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Michael Ryan: 1951-2009

A celebration of the good old days by someone who knew him when
By CLIF GARBODEN  |  August 31, 2009

RBulgers main
Photo: Clif Garboden
Michael Ryan, far left (with pipe).

Every proper obit should begin with something long-winded and amusing. In this case, that's easy.

March 14, 1974, St. Patrick's Day in Boston, was one of those days you knew from the start was going to produce an epic war story. It started with a dawn excursion from the Back Bay to a Masonic Hall in Roxbury (via Dedham, thanks to bleary-eyed navigation) and ended with riding across racist Boston city councilor Louise Day Hicks's lawn in somebody's orange BMW.

Boston's busing crisis was in full agitation that spring, and black state rep Royal Bolling had, sort of half jokingly, invited the Southie pols to an integrated Paddy's Day 10 a.m. fried-chicken breakfast. Boston Phoenix editor Bill Miller assigned Michael Ryan, ex of the Crimson and barely two years out of Harvard, and me to cover that event and then report on the traditional raucous celebration back in town. Michael was the reporter; I was the photographer/designated driver. In those days, I got a lot of assignments because I had a car — albeit a rusty 1966 Chevy Biscayne. Boston Magazine's Jeff Precourt, who didn't have a car either, was to join us.

We rousted Jeff out of bed and made it to Dedham in time to be about the only white people in the room — at least until the rest of the media arrived. Boston's pols, smelling controversy, almost universally snubbed Bolling's peace overture. A media event to which only media showed up. Sigh. Then on to Southie. Somehow, along we way, we picked up several more wheels-bereft journalists, including WBZ-TV consumer reporter Sharon King. And I think J. Anthony Lucas was in my car for a while that morning, but I could be wrong about that.

Of course, Southie was traffic-jammed, so I parked the Chevy on the Congress Street Bridge and our ad hoc press corps trudged what seemed like miles through bitter wind and light sleet to the reviewing stand on Broadway where the public enthusiasm for Celtic pride was indistinguishable from the fervor to maintain neighborhood schools. At noon, a lot of people were already very, very drunk. But again, darn few pols. Mayor Kevin White made a brief appearance; the insufferable Dapper O'Neil was front and center; Hicks got the biggest ovation; and a moderate young state senator named Billy Bulger did his best to warm to a lukewarm reception. But most of the council and city and state public-service scions gave the busing-tainted event a pass.

Post parade, we wandered into Billy Bulger's mother's house where Bulger, a collection of his relatives, and Michael Ryan ended up around the piano singing "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling" with a priest, Fr. Sean McManus, unofficially representing the IRA. And so it went, all the way into a blur. Details about the orange BMW and the trip back to my car will be omitted to protect the driver. (I'm saving that yarn for another obit.)

RSings main
Photo: Clif Garboden
Michael Ryan, far right.

Of this circus, Michael subsequently wrote a Phoenix report that wondered, "Where Was Everybody on St. Patrick's Day?" (March 26, 1974) — a typically graceful interpretation of that insane and clouded celebration that brilliantly married the absurdity of the contrasting events with their underlying political gravity. Michael could do that sort of thing without breaking a sweat. Whether writing about a legislative floor fight, an undeserving judicial appointment, John Wayne at the Hasty Pudding, or forced busing, Michael buoyed insightful reporting with an undercurrent of droll poetry — secure in the bardic gift of language that the Irish claim as a birthright.

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