Lenahan O'Connell: An Irishman For All Seasons

By Greg O'Brien

From the Boston Irish Reporter

If the map of Ireland could assume a face, it would be the mug of John T. Lenahan O'Connell, patriarch of a most prominent Boston Irish Catholic family with ties to the Cape that has boasted among its ranks of an extended kin a score of attorneys and jurists, three U.S. Congressmen, esteemed entrepreneurs and notable physicians. "Lenahan" to all, O'Connell at 95-who still practices law four days a week at the family's celebrated 108-year-old Milk Street law firm, O'Connell & O'Connell-holds court over a clan with historic roots to County Cork, County Mayo and the Irish War of Independence.

As Democrat and independent-minded as Thomas Jefferson, the O'Connells over the years have crossed political swords with such political icons as James Michael Curley, John "Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald, Martin "The Mahatma" Lomasney, one of Boston's toughest ward bosses, and the crafty politico "Billy" Galvin. "On national and international scenes, the family had encounters with presidents and prime ministers, generals and admirals, prosecutors and criminals, Irish rebels and Nazi leaders," as noted in the published family history written by O'Connell, The O'Connell Family of Massachusetts. "Justly so, the history of the O'Connell family...serves as a microcosm of the Irish people, who, denied their basic rights and liberties for centuries, chose exile and undertook perilous ocean passages to come to America. Those exiles who survived, prevailed, and carved out their niche in the United States serve as a continuous living testament to the determination of the Irish people to endure and succeed."

And so welcome to the O'Connell family and its prelate, Lenahan O'Connell.

On the lip of St. Patrick's Day, O'Connell-a close associate of Boston mayors and dignitaries of the day, and who attended Sunday School in Brookline for a spell with John F. Kennedy-stretches out in a comfortable living room sofa chair in his Jamaica Plain home where he has lived since 1952. He is consuming yet another book, one of about five a month he reads, Irish/Charles G. Halpine In Civil War America. All business and all Boston, he inquires of a visitor in a tone that could cut through concrete, "You from around here?"

Satisfied, at least, that an interloper from the United Kingdom hasn't gained access, O'Connell opens up with a roar. "No one has any perspective any more," says O'Connell, raised during the Great Depression. "People generally are not interested in saving, serving, or until recently, living within their means. They expect the government to step in and do everything to bail us out. We've lost something in our culture; the old values are gone. There's a hole and it needs filling. And no stimulus package will patch that."

One way to fill the gap, he says, is through reading. "It's sad, people don't read anymore," he adds, noting that he has a personal library of about 1,000 books. "Reading teaches one about the history of our own existence-who we are, where we are and how we got there."

The nonagenarian, one of two surviving sons of 12 children, looks to his late parents for perspective-his mother Marisita Lenahan O'Connell, the daughter of John T. Lenahan IV, who was a distinguished attorney and congressman from Pennsylvania; and his Harvard-educated father, Joseph F. O'Connell, founder of the family law firm and a two-term Congressman who lost to Curley. Both were prodigious readers, who inspired their children in writing and oratory.

O'Connell, named for his Lenahan grandfather, recalls in a book he wrote about the law firm on its 100th anniversary that his father constantly insisted that his children "always write the words down." The senior O'Connell believed that the spoken word is all too soon forgotten, "no matter how powerful and eloquent."

"You must always write them down to keep them from being lost and to ensure they will be preserved for future generations," the father urged his nine sons and three daughters-Joseph F. Jr., Lenahan, Frederick P, Finbarr, Marisita, Kevin, Brendan, Meta, Lelia, Conleth, Diarmuid, and Aidan. O'Connell's surviving brother Diarmuid lives in Cohasset.

The elder O'Connell, the cornerstone of Lenahan's life and whose reflection is always in sharp focus within him, also taught his children about passion. "To succeed in life, you must have enthusiasm," he told them. "Next, energy, then a thorough training in some business or profession. I strongly believe in training. Life is not altogether chance, and the best training attainable is none too good...I don't believe in chance. A man largely makes his own chances. The opportunities are always there. The thing to do is grasp them."

His father's grounding transcends generations to hardworking farmers who tilled the soil in County Cork and his mother's grounding traces back to County Mayo. Education and intellectual enlightenment became the plowshare here. His mother was raised in a privileged and highly educated Wilkes-Barre, Pa. family. His father, the oldest of seven children of Irish immigrants, James and Elizabeth O'Connell, grew up in Dorchester, attended Boston College where he graduated in 1893, founded and was captain of the school's first football team there, graduated from law school in 1896 and a year later opened his own firm for general law practice-a year that President William McKinley negotiated the annexation of Hawaii and Boston opened the nation's first subway. The firm's first office was in Fields Corner. Irish in those days need not apply for rents downtown. The doors eventually opened on Milk Street.

Lenahan's political and professional instincts were learned at his father's knee. The senior O'Connell, self-reliant like his son, never mixed well with the political and business elite, both Brahman and Irish-from Curley to "Honey Fitz," although he walked the same paths, his more directed, theirs more serpentine.

"My father was never one of them," he writes of his dad. "He was never accepted by them. He wasn't looking for a job or to getting into an election every year. They understood that he was basically a lawyer and idealist and really didn't want anything from the machine. No matter, they ganged up on him at every chance...It was the old bit about, ‘don't get mad, get even."

While his father loyally and assiduously supported the Democratic party at the local, state and national level, even remarking once that "the salvation of the nation depends upon proper use of political power by those of the Democratic faith," the party establishment never appreciated the effort. "He'd break his back for them, but they treated him very badly," O'Connell says.

But his father never got mad; he was one of the most successful lawyers in the country and won election to Congress from the 10th District for two terms in 1907, the first Boston College graduate to be elected to the House of Representatives. In his initial primary, he defeated Democratic State Senator Edward Logan (for whom Logan International Airport was named), but in 1910, he lost to Curley, a Galway man, who ran a smear campaign in Galway-dominated South Boston that promoted O'Connell "as a nice man who couldn't win." A baseball player of note, who once had a tryout with John McGraw's New York Giants, O'Connell persevered in politics until the late innings, running unsuccessfully for mayor of Boston and for the U.S. Senate. He then grew his law practice, and continued his involvement in Irish causes.

Nice guys don't always finish last. At a White House reception, O'Connell met his wife-to-be Marisita, just months from the end of his second term. After a dance with her, President Theodore Roosevelt took him aside and urged him, "O'Connell, if you let that lovely young lady get away, you'll regret it for the rest of your life!"

No regrets for either, and for a dozen sibilings. Lenahan was raised in Brookline for a year, then Brighton near Cleveland Circle where the family attended St. Ignatius of Loyola parish, and contributed generously to the church. More of a scholar and a thinker than an athlete (a brief tenure in football as a center), Lenahan attended Boston Latin, English High and Boston College-living at home, packing potatoes when he was younger at the local A&P, then working summers in his dad's law firm. After graduating from BC in 1934, he attended Harvard Law for a year, then was asked to leave. "They didn't want me back," he says, noting he fell two grade points short. "I wanted to drop out and go into business, but dad insisted otherwise."

O'Connell then attended Boston University School of Law, graduating in 1938 and joining his father's firm. In 1942, he married Priscilla Halloran of Boston. The couple met at her father's Summer Street fish market and restaurant, called Litchfield's. The couple had three sons: Lenahan Louis, who teaches sociology at the University of Kentucky; Donn, who works in Boston in real estate; and Brendan Halloran, who is active in the Right-To-Live Movement and principal host of the television show, "Life Matters." He lives with his father in Jamaica Plain, surrounded by other family members. His wife died in 1995.

A graduate of the Massachusetts Military Academy where he received a lieutenant's commission, O'Connell was called to active duty in 1942. He then studied at the army's Judge Advocate School at the University of Michigan, and served as an artillery officer with the 79th and 86th Divisions. Detailed to the Judge Advocate General Division, he served in New Guinea, the Philippines and Occupied Japan after the bomb had been dropped, and later served in the army reserve as a lieutenant colonel.

Like his father, active in public and community service, O'Connell was a state assistant attorney general from 1948 to 1952, was appointed in 1962 by Boston Mayor John F. Collins as a trustee of the Boston Public Library, serving on its board for ten years, overseeing the library's historic expansion as president. O'Connell also has been a trustee of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and has been active in the American Ireland Fund, the Eire Society of Boston, the American Irish Historical Society, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, and the Charitable Irish Society.

At the end of a long interview, O'Connell, still stretched out in his sofa chair, shows no signs of fatigue. Asked about retirement, he snaps, "What would I do with myself?"

Until recently, he walked a mile and a half, four days a week to take a subway to work from Forest Hills to work closely with his nephew in the practice, Joseph F. O'Connell, III. What keeps Lenahan going? Sounding like his father, he on cue, "Passion, energy and the will to learn." Dum calidum sentis farcinem mande bidentis, as they would say at BC.

There is no doubt that John T. Lenahan O'Connell, weeks from his 96th birthday, will keep on learning as far as his remarkable intellect will take him, and there is equal promise that those close to him in the process will learn far more from him.

(Greg O'Brien is editor and president of Stony Brook Group, a publishing and political/communications consulting company based in Brewster. The author/editor of several books, he is a contributor to numerous regional and national publications.)

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