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Linda Dorcena Forry breathes new life into Boston St. Patrick’s Day breakfast

Yawu Miller | 3/19/2014, 10:33 a.m.
Linda Dorcena Forry’s bid last year for the 1st Suffolk Senate seat was certainly contentious enough, but once in office, ...
State Sen. Linda Dorcena Forry joins South Boston politicians in song at the annual St. Patrick’s Day Breakfast. (l-r) At-large City Councilor Michael Flaherty, state Sen. Michael Rush (seated), Forry, state Rep. Nick Collins and U.S. Rep. Stephen Lynch. Photo by Don West

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Courtesy of the Mayor's office

Boston Mayor Martin Walsh chats with Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny.

Linda Dorcena Forry’s bid last year for the 1st Suffolk Senate seat was certainly contentious enough, but once in office, she had to battle for control over one of the spoils of the seat — the right to host the annual St. Patrick’s Day breakfast.

Sunday, Dorcena Forry displayed the same mixture of tenacity, sharp elbows and wit that propelled her into office as she led the city and state’s most powerful politicians in the annual roast, which was held Sunday at the Boston Convention and Exhibition Center.

Standing at the podium amid a sea of mostly white faces, it wasn’t Dorcena Forry’s kelly green dress and blue blazer that made her fit in with the celt-ocracy of Irish pols, it was her biting wit, which she used to good effect.

“Do not adjust your television set,” she said, speaking to the NECN simulcast audience. “There is nothing wrong with the picture on your TV. That is right, everyone. That’s right. I’m a woman!”

Not only is Dorcena Forry the first Haitian American and the first woman to lead the breakfast, she is also the first Dorchester resident as well. Her election to the seat represented a shift in the balance of power in Boston, where politics has long been dominated by the Irish and blacks have played a marginal role at best.

As the city’s Irish population rose in prominence in the 19th and 20th centuries, St. Patrick’s Day became one of the symbols of their political power. Using the day’s proximity to Evacuation Day, the date when Revolutionary War General Henry Knox assembled a battery of cannons on Dorchester Heights (now South Boston), forcing the British to evacuate and end their 11-month siege of Boston, politicians in 1901 created a Suffolk County holiday that did not violate the separation of church and state.

In the ensuing century, the Irish dominated politics in Boston and in the Commonwealth, electing mayors, governors, House speakers and Senate presidents. And South Boston has been the traditional seat of Irish political power.

Even after former 2nd Suffolk District Sen. Dianne Wilkerson re-drew the lines of the 1st Suffolk District to make it majority minority, the Irish continued to dominate, with Jack Hart holding the seat.

Dorcena Forry’s ascent to the seat was with a razor-thin margin of victory over Collins, who was handicapped in the Democratic primary by South Boston businesswoman Maureen Dahill.

After winning the election, Dorcena Forry squared off against City Council President Bill Linehan, who tried unsuccessfully to assert his right to lead the breakfast, even though that has historically been the duty of the 1st Suffolk District senator.

In the end, other South Boston politicians prevailed upon Linehan to back down. Linehan later accepted an invitation to attend a St. Patrick’s Day celebration in Limerick, Ireland, where he spent the Monday holiday.

In her role as emcee, Dorcena Forry made light of it all, delicately maintaining a balanced mixture of sharp wit and respect for her former political foes.