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Southie's changing tune

At reunion, voices regret, accept loosening Irish-American grip on politics

The lilting Irish fiddle music danced across the giant glass atrium to where Eddie Murphy, a 58-year-old firefighter and South Boston native, leaned over a banquet table resplendently set with black-and-white photographs of Louise Day Hicks, the legendary South Boston politician who vociferously opposed busing to integrate the schools.

He lamented the changes wrought by the federal court order in 1974. ''It was the busing that destroyed the city of Boston, it forced people to move to Pembroke, and New Hampshire -- they just scattered, they just took off and that's what happened," Murphy said, leafing through a yellowing Hicks campaign flier. ''She was a fighter," Murphy said. ''She was against all that."

Then he considered the recent Suffolk County sheriff's race, in which Andrea Cabral, a black woman, easily defeated Stephen J. Murphy, a Boston city councilor with close ties to the city's Irish-American community. He shook his head in dismay.

''I feel people stayed home and laid on the couch and they should have went out and voted -- our own people," Murphy said. ''We're the people who built the city, we're the workers. We got up at 5:30. That's the problem."

Barbara Murphy, his wife, waved her hand dismissively, as if to signal what's past is past. ''It was a different time," she said. ''I'm just happy for the present moment."

Across Boston, Irish-American politics, which for years defined the city's political life, nurtured an immigrant community, and gave rise to a firmament of political stars, is fading -- and not everyone is happy. Cabral's breakthrough last week -- which follows the gradual migration of working-class Irish voters from many city neighborhoods -- has set off some soul searching among Irish-Americans here. In interviews, they express a mix of nostalgia, disappointment, and admiration at the rise of new political powers in the city.

''The end of the political regime was Louise Day Hicks and Kevin White," said Steve Connolly, 58, a laborer who grew up in a South Boston housing project and now lives in North Quincy, referring to Hicks, the former city councilor and onetime congresswoman, and White, the former mayor.

''Basically, the biggest bust-up of the town was the busing. The old people moved and the neighborhood broke up." Still, Connolly, who was one of about 2,000 current and former South Boston residents celebrating on Saturday night at the Great Southie Reunion II -- a festival of music, food, and old friends -- praised Cabral's win over Murphy.

''She had the credentials," Connolly said. ''Thirty years ago, that wouldn't have happened. But I think today, people realized she had the credentials. . . . Times change, and I understand that."

The hall at the new Boston Convention and Exhibition Center in South Boston, where the reunion was held, was decorated with newspaper clippings, South Boston High School sports trophies, and paintings of the Boston waterfront.

Thomas H. O'Connor, university historian at Boston College and author of a social history of South Boston, said that even under the reign of James Michael Curley, who was mayor of Boston intermittently between 1914 and 1950, the city's Irish-American community never enjoyed a political machine like those in Chicago and New York.

Instead of establishing a clear political hierarchy, Curley, and local ward bosses before him, would build political loyalties by doling out city jobs to friends and neighbors in need of work in a city park or incineration plant.

South Boston state Representative Brian P. Wallace, 55, a former aide to Mayor Raymond L. Flynn, recalls them as ''30- or 60-day appointments" -- the only way for Irish-Americans to gain a foothold in a city whose private sector was largely controlled by the Yankee establishment.

Wallace still gets calls from constituents in South Boston seeking jobs and housing, only now he picks up the phone to call a social service agency or local housing office. ''We try to reach out," Wallace said. ''It's a constant struggle."

Some miss the old days. Mary McLeod, 80, a South Boston native, shouting to be heard over the music at the reunion, described Southie politics today as ''uneven" -- adding, ''I'm looking for a nice word."

''People are forgetting their roots -- they're not out there to help others, they're there for their own interests," McLeod said. ''It used to be even the crooked politicians helped other people. You just don't get that feeling of camaraderie anymore."

Paul Bartel, 58, a Vietnam veteran from South Boston, ticked off the names of old political stars with the ease of a baseball fan naming his favorite players. ''You had Johnny Powers, you had Billy Bulger, Joe Moakley," he said, naming two former Senate presidents and the late congressman.

But Bartel shook his head at the thought of resurrecting that heyday. ''Back in the 1960s, it's over. When we had Blinstrub's and the neighborhood -- it's all broken up now," he said, mentioning a legendary South Boston nightclub that booked Bobby Vinton and Jimmy Durante before burning down in 1968. ''As Brian Wallace said, you go to work and there's an empty lot; when you get back, there's a house going up."

South Boston is undergoing rapid change, its longtime residents moving to affluent South Shore suburbs once prohibitively expensive to their parents' generation and into boardrooms and office suites that even 50 years ago were, in some cases, tacitly off limits because of discrimination. In their place, a geyser of young professionals is taking up residence in Southie, driving up home prices and sapping the neighborhood of its insularity.

Some older fixtures are fading, while others are adapting. William Bulger, the former Senate president from South Boston, resigned from his presidency at the University of Massachusetts under pressure from Governor Mitt Romney, a Mormon Republican. Meanwhile, at this year's annual St. Patrick's Day breakfast in South Boston, Marie St. Fleur, a Haitian-American state representative from Dorchester, crooned ''Danny Boy."

To be sure, Boston is not lacking for Irish-American political representation. ''The old Southie politics never went. It's never gone," said Joe Glynn, 57, a South Boston native mixing it up at the reunion. ''We have a lot of new neighbors that moved in, but the old Southie politics is the present." Jack Hart, state senator, Stephen F. Lynch, the congressman, and Michael Flaherty, the City Council president, are considered rising Irish-American politicians.

Some even see a connection between traditional Southie politics and the ascendance of a new racially diverse group of political candidates, such as Cabral and City Councilor Felix D. Arroyo, a Puerto Rico native. Linda Lynch, sister of Congressman Lynch, eyed the photos of Hicks and said, ''She did so much for women. Look at her and look at Andrea Cabral. She was one of the first women to get into politics, to win, to beat someone. Look how far we've come."

Flaherty, dressed in a crisp suit and tie, worked the crowd at the reunion, shaking hands, and greeting constituents from South Boston by the nicknames that are as integral to Southie life as the shops and bars along Broadway. ''Hey Bobby! Hi! How are you?" he asked one man. ''Hi Mike," a woman said, squeezing Flaherty's arm. ''Tommy's around. Everyone from earlier," he said to her.

Yet Flaherty said it is not enough for him to rely on ethnic affiliations and neighborhood allegiances to sustain his career as an at-large city councilor in a changing Boston. ''I'm a citywide councilor. I represent all 22 wards and 254 precincts and I take my job very seriously," Flaherty said. ''I enjoy a great relationship with my core, base constituency of white ethnic people. At the same time, it's a message of being inclusive and reaching out to every part of the new Boston."

As Micky McCarthy of South Boston noted, the neighborhood, for all its history of unrest and resistance to change, is being swept up in what Flaherty called the ''new Boston." ''For as many reasons as everyone hates us, everyone wants to move in. They pay a million dollars to move in," she said. ''You do the math."