For everyday passersby, the corner of Hamburg Street and South Park Avenue in Buffalo’s historic Old First Ward neighborhood doesn’t appear that significant.
It’s a dropped pin on a city block, host to a small bus shelter off the parking lot of the adjacent Undergrounds Coffee, and across the street from Carbone’s Pizza. 364 days a year, the spot is like any other corner. But for the afternoon of the annual Old Neighborhood St. Patrick’s Day Parade, that square footage of sidewalk has served as my extended family’s celebration point of our Irish heritage and history in Buffalo.
Our story is similar to scores of others scattered across the city and suburbs. Since first becoming a city in 1832, Buffalo has been home to thousands of Irish immigrants, here first to work on the railroads or the Erie Canal, succeeded by generations that included individuals who’d rise to prominence as wealthy businessmen, theatre moguls, a championship boxer, and the second-longest-tenured mayor in the city’s history.
According to Buffalo author Tim Bohen’s revelatory Against the Grain: The History of Buffalo’s First Ward, Buffalo was once one of the top five Irish immigrant destinations in America. Neighborhoods like the Old First Ward and South Buffalo were thriving Irish American enclaves, making Buffalo a hotbed of Irish culture, and a must-visit U.S. city for such past leaders as Ireland President Éamon de Valera, and even the planning ground for the infamous Fenian raid on Canada in 1866.
The celebration of our heritage led us to establish the Buffalo Irish Center in 1970, train championship-winning step-dancing troupes, and teach young athletes the intricacies of cherished Gaelic sports. It’s encouraged us to patronize pubs across the city like The Blackthorn, Gene McCarthy’s, and Adolf’s Old First Ward Tavern, while sharing pints of Guinness and Smithwick’s along with stories between friends, families, and affable strangers. It’s drawn us to the hum and thump of local bands like Poor Ould Goat, Jackdaw, and Crikwater, who’ve enlivened barrooms with time-tested Irish tunes—and adding their own imprint along the way.
Gene McCarthy’s/Old First Ward Brewing – Photo by Eric Frick
In short, the Nickel City is indeed an Irish city, with bona fides impressive enough to dye the Buffalo River green. But to truly appreciate what being Irish in Buffalo is about, one needs to go deeper than the litany of impressive facts, figures and statistics that mark the Irish presence in Buffalo. To find the most genuine meaning, go back to my family’s parade corner—or any local Irish American family’s parade gathering place.
At both the city’s parades (yes: there are two), you’ll find an enthusiastic reverence of ancestry and culture, joyfully amplified by those who’ve embraced cherished traditions together since birth.
At downtown’s more than century-old parade down Delaware Avenue, you’ll see parents and children, huddled in green off city sidewalks as processions of parade floats stream past thousands of revelers. Those nestled in the First Ward do the same, but often from their front lawns or stoops, gathered with extended family at middle-class houses as pipes, drums and festively dressed neighbors wind down South Park toward Hamburg and Louisiana streets.
My family has shared different vantage points over the years. My father and uncle have marched as members of The Blackthorns, a South Buffalo social club. My cousins have performed on floats as step-dancers for Rince Na Tiarna; and family members have walked with our personalized, tri-colored flag in the First Ward’s parade multiple times, including once alongside a refurbished milk truck to honor our longtime South Buffalo business, Farrells’ Dairy. And always, there was our family spot at Hamburg and South Park anchored by my grandmother and great aunt, whose parents emigrated from Ireland, met and married and Buffalo, and once had family living not far from our corner of choice.
This is the connection we continue to commemorate, standing together at our parade spot. We take pride in this Irish heritage every day, but on St. Patrick’s Day and throughout all its affiliated events, the Buffalo Irish community celebrates together—as one ever-expanding family.
See you at the parade(s), and Sláinte.