The crowd was already up on its feet, clapping and cheering when Senator Linda Dorcena Forry took the stage, belting, “If you’re Irish, this is the place for you.”
But, aware that some longtime viewers of the St. Patrick’s Day breakfast in South Boston might be shocked to see a Haitian-American woman hosting the 70-year-old political roast, she offered a few reassuring words.
“For those of you watching at home, do not adjust your television set,” Dorcena Forry said, as the audience roared with laughter. “There is nothing wrong with the picture on your TV. That’s right, everyone. That’s right. I’m a woman!”
Much of the annual breakfast remained familiar – down to the long litany of cringe-inducing jokes by elected officials. But this was also a very different event, infused with fresh energy and interest as Dorcena Forry made her debut in what has been widely seen as a sign of Boston’s evolution from a parochial town of old ethnic allegiances to a multiracial city of new faces and shifting centers of power.
The tension inherent in that transformation provided the spark for many of the jokes, as politicians from South Boston and beyond seized on the spectacle of a black woman from Dorchester taking center stage at an event that was for decades a celebration of Irish-American political muscle.
“Have a good look, everybody,” said Deval Patrick, the state’s first African-American governor, as he put his arm around Dorcena Forry. “This is what a Forry and a Patrick looks like these days!”
Dorcena Forry had promised to lift the profile of the breakfast, which in recent years seemed to have lost some of its luster. And there were signs of a resurgence.
The crowd at the South Boston convention center was larger, and a bit more diverse. The attendees included some, like Patrick, who have skipped the event in recent years. Ireland’s prime minister, Enda Kenny, made an appearance, in something of a coup for Dorcena Forry.
And William M. Bulger, the legendary South Boston politician who has largely avoided the public eye since his brother, Whitey, was convicted last year of murder, racketeering, and other crimes, showed up in a video that Dorcena Forry recorded for the event.
Bulger, who helped make the breakfast a must-attend event when he was Senate president in the 1980s and 1990s, struck an earnest tone, counseling Dorcena Forry to, “Keep ‘em laughing. Keep ‘em smiling.”
Other South Boston politicians went right to the heart of the matter.
US Representative Stephen F. Lynch, former state Senator Jack Hart, and state Representative Nick Collins taped a mock training video set to the theme song from “Rocky,” in which they teach Dorcena Forry about life in South Boston.
Lynch shows her how to use a lawn chair to save a parking space and to bark at anyone who tries to steal your spot. Hart takes her for an Irish step-dancing lesson, where it turns out she is already a master of the art. At Sullivan’s hot dog stand on Castle Island, Collins cringes when she commits the unforgivable sin of ordering a tofu burger.
The lighter moments were interspersed with well wishes for former Mayor Thomas M. Menino, who disclosed Saturday that he has been diagnosed with cancer. Dorcena Forry urged the crowd not to let the former mayor’s illness cast a pall over the breakfast, saying humor would help him heal.
“I’m a firm believer in the power of laughter and light,” she said.
Menino, a fixture of past breakfasts, did not attend, but appeared in a lighthearted video with Patrick.
Dorcena Forry’s debut was preceded by a struggle that some say recalled Boston’s divisive past, when City Councilor Bill Linehan, last year’s emcee, refused to relinquish hosting duties, arguing the breakfast should be led by a politician from the neighborhood.
After an avalanche of criticism from city and state officials, Linehan eventually relented. He then announced that he would skip the breakfast and march instead in the St. Patrick’s Day parade in Limerick, Ireland.
That choice made him the biggest punching bag at Sunday’s roast.
In a videotaped spoof of a supposed run-in with Linehan, Dorcena Forry leans in the rear window of a taxicab and gives her regards to a passenger portraying the councilor. Then she leans in the front window, and tells the cab driver in Haitian Creole to take him “on a long, long ride.”
Republican gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker skewered Linehan with an off-color limerick questioning the councilor’s manhood.
In a video that he recorded, Linehan acknowledged the awkwardness of his decision to bail on the breakfast, by accepting a bag of “sour grapes” from a comedian.