Donnelly attended private schools in Suffolk County. He graduated from Catholic Memorial High School in West Roxbury, in 1963. He received a Bachelor of Science from Boston University in 1970. He was a teacher and coach in the Boston public schools. He was a member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, 1973–1978, where he served as assistant majority leader in 1977–1978.
Donnelly was elected as a Democrat to the 96th and to the six succeeding Congresses (January 3, 1979 – January 3, 1993), but was not a candidate for renomination in 1992 to the 103rd Congress. While in Congress, Donnelly served on the Committee on Public Works and Transportation and, beginning in 1985, on the Committee on Ways and Means.
During his tenure in Congress, Donnelly authored, along with Congressman Bill Archer of Texas, legislation to repeal the Medicare Catastrophic Coverage Act of 1988 (Pub. L. 100-360) after the law became politically unsustainable. The law's political unsustainability reached its peak when the chairman of the committee that drafted the law was chased from his district office by angry senior citizens protesting it. The enactment of the Donnelly legislation restored the Medicare program to its pre-1988 status.
Donnelly's second major accomplishment in Congress was the enactment of the so-called "Donnelly Visa" program, which authorized 5,000 visas annually for citizens of countries that had been historically under-represented in the United States' immigration system that primarily relies on family reunification. The primary beneficiaries of the Donnelly Visa program, in its early years, were Irish nationals – many of whose families lived in Donnelly's South Boston district. Congress reauthorized the program in 1990; today, it is known as the Diversity Visa (DV) program and authorizes 50,000 visas annually to nationals of countries statistically deemed under-represented in the current immigration system. Donnelly's original intent was for the program to benefit Irish nationals but the reach of the program is far broader today.
In 1994, he was named United States Ambassador to Trinidad and Tobago. He served in this capacity until 1997. In 1998, he ran for Governor of Massachusetts, finishing third in the Democratic primary behind state Attorney General Scott Harshbarger and former state Senator Patricia McGovern.
- Rich, Spencer (October 5, 1989). "HOUSE VOTES TO REPEAL HEALTH PLAN". Retrieved November 5, 2017 – via www.WashingtonPost.com.
- "Dan Rostenkowski: Classic Chicago Pol and Bipartisan Figure". Newsweek.com. August 11, 2010. Retrieved November 5, 2017.
- "Diversity Visa Lottery: Inside the Program That Admitted a Terror Suspect". NYTimes.com. Retrieved November 5, 2017.
- Lapomarda 1992, p. 129. sfn error: no target: CITEREFLapomarda1992 (help)
- Franklin, James L.; Vaillancourt, Meg; Wen, Patricia (April 3, 1995). "Fraternal Group Uses Clout to Safeguard Its Interests". The Boston Globe.
- "President Clinton Names Donnelly Ambassador to Trinidad and Tobago". Retrieved August 27, 2006.
- "State Dept, Ambassadors to Trinidad and Tobago". Retrieved August 27, 2006.
- "Massachusetts primary results". CNN. September 15, 1998. Retrieved October 23, 2006.
- Lapomarda, S.J., Vincent A. (1992). The Knights of Columbus in Massachusetts (second ed.). Norwood, Massachusetts: Knights of Columbus Massachusetts State Council.
- United States Congress. "Brian Donnelly (id: D000416)". Biographical Directory of the United States Congress.
- Appearances on C-SPAN
|U.S. House of Representatives|
James A. Burke
| Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Massachusetts's 11th congressional district
|District eliminated after 1990 United States Census|
|| United States Ambassador to Trinidad and Tobago