what he called “the toughest business of them all” – and we discussed politics endlessly. I had to write an awful lot at every level of my studies and it is something I have always enjoyed. Now, I still do a lot of it – both academically and in my avocation as a political commentator – and I teach it. I am convinced that, of all the skills a lawyer needs, being a strong writer is the most important of all.
How to start writing a political column for The Sunday Business Post
I wrote occasional columns on politics – some solicited, others unsolicited – for The Business Post, the Sunday Tribune and the Irish Independent. I also wrote regularly for the Irish-American website, Irish Central.com. In 2012, I began writing for The Journal and have been a regular columnist on the site for more than a decade now. The Journal is Ireland’s leading online news source and it’s a privilege to write a column for it every two weeks.
In 2008 you sat on the RTÉ panel on the night of the American presidential election. Tell me about that experience.
I began commenting in the Irish media about American politics in early 2008, when the heated Democratic presidential primary between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama was unfolding. And now, that has broadened out and I contribute regularly on politics, current affairs and law on both sides of the Atlantic to a wide array of outlets. I have been a part of RTÉ’s US presidential election night coverage every four years since 2008. It’s always a long night as we process the results coming in from the various states, but the adrenaline keeps you going! It has to because we ordinarily finish on TV in the wee hours and I am then back in for Morning Ireland before 6 the next morning.
One of your articles in The Journal is the Gaelic football final that you attended in 2001. What made you fall in love with the game?
Well, my cousin Paddy Murphy is the one to blame, really. He introduced me to Gaelic football and the rest is history. I have been a passionate Galway supporter ever since I have now passed that on to my son. Larry Óg, despite the fact that he is being raised in Wicklow, is a massive fan of Galway GAA and enthusiastically accompanies me to Croke Park to cheer them on. I love the amateur ethos of the GAA and the community spirit that underpins it.
As a Lawyer, do you feel there is anything that needs to be changed in the way the Irish law is run?
I think access to justice is an ongoing difficulty. Those without financial means too often do not have access to legal recourse and find the law and the legal system daunting for a variety of reasons. I support any and all initiatives to improve access to justice.
Do you miss living in Boston and do you return often?
I will always love Boston. It will always be home and nothing can duplicate the familiar sights and sounds of there and the family and friends I have known for a lifetime. I go back twice a year. Now that my parents are both passed away, it is different, but it is still very special.
Do you now see Ireland as your home, or do you intend to return to Boston?
I am very lucky to have two homes! For all the aforementioned reasons, Boston will always occupy a central place in my heart. But Ireland is where I have made my life – both professionally and personally. This country has been very good to me; I often joke that my grandmother would be sending the men in white coats to bring me back if she knew I was living here. It may sound twee, but unlike the vast majority who have had the reverse experience, Ireland has been my land of opportunity. I would never say never, but I would have to have both an absolutely extraordinary (and very highly paid!) offer and the backing of my family in order to return to live in the US.
Your uncle Brian Donnelly issued over 10,000 Donnelly Visas under the ‘Donnelly Programme 1990.’ Irish people were allowed to work and live legally in America. Tell me more about this Visa?
It’s a long story! In short, there was a piece of legislation in the 1960s that effectively discriminated against would be Irish immigrants to the US. It had been relatively easy for Irish people to relocate there before then. In the 1980s, things were very hard over here and the outlook was bleak for young Irish. A huge number of them went to Boston, New York and other cities to find work and were living without legal status – in the shadows of America. My Uncle Brian’s congressional district, where I grew up, was then the “most Irish” area in the US and was flooded with undocumented Irish. My uncle was moved by their plight. And owing to the ethnic composition of his district, acting on their behalf was also a political winner. He put a huge amount of effort into helping them and the Donnelly Visa was the result. Knowing that there are still plenty of undocumented Irish in Boston and elsewhere and that immigration from the US to Ireland (long the lifeblood of the close relationship between the two countries) has slowed to a trickle, I only wish someone else would take up this cause today.
What are your favourite passtimes?
As well as spending way too much time following politics here and in the US, I try and play as much golf as is humanly possible. I was away from the game for more than 20 years and, thanks to the prodding of my son, I am now back into it. As my wife would attest, you can usually find the two Larrys at Wicklow Golf Club unless we have something else, we have to do. I also enjoy a few pints afterward – either to celebrate or to mourn how I have played!
In October 2021 your book ‘Larry Donnelly, The Bostonian’ was published. Was it always your dream to write this book?
It was something I had thought about intermittently and discussed with friends and colleagues. I was very fortunate to be approached a publisher, Gill Books, just before the pandemic hit. They thought I had a good story to tell and it really was a Covid project. I was delighted with the very positive reviews The Bostonian received and the nice feedback to it, though it didn’t make the bestseller list!
Do you plan to write any more books in the future?
I’ll be focusing on academic writing and columnizing for the foreseeable future!
You are also Co-Director of the Kennedy Summer School. Can you tell me about this?
The Kennedy Summer School is an annual festival of Irish and American politics, history and culture that was founded by my late friend, the Irish Times columnist and well-known political commentator, Noel Whelan. I spoke at the summer school for several years and Noel asked me to get involved in the running of it in 2016. It has been a wonderful experience through which I have made many new friends in the great town of New Ross and gotten to know at a personal level a lot of household names in the worlds of politics, journalism, sport and more. It really is a fantastic weekend every September and I encourage everyone who is interested to see www.kennedysummerschool.ie for more details.