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Man behind the Donnelly Visa – back home to the land of his ancestors

It was a moment of political high drama that was to change the destiny of thousands of Irish people over the 35 years since – and more critically it allowed so many of our undocumented emigrants to emerge from the shadows in the United States.

To all 26,000 who benefitted, it will forever be known as the Donnelly Visa –called after the Bostonian with North Galway roots who went to the brink to ensure its safe passage through Congress.

Brian Donnelly was back in Galway last week on his first visit ‘home’ since 1994, in the company of the nephew he calls the ‘reverse emigrant’ – Larry Donnelly, the Boston-born, UG law lecturer who has made his home back in the land of his forefathers.

Brian still vividly recalls the lead-up to that immigration reform programme back in 1986 which initially looked like it was largely overlooking the Irish – until a small but vital group of Democratic ex-pats pulled a perfectly legitimate political stunt.

“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 says modestly.

“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.

“It had sailed through the Senate, and they thought the same thing would happen in Congress – but I felt that the Irish were not guaranteed a fair share of the visas. So a group of us like-minded Irish-American Democrats met in a Washington pub called the Dubliner to hatch a plan,” he says.

That plan was simple; each vote had a fifteen-minute window for Congress members to decide their stance – and right at the last minute this group would vote ‘no’ and then all bar Brian Donnelly would leave the Chamber before party whips could get them to change their minds.

Read the full story in this week’s Connacht Tribune, on sale in shops now, or you can download the digital edition from You can also download our Connacht Tribune App from Apple’s App Store or get the Android Version from Google Play.

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