Remember Good Will Hunting?–Specifically, do you remember the character Will Hunting? Let me refresh your memory: While at a bar with his loyal Southie friends, he notices a pretentious Harvard student trying to make his friend (Ben Affleck) look stupid in front of a group of attractive girls. Will comes to his friend’s aid. After kicking this arrogant bastard’s ass intellectually, he offers the following bit of wisdom:
The sad thing is in about 50 years you’re going to start doing some thinking on your own, and by then you’ll realize there are only two certainties in life … One don’t do that. Two, you dropped $150 grand on an education you could have received for $1.50 in late charges at the public library
After embarrassing this smug Harvard student, Will adds, “And if you got a problem with that, maybe we can step outside and deal with it that way.” (Damon, Matt; Affleck, Ben; Good Will Hunting: 1997) That scene truly reflects the many talents and virtues of Southie. It says, “Yes, I’m an intellectual, but I’m a fighter too. And my loyalty to my friends is absolute.” It is a loyalty that grows from the empathic/survivalist nature of Southie folks–people whose cultural roots are planted firmly in Ireland, so much so that we often jest that South Boston is the western-most county of Ireland.
Is this character merely a fictional character? Is it possible that the “genius old school Southie kid” has a non-fictional counterpart?
Of course, a lot of outsiders will say no. To these folks, one is stereotyped as an idiot when they either detect a “Southie accent” or hear one say, “I’m from Southie–I and 8th St.”
There are folks who will cite sociological reasons that a non-fictional Will Hunting is a fantasy. They will cite socioeconomic reasons. And they will cite cultural reasons. And they are wrong.
Anyone that knows Southie, knows that our culture is the reason why we not only survived, but thrived.
Oppressed by the English at home, the Irish diaspora began a great migration to Boston. There is but one reason why Boston and many other parts of the country claim Irish ancestry: The Irish Famine. The Irish people literally starved. The English iniquitously deprived the Irish of the crops that the Irish themselves farmed and harvested. The English brought the food home to England, and left the Irish starving to death.
The Irish Famine Memorial – Boston
Thus is the genesis of the prominent Irish diaspora in Massachusetts (Plymouth County still has the highest concentration–outside of Ireland–of those with Irish ancestry); the diaspora that took “blue-blooded” Boston by storm; the diaspora that mastered the blood-sport of Boston politics; the diaspora that within a couple of generations, proudly elected one of their own as President of The United States: President John F Kennedy.
In my office, there is an authentic sign that reads, “No Irish Need Apply.” There is a simple reason I keep that sign on display. It motivates me. Oppression is the great motivator. And the oppression of the Irish, both in Ireland and in America, affected our culture immensely. We had to work harder; we had to study harder; we were inculcated by our parents and grandparents with the belief that hard work and education cut the key to freedom.
With cultural beliefs such as these, one can theorize that Will Hunting from Southie is a non-fictional character. But we do not need to speculate when one can cite the multiplicity of Will Huntings from Southie.
Let’s start with Senator Joseph Moakley: a man from the Old Harbor Housing Projects in Southie (today it is often called Mary Ellen McCormick). Moakley grew up in public housing and fought for his country in World War II, even though he did not have to–he lied about his age when he enlisted.
He went on to graduate from Suffolk Law School (Suffolk Law School named their new library after The Honorable Joseph Moakley). He was a state representative, a state senator, and then a Congressman who labored his whole career for the working man, never forgetting the oppression in the collective Irish memory.
The talent of folks from Southie is all-encompassing. Although we do have numerous political heroes, we have sports heroes too. For instance, Southie is home to the first winner of an Olympic Gold Medal in 1500 years, James Connolly. He won the triple jump.
Stanley Cup Champion, Brian Noonan, is also from Southie’s housing projects. Never forgetting where he first got his start, after winning the cup, he brought it to Southie’s Murphy Rink, where I got to behold the most cherished trophy in sports. His gesture made every Southie hockey player believe in himself and herself.
“Wait,” you’re saying, “Will Hunting is an intellectual genius. The people you listed are talented, but not one of them is a rocket scientist.” True. Let’s amend this careless oversight.
Southie is proud to call Eugene Lally a native son, and he is indeed a rocket scientist. He assisted NASA with their Apollo Programs and pioneered digital photography.
Southie folks are not just characters in movies–they are also Hollywood Actors. Brian Goodman became an actor after spending 20 years in prison. Authenticity is his hallmark. He actually included former “marks” (the drug dealers and underworld folks that he robbed) as characters in movies. Goodman’s filmography is incredible: Catch me If You Can, The Last Castle, The Fast and The Furious, etc. One could go on forever with his filmography.
The Irish are well-known for their talented writers: James Joyce, William Butler Yeats, Jonathan Swift, George Bernard Shaw. My hero Michael Patrick MacDonald belongs in that pantheon of great Irish writers.
MacDonald grew up in the Old Colony Projects in Southie. His book, All Souls – A Family Story From Southie, illustrates the great Southie paradox. Although there are many blessings bequeathed to the Southie’s young people, there are dark elements at play in this neighborhood.
Irish culture forged under the heavy yoke of English oppression had arrived in Southie. Souhie’s Irish diaspora suppresses painful memories and obfuscates the true past to “outsiders” (Freud said that the only race impervious to psychoanalysis is the Irish because of their propensity to keep their problems hidden).
However, the world is now aware of the dark elements at play in Southie. My family knew James “Whitey” Bulger, Senate President Bulger’s brother (one the most powerful gangster–the other the most powerful gangster) ended up becoming the FBI’s most wanted man. And not too long ago he made international news after getting caught in Santa Monica with hundreds of thousands of dollars and an arsenal of guns hidden in the walls of his apartment.
Organized crime is a scourge in ethnic, urban neighborhoods, especially black, Italian, and Irish neighborhoods. Each of these cultures faced violence and oppression from those that who were supposed to keep the peace and promote justice.
Speaking of social justice, Michael Patrick McDonald has done community work for every part of Boston suffering from violence, drug epidemics, or any type of despair. Michael Patrick MacDonald now spends his life trying to improve the lives of the working-poor people of Boston. He helped to start Boston Gun Buy Back Program. He is Writer and Residence at Northeastern. He is someone, as a firm believer in Jesuit Principles, that I emulate.
Southie is also the hometown of Pulitzer Prize winning playwright, lyricist, and screenwriter, David Lindsay-Abaire. He won The Pulitzer Prize for his 2007 drama, Rabbit Hole. He hails from West 5th St.
Obviously, the Irish are prolific writers, and I cannot mention all of Southie’s writers.
The last two “Will Huntings” are special to me for different reasons, but I hold them both in the highest regard.
Speaker of The House John McCormack served in The United States House of Representatives from 1928-1971. He served in World War I. In 1940, he became House Majority Leader. “You’ll never get anything done without Democratic help,” he often yelled across the aisle to his Republican colleagues in the 1950’s during the Eisenhower Administration.
Any student of history or politics must note that during the passage of The New Deal Legislation, he was serving in the party leadership (the second highest-ranking Democrat). He became Speaker for 9 years, and the legislation passed under his Speakership makes for one of the finest legacies of any Speaker.
He was an early advocate of Civil Rights and the Speaker of The House when The Civil Right’s Act of 1964 was made law (I only wish that that the The self-professed liberals I’ve met who are so quick to generalize Southie as racists knew that it was under the auspices of our native son, John McCormack, that Civil Rights Laws were passed). Speaker McCormick also advocated for and signed laws protecting early education, health care, and elderly welfare. McCormack was a legislative giant who helped pass Great Society’s Reforms. After the assassination of President Kennedy, Speaker McCormack became next in line for the presidency.
The next giant that I am to mention comes from the housing project in Southie named after Speaker John McCormack’s mother, Mary Ellen McCormack. His name is Senate President William Bulger. He and most original Old Harbor families like mine would most likely call our neighborhood Old Harbor; although none of us forgot what the McCormack family did for us.
William Bulger is a true Jesuit-trained intellectual. At Boston College High School, by the time we graduate, we are ready to “be men for others.” In other words, we will spend our everyday to help those in need. And Senate President Bulger always heeded the virtues that The Jesuits taught him to strive for.
And after going to BC High, BC, and BC Law, earning the honorable title Triple Eagle, his Jesuit education was bound to influence the rest of his life. He became a public servant: First as Massachusetts State Rep, then State Senator. As state senator he was elected Senate President. He served from 1971-1994, which is the longest tenure ever held by someone in that position.
He was a political mastermind. But the reason folks love him still to this day is because of his renowned constituent service–another example of Southie’s loyalty and empathy at work. Bulger would field calls on his own and get back to people on his own. That is unheard of now in the Massachusetts State House. The proudest day of my life was when William Bulger, who graduated exactly 50 years before me at BC High, and ironically handed me my B.C. High diploma.
One would be hard-pressed to find such ubiquitous talent in a town of this size. Good Will Hunting should not be seen as a story about a genius whose Southie upbringing makes him an anomaly in a town that is bereft of talented people and intellectuals. Indeed, the opposite is true. Southie, a town with a culture influenced by the oppression of our ancestors; it is a town full of talent. But most importantly, Southie’s educated political leaders proved that a neighborhood of empathy and compassion underlies the rough exterior.