People in Galway’s Eyre Square a couple of weeks back would hardly have glanced at the 76-year-old American posing for a picture for the Connacht Tribune, but many of them would have greeted him very warmly if they knew his identity.

Tribune editor Dave O’Connell reported last week that the unrecognized hero visiting Galway was the former Congressman Brian Donnelly from Massachusetts, back on a sentimental revisit to his roots for the first time since 1994. 

Donnelly was the man who delivered 26,000 green cards to undocumented Irish in America 35 years ago, people who otherwise would have languished as undocumented Irish for many years.

During the mid-1980s to mid-1990s, a flood of young Irish fleeing a deep economic recession left Ireland for America like millions before.

However, unlike emigrants in the 1950s, the new Irish were denied visas to America because of the 1965 Immigration Act that effectively ended legal Irish migration.

But the Irish came anyway and soon many found themselves in a dire economic situation.

The new arrivals were organized and the Irish Immigration Reform Movement was born. It soon became a powerful lobbying group for Irish immigrants, working to change U.S. immigration law to provide equal access to all immigrants and to legalize the thousands of illegal Irish who were in the country already.

The Irish cause needed a champion and it found one in Donnelly, whose own Galway roots had always kept him very interested in Ireland. 

To all 26,000 who benefitted from a green card, they will forever remember the Donnelly visa program called after the Bostonian who went to the brink to ensure its safe passage through Congress.

The family ties to Ireland are still there. Donnelly’s nephew, Larry, is a law lecturer, author, and political analyst in Ireland.

“So much in life is about three things – the right person in the right place at the right time. I guess I was that person,” he told the Connacht Tribune.

“I’d heard so many stories in Boston – and particularly around the Irish community in Dorchester – of people who were in the US without a work permit who couldn’t go home for family funerals and other important events.

“The Immigration Act was going through Congress at that time; a once-in-a-generation chance to make a difference. But we needed our wits to make sure it worked for the Irish,” he says.

The plan, which involved an intimate knowledge of House rules, succeeded. House Speaker Tip O’Neill and Senator Edward Kennedy became involved and the bill creating a set aside for thousands of Irish green cards passed.

Donnelly never had to buy another drink in an Irish bar again. A few years later came the Morrison visa program, called after the Connecticut Congressman Bruce Morrison, which created 48,0000 green cards exclusively for Ireland. Glory days!

Donnelly later sought the US ambassadorship to Ireland to Ireland under President Clinton, but Kennedy had it earmarked for his sister Jean. He instead got Trinidad and Tobago.

It is great to read that Donnelly is still hale and hearty and back on ancestral soil. US Ambassador to Ireland Claire Cronin hosted a special event at her Dublin residence to honor Donnelly and the creation of his visa program. Ireland and Irish America owe him a mighty debt.

*This column first appeared in the November 16 edition of the weekly Irish Voice newspaper, sister publication to IrishCentral.