Sunday, April 14, 2013

"The Enduring Irishness of Buffalo's First Ward"

Timothy Bohen, author of "Against the Grain: The History of Buffalo's First Ward," wrote a fascinating piece for the March edition of the Irish Echo. We thought some folks might enjoy reading an excerpt from this article:

During the 1840s and '50s, numerous Irish-American enclaves in North America arose as a result of the Great Famine in Ireland. Some of these Irish settlements are well known such as the Bowery and Five Points in New York City, Canaryville and Bridgeport in Chicago, and Southie in both Boston and South Philadelphia.

But one of the longest enduring and most historically significant is a community called the First Ward, located in Buffalo, New York. The First Ward was a political entity along the banks of Buffalo's bustling waterfront. A small group of Irish settled in this marshy land after working on the construction of the Erie Canal in 1825, and by 1841 there was a large enough Irish neighborhood to form St. Patrick's Parish just north of the First Ward.

Around the turn of the twentieth century, many middle-class Irish would migrate from the Ward to a neighborhood called South Buffalo - the home of the
late NBC host Tim Russert and Chicago Blackhawk's hockey star Patrick Kane. But a sizable Irish contingent remained in the Ward for generations. Many Irish came to Buffalo to work in the burgeoning grain transshipment industry after Joseph Dart invented the world's first steam-powered grain elevator in 1842. By 1850, the Irish dominated the political leadership of the First Ward, and were able to take charge of their destiny.

Professor William Jenkins from York University in Toronto claims that the First Ward is one of the longest enduring blue-collar Irish neighborhoods in North
America. There are two reasons for this durability. First, the Irish controlled an entire political ward and were thus able to exchange their votes for an outsized
proportion of civil servant and government jobs.

Over time this enabled many residents to move into the middle class, so the benefits of remaining in this community were high. Second, the Irish in this
neighborhood were physically cut off from their fellow Buffalonians. Railroad tracks, canals, towering grain elevators, the Buffalo River, and Lake Erie
were the barriers that kept them isolated in place and spirit.

The Ward's physical isolation was one of the major reasons it endured while other communities in New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia integrated more
quickly with non-Irish residents.

The First Ward's contribution to the history of Buffalo, New York and our nation is noteworthy. In politics and government, First Warders made significant
contributions. The most famous was General William "Wild Bill" Donovan. Donovan, raised in the Ward, led the 1st Battalion of the famed 69th Irish brigade in
World War I and later becameits regimental commander. In 1919, Colonel "Wild Bill" earned a hero's welcome in New York City upon returning from his victories on the battlefields in France and became one of America's most decorated soldiers. He is the only soldier to have earned the Medal of Honor, the Distinguished Service Cross, the Distinguished Service Medal, and the National Security Medal.

In the early 1940s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt tapped Donovan to create the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the precursor to the CIA, and he is known as the "Father of American Intelligence."

Other prominent First Ward politicians include John C. Sheehan and his brother William "Blue-Eyed Billy" Sheehan. John, the comptroller for the city of
Buffalo, left his hometown for New York City after he was caught embezzling city funds. After arriving in New York, he worked for Tammany
Hall and eventually became Police Commissioner of New York City. Later, John grabbed the all powerful title of Tammany Hall boss after Richard
Crocker stepped aside.

John's younger brother "Blue-Eyed Billy" was the Speaker of the New York State Assembly, New York's youngest lieutenant governor, and in 1904 an influence in U.S. presidential politics when he maneuvered to get his friend Alton B. Parker picked as the Democratic nominee to run against Teddy Roosevelt. Sheehan was also the choice to be a U.S. senator from New York in 1911 until a young New York state legislator named Franklin Delano Roosevelt stopped his inevitable nomination. Despite the setback, Billy Sheehan went on to use his political connections to become a millionaire lawyer in New York City.
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"Against the Grain" also showcases other First Ward characters, including Fingy Conners and Jimmy Griffin. Check it out at


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