^ Catherine O’Neill, of the Lower Mills O’Neills, conversing with a roomfull of Seniors at Foley House, South Boston
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There’s something of a Dorchester revival afoot in the City of Boston, an irish-name revival too. Here, in a city decreasingly peopled by those of Irish-name, we see on the Council at-Large ballot a Mike Flaherty; a Stephen J. Murphy; a Jack Kelly, Marty Keough, Chris Conroy, and — by no means the least — the subject of today’s profile, Catherine M. O’Neill, of the large and well, well-known O’Neills of Lower Mills.
It would be hard to have been any sort of active Boston citizen these past forty years and not known at least one of Catherine O’Neill’s siblings. Her brother Tim has been a public prosecutor since the early 1970s; brother Tom was a legendary principal at Mattapan’s famed Solomon Lewenberg School. Brother Ted O’Neill has been well-known too, and her late brother Mike — known to hundreds of politically busy Bostonians as “wide Mike,” — who always reminded me of what the poet and playwright Brendan Behan must have looked like, a presence as physically awesome as he was likeable.
Catherine O’Neil has Mike’s fierce eyes and Viking face, and something of Tim’s soft forehead, and it’s hard to figure how this writer somehow did not meet her back when her brothers were a constant presence. Turns out that her career followed an entirely different trajectory ; she’s a published playwright (that Behan connection ?) and a media person who hosted The Boston Connection, All About Boston, and the Dorchester Connection, all on BBN-TV.
O’Neill went to St. Gregory’s School — where her Dad was a janitor — for thirteen years, then got her degree from Suffolk University in communication and journalism. She also has a master’s degree in Fine Arts.
She never married — a loss for the best Boston men of my generation — but as a child growing up in a large family, it comes second nature to her to care about people. And so, when Elizabeth Warren, who knew of O’Neill from television , asked her to work on her Senate campaign, O’Neill was ready to take her caring into the formal political groove,
^ Catherine O’Neill with senator Elizabeth Warren
She found the experience to her liking, and after Warren was elected, went to work in the campaign of her Lower Mills neighbor, Linda Dorcena-Forry — wife of Bill Forry, whose father Ed was “Mr Dorchester News” for several decades — for State Senator. Dorcena-Forry was already the Lower Mills area’s State Representative; indeed, O’Neill had been her field director in her 2005 first campaign. Dorcena-Forry’s Senate campaign made history. She won over the South Boston candidate, becoming the first Dorchester candidate to do so, and the first person of color to represent the District.
O’Neill was now ready to become a candidate herself; and when Tom Menino’s decision it to run for a fifth Mayoral term opened up two of Boston’s four at-large Council seats, her time had arrived.
We chatted with O’Neill three times; stood with her as she greeted voters at a Marty Walsh rally in East boston; and saw her in action conversing with voters at the Foley House in South Boston. There was never a minute in which she did not connect eye to eye with voters together an d singly; the experienced media hostess this was ever in command, credible, likeable. Thus our first question — what special qualities do you possess to make you uniquely qualified as a Councillor ? — answered itself. Not many Council candidates are published playwrights and accomplished television show hosts,
Our conversation continues (Here and Sphere as “HnS”) :
HnS : Your first priority as a Councillor ?
O’Neill: Seniors. My Mom is 93 years old. I know the needs of seniors first hand. Seniors need all the help they can get. Longer stop lights at crossings, better curb cuts. Safety of the neighborhoods ! I will be an advocate for seniors ~!
Here and Sphere (HnS) : Do you favor lifting the charter school cap ?
O’Neill: no, I do not favor it.
HnS : What school reforms do you favor ?
O’Neill: I think a longer school day is a good idea.
HnS : The BRA : replace / reform ? If so, how ?
O’Neill: There needs to be separation of planning and decision, so that the community can have input.
HnS : Speaking of safety, Marty Walsh has said there’s a heroin epidemic in the city. Do you agree ?
O’Neill : The first documentary I did, for BBN television — in 2001, produced and wrote — was on the heroin problem in the city of Boston. It was epidemic in proportion then, and I know we still have that problem with it in our city. The shame is not to be a heroin addict; the shame is not to do anything about it. Heroin addicts, and addicts generally, usually have no advocate. There’s nobody out there beating a drum for people who unfortunately are addicted to heroin. and I…i would be an advocate. we need more beds for women (addicts too). I really do know a lot about his subject, because of my friend, now deceased, who was the head of the drug corps at South Boston District Court,. it was he who asked me to do the documentary.”
That O’Neill proved so conversant of Boston’s heroin problem surprised me. It probably shouldn’t have. It’s the kind of problem that a television discussion show, such as O’Neill hosted, wants to focus on. Proof that her television experience offers more than just show time to the City Council if she’s elected.
—- Michael Freedberg / Here and Sphere
^ Catherine O’Neill advocating to Seniors at the Foley House on H Street in South Boston.