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In the shadow of a grain elevator: a portrait of an Irish neighborhood in Buffalo, New York, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

THE creation of the immigrant neighborhood is one of the central features of American urbanization since the nineteenth century. Irish settlements in North America since the early 1800s have been analyzed with depictions of various "Irishtowns" and "Corktowns." (1) While images of ethnic homogeneity in urban neighborhoods in the period 1850-1930 have been dispelled by detailed research, the endurance of ethnically defined populations and identities has received scant attention. (2) Indeed, it has been assumed that the durability of such populations and identities in a given neighborhood seldom lasted beyond the immigrant generation, but rather represented a temporary or transitional arrangement in a city's social geography. (3) The urban ecologists of the University of Chicago in the 1920s and 1930s, with their "spatial assimilation" models, did not expect working class immigrant neighborhoods to last for more than a generation. The descendants of the inhabitants of such places, they believed, suburbanized relatively quickly, paving the way for newer immigrant groups to occupy cheap housing close to downtown. The residential dispersal of the Chicago Irish from the notorious Stockyards district in the early twentieth century, for example, moved Paul Cressey to write that they had undergone "a more complete disintegration ... and a greater degree of cultural assimilation" than the city's Germans. (4)

Though the exodus of the "lace-curtain" or "steam-heat" Irish from early shantytowns forms a key element in the story of Irish America at the turn of the century, little has been said of the primary settlement areas they left behind, or about how long such areas remained "Irish." This paper explores, firstly, the socioeconomic milieu of the First Ward, the principal "Irish" district of Buffalo, New York, in the late-nineteenth century; and, secondly, it explores the conditions that contributed to the ward's durability as an Irish neighborhood into the twentieth century. In contrast to many other pioneer Irish neighborhoods in urban America, the identity of the First Ward as an Irish working-class neighborhood has endured far beyond the first generation of immigrants who settled there in the 1840s and 1850s. (5) And though the neighborhood has been hit hard by de-industrialization, with part of the housing stock now put to other uses, the neighborhood is still viewed by Buffalonians as the "Irish" part of Buffalo. Rather than being seen as a bounded "Irish world," neighborhood is conceptualized in this paper as a fluid entity. I argue that a variety of social territories co-existed alongside, and overlapped with, one another and were inextricably linked in a web of ethnic-based social relations. The First Ward, in other words, was not a world unto itself.

Profiling the economic and social structure of this Irish neighborhood and mapping its various social landscapes is possible through the analysis of census manuscripts, municipal records, personal memoirs, and a con temporary novel, Roger Dooley's Days Beyond Recall, set in the First Ward circa 1900. (6) The book chronicles the family and social relationships of Rose Shanahan, born in the ward to Limerick-born parents. Although Dooley, born in 1920, was writing about the previous generation who lived in the district, I argue that his status as a First Ward native of Irish background and his use of real place-names in the book offer a more nuanced picture of neighborhood life than can be gleaned purely through reliance on non-literary sources. As Mallory and Simpson-Housley argue, such novelistic descriptions of places "enable the essences of sense of place to be felt strongly by the reader." (7) In discussing the First Ward's Irishness, I explore not only the district's residential geography, but also its labor market and various social and political institutions, all of which functioned to produce an Irish-American neighborhood of long standing.


The completion of the Erie Canal in the 1820s transformed the young city of Buffalo into a grain port of world renown by mid-century. Grain arriving from the Middle West was stored in the city's waterfront elevators and later transferred onto Erie Canal barges for dispatch to markets on the Eastern Seaboard. In addition, the city's profile as a center of heavy industry rose through the second half of the nineteenth century, with the growth of the iron and steel and automobile sectors. By the 1890S, the socioeconomic pyramid of a small, wealthy elite and a large industrial proletariat had been firmly established. As Powell has noted, this period represented "the high noon of Buffalo capitalism. The city boasted 60 millionaires, twice the number in all the United States in 1850." (8)

The Irish, being among Buffalo's earliest settlers, had long been an integral part of the city's labor force. Upon the Erie Canal's completion, the various towns and villages in New York state along its length became heirs to "little colonies of Irish families.... In Buffalo, they were especially numerous simply because that was where the canal terminated." (9) "Numerous" did not necessarily imply a large community of settlers; John Timon, the first Catholic Bishop of the Diocese of Buffalo, estimated only four hundred Irish people to be present in Buffalo by the early 1830s. (10)

The nineteenth-century Buffalo Irish had much in common with Irish urban communities elsewhere in the northern United States. It appears that most of them were Catholic. In contrast to towns and cities in nearby Canada, Buffalo had too few Irish Protestants for them to develop a distinctive group life or presence. (11) Due to the efforts of the French, German, and Irish settlers, Catholicism in Buffalo was cast in stone with the building of St. Louis church in 1829, the parish and church of St. Patrick's being established in 1841. (12)

The famine-related immigration of the late 1840s had a significant impact on Buffalo and its Irish population. Over ten thousand individuals of Irish birth resided there in the early 1850s, overwhelming the prefamine Irish settlers. (13) Most of Buffalo's Irish originated in Munster and Connacht, rather than Ulster or Leinster. (14) Like so many Irish in other American cities prior to the 1880s and 1890s, those in Buffalo occupied the lowest socioeconomic position among the city's two other main ethnic groups, the Protestant Yankees and German-speaking peoples from Central Europe. Buffalo's Protestant founders, mainly Episcopalians and Presbyterians, originated in New England and eastern New York. Germans, of a mostly artisanal background, both Protestant and Catholic, were also present in the city from the early nineteenth century. (15)

Although Irish households were present in all areas of Buffalo by 1880, the Irish remained closer to the waterfront and central business district than the Americans (who inhabited mainly the north and west sides) and Germans (on the east side). The First Ward accounted for 36 percent of all Buffalo Irish households of both the first and second generation in 1880. (16) In that year also, the "rambler," reporting for Toronto's Irish Canadian, commented that "a large section of Buffalo--that towards the South--is largely inhabited by Irishmen and their immediate descendants." (17) This southern waterfront district, which consolidated itself as a blue-collar Irish-American district for more than a century, is the focus of the remainder of this essay.


Industry, residence, and ethnicity were interlinked in the shaping of the First Ward as one of urban America's most enduring Irish-American neighborhoods. Nineteenth-century Irish settlement in Buffalo did not extend very far from the city's waterfront, where the Erie Canal, Buffalo River, and City Ship Canal were lined by grain elevators, mills, warehouses, and other structures devoted to manufacturing and transportation. Irish settlers in the First Ward, located south of the city's central business district and covering an area of 634 acres, built wooden shanties along these waterways from the late 1840s. The various waterways through which Great Lakes tugboats, freighters, and canal barges alike traveled cut into the district's geography. Not surprisingly, rowing became a popular sport in the First Ward, particularly among grain elevator workers, and three clubs were established. (18) The ward was situated in one of the lowest-lying parts of Buffalo, whose swampy terrain made it undesirable for housing, prone to periodic flooding and, in the summer of 1849, the area of the city hardest hit by a cholera epidemic (19) (Figure 1).


Thirty years after the Great Famine brought thousands of Irish to the city, they remained the principal ethnic group of the First Ward but did not completely dominate. A 10 percent federal census manuscript sample of the ward's household heads in 1880 demonstrates that the Irish of at least two generations made up over 70 percent of the ward's population (Table 1). Of the 202 Irish households, a second-generation Irish male or female headed only 37, or 18.3 percent. The remaining nationalities were a mix of Americans of long generation, as well as immigrants from Germany, Britain, and other parts of northwestern Europe. The First Ward's residential geography reflected both its Irish flavor and its minorities. The latter were spread throughout the district; thus, while some streets, such as Kentucky, Tennessee, and Vandalia were heavily Irish, few were exclusively so. Single-family houses were strung along prominent east-west streets such as Perry, Elk, and Fulton, populated mostly by Irish laborers and their skilled or semi-skilled countrymen. Houses containing the families of Dutch, Danish, English, Scottish, and American laborers, painters, printers, and sailors regularly broke the ethnic monotony, however.

The spiritual center for the Irish Catholic inhabitants of Buffalo's First Ward was initially St. Bridget's Church. Its genesis dates from 1850 when Bishop Timon organized a Society of St. Vincent de Paul to administer relief and spread the catechism among impoverished famine immigrants. The parish dedicated a proper brick church in 1860, replacing the initial small frame structure. The parish priests, with names like McMullen, O'Connor, Gleason, Quigley, Lanigan, and O'Brien, were clearly of an Irish background. (20) In addition, the establishment of two churches marked the presence of a minority Protestant population: St. Mark's Methodist Episcopal (1856) and St. Thomas' Episcopal (1876).

Tenement life, the everyday domain of thousands of Irish families in New York City at this time, had little parallel in Buffalo. While tenement buildings housing three or more families were part of the First Ward's housing stock, they were exceptions. In a sample of 185 first- and second-generation Irish households in 1880, 94 (50.8 percent) lived in modest frame-built single-family dwellings, 53 (28.6 percent) in two-family dwellings, and the remaining 38 (20.5 per cent) in buildings housing more than two families. Inspection of the Sanborn fire insurance maps for the city in 1881 reveals that because only a few houses in the area were more than two stories high, the remainder were extended further into the lot to cope with the demand for space. Number 191 Elk Street, for example, was a two-story structure that housed ten families in 1880, seven of whom had Irish heads of household.

Despite its outward character as an Irish working-class neighborhood, the inhabitants of the First Ward seldom perceived the area as a homogeneously "Irish" space. Community was present on a variety of spatial scales and a process of differentiation, based primarily on occupation and the length and street of residence, became inscribed into the district's social geography. Many among the Irish-born in Buffalo had grown up in the Catholic parishes of western and southern Ireland, where the town-land and parish defined locality. Within such divisions, place-names were bestowed informally on landmarks such as fields and crossroads, many of which escaped official cartography by the Ordnance Survey. While the official title "First Ward" (or simply "The Ward") was adopted by its Irish-American inhabitants as the general name of their neighborhood, informal local names were created by the immigrant generation (Figure 2). (21) "Haker Town" was apparently christened by immigrants from Cork and Kerry "where they ate much hake-fish."(22) "Uniontown" was named after the dominating Buffalo Union Furnace, and in some respects those who worked in that steel mill inhabited a world separate from the rest of the ward. To the east of the grain elevator district and in a somewhat isolated location, the company built more than sixty frame houses on stilts with board sidewalks and dirt streets. To offset occasional floods, the land underneath the houses was filled in with slag, a by-product of iron. The mill had an employment capacity of five hundred men, and excess funds from dances held in local boarding houses went to needy families whose fathers were ill or injured. (23)

The working-class Irish on "The Beach" were isolated from the rest of the city by a maze of freight yards, grain elevators, docks, slips, and railroads. Inhabiting city-owned land and not troubled by deeds or taxes, the Irish shared this strip, nicknamed "Wall Street," with a smaller number of Portuguese families. Lake Erie fish, caught all year round, was central to the diet of these families. They were served by a Roman Catholic church between 1873 and 1915, after which the city evicted the inhabitants in favor of railroad development. (24)

Although a working-class community overall, the tightly knit social milieu and subtle class or lifestyle distinctions in the First Ward generated a lack of privacy and a small-town snobbery similar to those found in rural Ireland. Dooley's novel, Days Beyond Recall, proves valuable evidence in this regard:
   There were few [families] whom the Shanahans did not know, at least among
   the families who had always lived here. Tenants might come and go, forever
   moving from one back yard to another or living in flats over Elk Street
   stores, but the families who owned their own houses, they who had formed
   St. Bridget's nearly fifty years ago ... these were still the backbone of
   the parish, and the ones who rated a greeting from Mary Ellen Shanahan.

To some First Warders, not all of their fellow Catholic Irish were alike. In the eyes of pious and respectable locals of long standing, such as Mary Ellen, the novel reveals further that the absorption
   of the population of The Beach by a parish restructuring had considerably
   lowered its standing in the eyes of St. Bridget's parishioners. It might
   boast many comfortable families, but it also numbered a great many more
   like ... former Beachers, newer from the old country or more menially
   employed on the docks and in the mills. (26)

Other institutions of the First Ward shaped its social life. As with Barrett's intimate portrayal of Chicago's Packinghouse district, the saloon, often doubling up as a boarding house, a grocery, or both, was a common commercial establishment and key point of reference socially. (27) Possessing a vibrant port culture, Buffalo was not noted for its lack of saloons. In 1880, the city directory enumerated a total of 1,042 saloons, with 6.72 saloons per 1,000 individuals. (28) In the First Ward for that year, there were 24 boarding houses and 119 saloons listed. "No nice Irish woman would set foot inside one," said Rose Shanahan, noting the surprise of her Uncle Otto, a German, in whose culture the saloon was a place for the family as a whole. (29) Irish dock laborers rubbed shoulders with the aldermen they helped elect in these dimly lit and male-dominated spaces. The irregular nature of grain scooping and other dock-based work meant that workers often utilized the saloon as a cafeteria, a hiring location where networks were forged and news was spread, a place to sleep, and a location for general conviviality.

A wide breadth of social classes was present within the average First Ward kin network, due to the various settlement and economic mobility experiences of individuals and families. Each family, it seems, had its "poor" and "well-off" cousins. The often turbulent lives of Rose Shanahan's relatives suggest that alcohol-fueled domestic violence remained a pervasive problem in the community:
   The way Paddy [O'Farrell] beat his wife when he got a bit of drink in him
   and the way she beat the children, even without any drink in her at all,
   and the language they all used, were a disgrace to St. Bridget's parish.
   But what could she expect, and they coming from The Beach? Nothing but
   squatters down there, the lot of them. (30)

In contrast, she had cousins on Buffalo's West Side--a priest, a doctor, and a lawyer--all of whom graduated from Georgetown and, as Shanahan notes, "there was no keeping up with." (31) The West Side emerged as a secondary settlement area for the upwardly mobile Irish in the 1890s, where they partly displaced an older American population that was expanding northward. (32) Activities in the labor market of Irish males and females helped to further shape these experiences and perceptions of life and territory beyond the First Ward.


Nonetheless, the First Ward remained the key reception area for Irish immigrants, and it remained solidly working-class. As Table 2 illustrates, the Irish there were likelier than the non-Irish to occupy unskilled work (38.1 percent versus 22.4 percent). Conversely, the non-Irish were more concentrated in skilled trades such as machinist, blacksmith, shoemaker, and the building trades, while both groups were represented in Great Lakes-based occupations such as ship captain, ship carpenter, caulker, and sailor. The Irish shared with the other groups what little of a middle-class of grocers and saloonkeepers remained.

The Buffalo Irish middle-class in 1880, then, had become only marginally more substantial since the 1850s, when Thomas D'Arcy McGee's wife complained during their sojourn in the city that "there were few of the type of people she hoped to befriend among her fellow Irish." (33) The milieu of the First Ward was akin to a small industrial town where, rather than the Satanic mill, the Irish lived in the shadow of the grain elevator. Many Irish immigrant livelihoods depended on the latter building, developed by Joseph Dart in 1842. In 1881, the "rambler" wrote:
   The grain-shovellers, of whom there are thousands, are almost all Irishmen,
   the "Bosses" being of the same nationality. The "Boss" yields autocratic
   sway. To him is confided the task of hiring men; and being invariably the
   proprietor of a boarding house and lager beer saloon, he protects his
   interests to the extent of employing no man who will not accept his board
   and drink his beer.... [Thus the scooper] very often finds himself at the
   end of a season, owing to the avarice and cupidity of which he is the
   victim, not only out of money, but deeply sunk in debt. (34)

The market for grain scoopers was, on this evidence, biased in favor of single and intemperate Irish males. The birthplace and marital status of boarders in fourteen boarding houses and family homes on Ohio Street are shown in Table 3. Most of those providing shelter were Irish, and while they did not take in Irish-born boarders exclusively, the latter dominated the scene, representing just under half the total. The non-Irish boarding house keepers still took in a lot of Irish people. The occupation of one of these Irish household heads, John Hoolahan, was given simply as "laborer," but his provision of space for ten boarders highlights the degree to which an informal market for shelter existed. These boarders contributed much to the community, bringing news directly from the Old World and, frequently later, their friends and relations also. In addition, they provided a valuable income supplement to the family-based economies of the district's working class.

Direct links between boarding house keepers and the waterfront labor market served to keep elevator jobs in Irish hands. John Haley, for example, was an elevator boss who took in thirty-two boarders, twenty-seven of whom were single Irish-born males. His lodgings were teeming with men in their twenties and thirties with last names such as Shaughnessy, Hickey, McCarthy, Griffin, O'Day, Hennessy, Dolan, and O'Grady. "Long hours for little pay," was how Kerry-born Thomas Evans described his days as a scooper. (35) With such a plentiful labor supply, this was not surprising. As one local historian has stated: "It was quite easy for a contractor to reduce wages by hiring all Mayo men and then inviting the Galway immigrants to take the jobs at a lower wage." (36)

Ownership of a saloon was viewed as a key avenue of upward mobility within the community, and Irishmen who graduated to this status had themselves worked on the docks or in the elevators and mills. Yet what became known as the "boss-saloon" system was clearly exploitative. Despite sharing a common ethnic background with their employers, class-based loyalties developed among the Irish scoopers and other dockworkers in the 1890s, culminating in the strike of 1899. The social center of St. Bridget's parish, the hall, was also the center of scoopers' meetings during the strike. Almost ten thousand were involved and the strike was successful in achieving reform of the system. (37) Thereafter, the unionized scoopers were paid in an office rather than over a saloon counter. The saloons continued to serve their social function, however, and the intemperance problem persisted within many of the ward's families.

At an individual level, the gender-based journey to work shaped a series of perceptions and experiences of the city. As in other American cities, domestic service was the principal occupation of unmarried Irish females in Buffalo in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. The Buffalo labor market for domestic service produced a geography of movement that connected the worlds of Irish working-class families and Yankee upper-class families. This connection brought an awareness of other parts of Buffalo and their social characteristics from which most First Ward males, with shorter journeys to work, remained remote. Work on the waterfront tied the latter's everyday lives to that particular district; few were compelled to commute outside it. In contrast, John Feather has noted that First Ward girls
   left home (before the age of eighteen) almost always to become live-in
   domestic servants in the homes of the native-born citizens. However, this
   was not a permanent occupation for most women; by age 21, over half were
   married ... women usually spent several years learning the values and ways
   of life of the native-born Buffalo elite. (38)

This reality is also reflected in Days Beyond Recall, where Rose Shanahan's eldest aunt, Biddy, works as a cook for Judge Harrison Lovett, who lives on Delaware Avenue, portrayed as a member of one of Buffalo's oldest families with New Hampshire roots. Through her aunt, "Rose knew almost as much about Delaware Avenue as she did about the First Ward, though in quite a different way. To her, the names associated with these houses were as magically remote and fascinating as those in a fairy tale." (39) The trajectories of residential movement also connected the First Ward with the city's West Side where, not surprisingly, the attempts of the "lace-curtain" Irish to impose respectable middle-class values often made them the object of scorn back in the southern district.


The Irish, forming a mass proletariat in American cities by the late 1850s and 1860s, were the key ethnic group of "ex-plebes" identified by Robert Dahl who used their sheer numbers and geographical concentration to depose the business and industry men as local political leaders. (40) Their influence in local political structures, and those of the Democratic Party, in particular, served to increase the group's presence in public employment in Buffalo by the early twentieth century.


Although the Sheehan brothers, John C. and William F., the sons of a Cork-born immigrant, were key shapers of the "fortress of working-class Democrats in Irish South Buffalo," there was some degree of political pragmatism that disrupted this familiar alignment. (41) The politics of popular First Ward Republican politician Jack White, for example, was imbued with the same machine-style pragmatism of the Democrats, whereby "it was the first ward first and the party later with both Republican and Democrat leaders." (42) Joining the Republican party out of a desire to accrue the advantages of leading the minority rather than the majority party on the local scene, White remained on Buffalo's board of aldermen for almost a quarter of a century. William "Fingy" Conners was a former stevedore who, after making a fortune as a labor contractor and saloonkeeper, became a local newspaper mogul and politician. His unpopularity during the 1899 strike exposed the tensions between the Irish workers and the middle-class "elite" in the neighborhood, many of whom had little time for trade unions. Conners's political strategy was also one of pragmatism, as he switched his loyalties to Democrat from Republican, becoming deeply involved in local and state politics in the early-twentieth century.

Leadership of the Irish working-class in the First Ward was contested not only between rival political factions but often between these and local clergymen. Serving as parish priest in St. Bridget's from 1895 to 1897, when he was appointed Bishop of Buffalo, the Ontario-born Fr. James Quigley described with disapproval how "men marched like cattle to caucuses and election booths." (43) A central figure in the 1899 strike by grain scoopers and freight handlers on the city's waterfront, Quigley defended the workers against the Irish contracting and saloon-keeping interests, exclaiming, "I intend to adopt the docks as my parish, and the dockmen as my parishioners." (44) Quigley's dislike of local political corruption and patronage practices as well as his support of organized labor make him one of the key liberal figures within the American Catholic hierarchy in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries.

The numerous social networks created by Irish ward-based politics meant that political appointments were commonplace. Mark Stern has estimated that, in Buffalo, the proportion of Irish-born in government employment rose from 2 percent in 1855 to 21 percent by 1915. (45) That the public school curriculum was taught to the children of the First Ward by teachers of Irish ancestry, if not birth, owed much to the patronage of the local political system. The Republican White apparently "managed to have more teachers on the payroll than any other individual ... during the ... 80's when the school department was a Democratic political preserve.... It was the same with the police department." (46)

Contrary to an earlier school of thought, then, the Irish in Buffalo had a significant interaction with the city's public school system, not only as pupils but as teachers. (47) Irish female teachers, mainly second generation, slotted into a system of public education in Buffalo where many pupils were of Irish background. There were four public schools in the First Ward in 1880 (Figure 2). In number 34, on Elk Street near Louisiana Street, which was described as being "overcrowded with pupils" in 1881 and where apparently "all of the teachers were of Irish descent," 349/404 (86.4 percent) of the pupils' parents were Irish-born. (48) In schools 3, 4, and 33, the figures were 246/373 (66 percent), 574/903 (63.6 percent), and 185/350 (52.9 percent), respectively. The redistribution of patronage did not trickle indiscriminately down to all members of the community electorate, however. Although becoming a schoolteacher was a key aspiration for second-generation Irish-American females, in Days Beyond Recall, Rose herself "might have been one, had the Shanahans at that time commanded enough political pull to wangle an appointment." (49)

Patronage also ensured that the "Irish Cop" was well represented at the upper levels of the police hierarchy in Buffalo as well as at the neighborhood scale. Five of the twelve detectives at headquarters were born in Ireland, including the assistant superintendent, Patrick Cusack, whose family arrived in Buffalo from County Clare in 1852 when he was thirteen years old. (50) The annual police and fire service reports provide listings of officers by name and precinct or station. The results indicate that the allocation of policemen and firemen followed the general ethnic geography of the city. It seems clear that those who knew their home turf were stationed there, since most First Ward policemen were of Irish descent. In 1890, at precinct number 7, 455 Louisiana Street, the Lieutenant was Irish-born Michael Regan; of the twenty-four patrolmen stationed there, fifteen (63 percent) had distinctively "Irish" last names. Nineteen of twenty-four staff (83 percent) at two fire engine company stations in the First Ward, numbers 8 and 10, were of Irish extraction in 1900. (51)


Compared to the period 1840-1900, by the early twentieth century Buffalo's capacity to attract Irish immigrants was in decline. By 1910 the number of Irish-born in the city had fallen to 9,423 from 11,664 in 1890. The share of the Irish-born in Buffalo's population fell from to percent in 1870 to just 2 percent in 1910 and, during the same time period, the Irish proportion of the foreign-born in the city fell from 24 percent to 8 percent. By this stage, Poles and Italians had replaced the Irish and Germans as the "foreigners" in the city, as seen through the eyes of the long-established Protestant elite. Aside from the Hungarian-born furnace workers who came to Uniontown after 1900, however, new arrivals did little to disturb the established Irish neighborhood of the First Ward through any process of residential succession. Neither did the African-American migrants of the 1920s, who succeeded the German population on the city's Near East Side, dislodge the Irish-American First Warders.

By the early twentieth century, three generations of Irish were resident in the First Ward. Only the first two generations are directly measurable, however, and they constituted half of all households in the area in 1910 (Table 4). Between these two generations of Irish, the share of households with an Irish-born head declined from 81.7 percent in 1880 to 58.2 percent in 1910. Third-generation households are subsumed under the "American" ethnic origin in Tables 2 and 4, a group whose share of the community rose from 4.5 percent in 1880 to 16.4 percent in 1910. Thus, the true (i.e., three-generation) "Irish" proportion of the area's ethnicity in 1910 is probably closer to 60 percent.

The Irishness of the First Ward was maintained despite high levels of out-migration from the district since its settlement in the 1840s. Rather than being an uprooted mass of disoriented foreigners, unable to adjust quickly to life in the New World, it is now clear that the Irish and other immigrants were aware of the American capitalist economic system and did not choose their destinations randomly. (52) As Golab has written, "Once in a city, immigrants did not scatter randomly around the urban landscape. Their ultimate destination was (or became) an ethnic neighborhood." (53) New arrivals to the First Ward acted as a balance to the many who departed for other, less congested parts of Buffalo, or for other cities. Of the seventy Irish-born household heads sampled in 1910 whose year of immigration was recorded, 40 percent arrived before 1880, 52.9 percent between 1880 and 1900, and 7.1 percent since 1900. New immigrants were drawn to the area for its ethnic familiarity and labor demand, particularly in grain scooping, which remained a secure employment base for newcomers along with work in the steelworks and flour mills, and on the docks and railroads. Receipts of flour, corn, and grain by the port of Buffalo all increased during the period 1886-1901, keeping labor demand buoyant. (54)

That it remained an area of primary settlement for many Irish immigrants helps to explain the First Ward's continued status as a working-class locality in the early twentieth century (Table 5). Although the Irish had improved their representation in skilled and semi-skilled labor since 1880, almost 30 percent of their household heads were still engaged in unskilled labor, mainly grain scooping. (55) Chain migration drew new immigrants to the First Ward when others moved out. Many "greenhorns" got their start in grain scooping upon arrival in the city, and they used their savings to finance the passage for other kin. For example, the savings from scooping grain acquired by Thomas Evans from Castlemaine, Co. Kerry, who arrived in 1885, were first directed toward securing passage for his fiancee, Nora Fitzgerald. Five brothers followed Evans to the First Ward and to unskilled work on the waterfront, while Evans's own path out of unskilled labor was, typically, through self-employment as a saloon owner. His brother Michael did even better: "being the best businessman of the six ..., [he] became the owner of a tavern ... at 326 Ohio Street and a number of apartment buildings and houses." (56)

Anthony McGowan, an immigrant from Kilmihill, Co. Clare, who arrived in 1886, also graduated from dockworker to saloonkeeper. His story demonstrates the saliency of transatlantic kin and friendship connections that served as a form of social capital as well as the importance of the relatively small Irish middle-class as social agents and employment brokers. McGowan followed his brother to the First Ward and, shortly after arrival, started work as a grain scooper. He had been active locally in the Democratic Party, working as a committeeman in the First Ward shortly after arrival. His talents were rewarded by John J. Kennedy, a former scooper and city alderman, saloon owner, and freight contractor, who gave McGowan a break. McGowan became the manager of Kennedy's Seabreeze Hotel, and opened his own tavern in 1897 at 206 Elk Street. The rise of this one-time grain scooper in local politics continued in 1908 when he was appointed to the Department of Markets and served as assistant superintendent in charge of the Elk Street market for thirty-one years. (57)

Once some families had accumulated wealth, however, they moved out of the district. Although an "Irish world" in many respects, the ward had a number of undesirable characteristics. Family dissolution, crime, alcoholism, poverty, and disease were rampant. Dock-based work was hazardous. Men would fall into the harbor and drown. Air quality was poor with "the strong malty smell ... floating through countless kitchen windows ... as much a part of the First Ward streets as their horse-troughs and their carbon arc lights." (58) Tuberculosis and asphyxiation were widespread among the scoopers; the grain dust would get into their lungs and cause asthma. Thomas Evans witnessed the death of his wife and two children from tuberculosis; three out of five children from his second marriage also succumbed to the disease at an early age. (59) Nonetheless, many of those who chose to remain in the area were rewarded by homeowner status. Of the one hundred thirty-four Irish household heads sampled in 1910, forty-five (33.6 percent) were homeowners whose endurance helped to cement the Irish Catholic identity of the neighborhood, which was also solidified by an apparently high rate of intra-ethnic marriage. Locals had a saying, "Never throw a stone ... you might hit your cousin." (60)

The First Ward and South Buffalo's enduring reputation as an Irish blue-collar area was further strengthened by the opening of the Seneca Street streetcar in 1896, which was followed by the eastward extension of its housing stock south of the Buffalo River. A mostly Irish-American "wedge" in the southern part of the city was thus created, with the grain elevator district of the Old First Ward as its apex. The contractor William H. Fitzpatrick, who was responsible for much of the new construction, was also a key figure in the Erie County executive of the Democratic Party, whose close involvement with municipal issues would have benefited his speculative activities. In a recent study of the New York Irish, this process of Irish-American real estate interests advancing suburbanization has been dubbed "bricks-and-mortar Catholicism." (61) In South Buffalo, Fitzpatrick "built hundreds of houses ... laid out streets in cow pastures ... [and] was never known to foreclose a mortgage." (62)

The Catholic parochial infrastructure expanded to meet the needs of the increasing population of communicants. "St. Stephen's-in-the-Valley" was created for the furnace workers of Uniontown in 1875 with one hundred fifteen members and a brick church with frame-built school at rear. In 1900 Our Lady of Perpetual Help (known locally as "Pet's") was carved from St. Bridget's parish and "the first Masses said ... in a wood-frame building on Louisiana Street" with the founding priest, Father O'Connell, initially using a local saloon as a rectory. (63) Eastward population movement from the First Ward into South Buffalo was matched by parochial expansions and restructurings, with St. Teresa's and Holy Family parishes formed in 1897 and 1902, respectively. The Sisters of Mercy, invited to Buffalo by Bishop Timon, took charge of parochial schools in the First Ward. In the early twentieth century, their schools in the four parishes of South Buffalo had about five hundred pupils on average, and for the pupils of Irish-American descent, the culture of the homeland was not neglected, since in addition to learning "American songs and [idolizing] George Washington ... they also learned Irish songs and honored the saints and heroes of Irish history." (64)

Until the 1950s, the stability of the waterfront labor market contributed to the development of a community of blue-collar Irish Catholic homeowners and their descendants in the First Ward and South Buffalo. Prior to the completion of the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1959, grain scoopers remained in demand in the First Ward, and the occupation was maintained as a mainly Irish preserve. (65) Male and female graduates of schools in South Buffalo in the 1940s and 1950s frequently described the First Ward and South Buffalo with reference to four principal characteristics: Irish, Catholic, Democratic, and blue-collar. (66) In contrast to inner-city Protestant churches, which suburbanized along with their congregations through the twentieth century, St. Thomas' Episcopal church in the First Ward was praised for resisting the temptation to move from what was "traditionally [an] Irish Catholic sector of the city." (67)


The First Ward established itself as the major Irish Catholic section of Buffalo in the nineteenth century. Always overwhelmingly working-class and with mainly Democratic political loyalties, it comprised a number of discrete social areas as well as a port-based labor market conducive to unskilled and semi-skilled labor. It was an area of primary settlement for Irish immigrants to Buffalo, and the close relationship between work and home produced an occasionally tense coexistence of ethnic and class loyalties, shown most clearly in the 1899 strike. Stable labor demand fused with kin-based chain migration networks, information flows, and patronage and employment practices to maintain the district's Irish identity into the twentieth century. Throughout the last one hundred fifty years or so, the residential conservatism of successive waves of homeowners has also contributed to the neighborhood, by now a sub-area of a larger South Buffalo section, so that it has become one of the oldest and most enduring blue-collar Irish Catholic neighborhoods in the United States. This neighborhood profile confounds the impression of a spatially assimilated Irish ethnic group in twentieth-century urban America. It is hoped that additional research on Irish communities using the time span studied here will sharpen our understanding of the "place" of the Irish in nineteenth-and twentieth-century American urban space.


Ethnic origin     N       %

Irish            202    70.4
German            30    10.5
American          13     4.5
English           18     6.3
Scottish           9     3.1
Canadian           9     3.1
Other European     6     2.1
Total            287   100.0

Source: U.S. federal census manuscripts,
10 percent household sample.

                                 All        Irish     Non-Irish

                               N     %     N     %     N     %

Professional and managerial    8    2.8    7    3.5    1    1.2
Self-employed                 33   11.5   19    9.4   14   16.5
Clerical                       9    3.1    5     25    4    4.7
Lake-based employment         25    8.7   15    7.4   10   11.7
Building trades               25    8.7   12    5.9   13   15.3
Skilled/semi-skilled          47   16.4   25   12.4   22   25.9
Unskilled labor               96   33.5   77   38.1   19   22.3
No stated occupation          44   15.3   42   20.8    2    2.4
Total                        287  100.0  202  100.0   85  100.0

Source: U.S. federal census manuscripts, 10 percent household sample.

 House No.     Occupation             Birthplace
on Ohio St.    of Proprietor          of Proprietor

     34        Boarding. Ho./Saloon   Ireland
     38        Boss shoveller         Ireland
     40        Boarding. Ho./Saloon   Germany
     44        Boarding House         Germany
     54        Boarding. Ho./Saloon   Ireland
    160        Laborer                Ireland
    170        Keeping house          Scotland
    172        Boss shoveller         Ireland
    189        Boss shoveller         Ireland
    286        Grocer                 Ireland
    336        Saloon keeper          New York
    370        Boarding. Ho./Saloon   Baden
    390        Elevator boss          Ireland
    496        Laborer                Ireland

 House No.       Total No.     No. of Irish-
on Ohio St.   of Boarders *   born Boarders *

     34           10 (2)            4 (2)
     38           15 (3)           12 (3)
     40           25 (4)            8 (4)
     44           19 (2)            4 (1)
     54            5 (1)            4 (1)
    160           10                7
    170           17                0
    172           19 (1)           18 (1)
    189           17 (1)            8
    286           26               16
    336           14 (1)            0
    370            8 (1)            0
    390           32               27
    496            4                1

Source: U.S. federal census manuscripts.

* Number of married or widowed boarders
shown in parentheses; otherwise all are

Ethnic origin    N       %

Irish           134    50.0
German           21     7.8
American         44    16.4
English           9     3.4
Scottish         14     5.2
Canadian         20     7.5
Other Europe     26     9.7
Total           268   100.0

Source: U.S. federal census manuscripts, 10 percent
household sample.

                                  All          Irish       Non-Irish

                               N       %     N       %     N       %

Professional and managerial    18     6.7    10     7.5     8     6.0
Self-employed                  21     7.8    l0     7.5    11     8.2
Clerical                        5     1.9     3     2.2     2     1.5
Lake-based employment          15     5.6     9     6.7     6     4.5
Building trades                11     4.1     6     4.5     5     3.7
Skilled/semi-skilled           84    31.3    34    25.4    50    37.3
Unskilled labor                72    26.8    38    28.4    34    25.4
No stated occupation           42    15.7    24    17.9    18    13.4
Total                         268   100.0   134   100.0   134   100.0

Source: U.S. federal census manuscripts, 10 percent household sample.

(1) See, for example, the essays in Timothy J. Meagher, ed., From Paddy to Studs: Irish-American Communities in the Turn-of-the-Century Era, 1880 to 1920 (New York: Greenwood Press, 1986). See also Michael F. Funchion, "Irish Chicago: Church, Homeland, Politics, and Class--The Shaping of an Ethnic Group, 1870-1900," in Peter d'A. Jones and Melvin G. Holli, eds., Ethnic Chicago (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1985); Andrew C. Holman, "Different Feelings: Corktown and the Catholic Irish in Early Hamilton, 1832-1847," Canadian Journal of Irish Studies 23 (1997), 41-68; Sallie A. Marston, "Neighborhood and Politics: Irish Ethnicity in Nineteenth Century Lowell, Massachusetts," Annals of the Association of American Geographers 78 (1988), 414-32.

(2) Kenneth A. Scherzer, The Unbounded Community: Neighborhood Life and Social Structure in New York City 1830-1875 (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1993); Sam Bass Warner and Colin Burke, "Cultural Change and the Ghetto," Journal of Contemporary History 4 (969), 173-87.

(3) See Sam Bass Warner, Streetcar Suburbs (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1962); Olivier Zunz, The Changing Face of Inequality: Urbanization, Industrial Development and Immigrants in Detroit (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982).

(4) Paul Cressey, "Population Succession in Chicago," American Journal of Sociology 44 (1938-39), 66. See also David Ward, Poverty and Ethnicity in the American City 1840-1925: Changing Conceptions of the Slum and the Ghetto (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989) and Ernest W. Burgess, "The Growth of the City: An Introduction to a Research Project," in Robert E. Park, Ernest W. Burgess, and Roderick D. McKenzie, The City (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1925).

(5) The "Old First Ward" is the modern term given to the district under study. It now forms part of a wider area of "South Buffalo," whose identity remains primarily Irish Catholic.

(6) Roger B. Dooley, Days Beyond Recall (Milwaukee: Bruce Publishing Co., 1949).

(7) William E. Mallory and Paul Simpson-Housley, "Preface" in William E. Mallory and Paul Simpson-Housley, eds., Geography and Literature: A Meeting of the Disciplines (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1987), xi.

(8) Elwin Powell, "The Evolution of the American City and the Emergence of Anomie: A Culture Case Study of Buffalo, New York, 1810-1910," British Journal of Sociology 13 (1962), 160.

(9) George E. Condon, Stars in the Water: The Story of the Erie Canal (New York: Doubleday, 1974), 150. See also 62-68.

(10) Quoted in David Gerber, The Making of an American Pluralism: Buffalo 1820-1860 (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1988), 122.

(11) The Orange Order, for example, an organization that was central to political life in nearby Toronto, was weak in Buffalo. Only four lodges were in existence by the latter decades of the nineteenth century. My thanks to Professor Cecil Houston, University of Toronto, for his assistance.

(12) Buffalo Evening News, 13 May 1972.

(13) Laurence A. Glasco, "The Life Cycles and Household Structure of American Ethnic Groups: Irish, Germans, and Native-born Whites in Buffalo, New York, 1855," Journal of Urban History 1 (1975), 341.

(14) See William Jenkins, "Geographical and Social Mobility among the Irish in the United States and Canada: A Comparative Study of Toronto, Ontario, and Buffalo, New York, 1880-1910," Ph.D. dissertation, University of Toronto, 2001, Ch. 4; Laurence A. Glasco, "Ethnicity and Occupation in the Mid-Nineteenth Century: Irish, Germans, and Native-born Whites in Buffalo, New York," in Richard L. Ehrlich, ed., Immigrants in Industrial America 1850-1920 (Charlottesville, Va.: University Press of Virginia, 1978), 153 n.

(15) Gerber, The Making of an American Pluralism; Andrew P. Yox, "Bonds of Community: Buffalo's German Element, 1853-1871," New York History 66 (1985), 141-63.

(16) A second-generation Irish household was defined in terms of the head's father only.

(17) Irish Canadian, 14 July 1881.

(18) Joan Scahill, "The Mutual Rowing Club," Buffalo Irish Times, June/July 1999.

(19) John V. Cotter and Larry L. Patrick, "Disease and Ethnicity in an Urban Environment," Annals of the Association of American Geographers 71 (1981), 40-49.

(20) Josephus L. Larned, History of Buffalo Vol. 2 (New York: The Progress of the Empire State Co., 1911), 653.

(21) The placing of these names is based on information given in Mary C. Bonner, "The Way of the Ward," manuscript, n.d., Special Collections, Buffalo and Erie County Public Library. See also Buffalo Evening News, 13 May 1972, for a special supplement on the Buffalo Irish.

(22) See "Irish Immigration to Buffalo's First Ward," manuscript, n.d., Buffalo Irish Center library (hereafter Evans family manuscript).

(23) See a trilogy of articles, "Uniontown: Part of the Old First Ward," by Edward J. Patton in the Buffalo Irish Times, January, February/March, and April/May 1993.

(24) See J. David Valaik, Celebrating God's Life in Us: The Catholic Diocese of Buffalo 1847-1997 (Buffalo: The Heritage Press, 1997).

(25) Dooley, Days Beyond Recall, 7.

(26) Ibid., 40-41.

(27) James R. Barrett, Work and Community in the Jungle: Chicago's Packinghouse Workers (Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1987), Ch 3.

(28) Buffalo City Directory, 1880, 748-54.

(29) Dooley, Days Beyond Recall, 20.

(30) Ibid., 4.

(31) Ibid., 1.

(32) Jenkins, "Geographical and Social Mobility," Ch. 6.

(33) Gerber, The Making of an American Pluralism, 142.

(34) Irish Canadian, 14 July 1881.

(35) Evans family manuscript.

(36) Edward Patton, "Shanty Life Along The Sea Wall," Buffalo Irish Times, June/July 1995.

(37) See Brenda K. Shelton, "The Buffalo Grain Shovellers' Strike of 1899," Labor History 9 (1968), 210-38.

(38) John Feather, "The Old First Ward," in Tim Tielman, ed., Buffalo's Waterfront: A Guidebook (Buffalo: Preservation Coalition of Erie County, 1990), 65.

(39) Dooley, Days Beyond Recall, 23.

(40) Robert Dahl, Who Governs? Democracy and Power in an American City (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1961).

(41) Mark Goldman, High Hopes: The Rise and Decline of Buffalo, New York (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1983), 167.

(42) Buffalo Times, 27 June 1933.

(43) Buffalo Commercial Advertiser, 18 May 1899.

(44) Ibid.

(45) Mark J. Stern, Society and Family Strategy: Erie County, New York, 1850-1920 (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1987), 36.

(46) Buffalo Times, 27 June 1933.

(47) Maxine S. Seller, Ethnic Communities and Education in Buffalo, New York: Politics, Power, and Group Identity 1838-1979 (Buffalo: State University of New York at Buffalo, Buffalo Community Studies Graduate Group, Occasional Paper No. 1, 1979), 25-30.

(48) John Downey, "Some of the Neglected Areas of the First Ward," manuscript, Special Collections, Buffalo and Erie County Public Library, City of Buffalo, Annual Report of the Superintendent of Education (Buffalo: Young, Lockwood & Co., 1882), 162.

(49) Dooley, Days Beyond Recall, II.

(50) Mark Hubbell, Our Police and Our City (Buffalo: Bensler & Wesley, 1893), 315-59.

(51) See Annual Report of the Buffalo Board of Police 1890 (Buffalo: Buffalo Board of Police, 1891) and Annual Report of the Commissioners of the Buffalo Fire Department 1900 (Buffalo: Buffalo Fire Department, 1901). Since ethnicity is not given, it was inferred by last name. While this may underestimate the numbers of Irish present, it was felt that the resulting distortion would have little effect on the pattern found.

(52) John Bodnar, The Transplanted: A History of Immigrants in Urban America (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985).

(53) Caroline Golab, Immigrant Destinations (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1977), III.

(54) Richmond C. Hill, Twentieth Century Buffalo: An Illustrated Compendium of her Municipal, Financial, Industrial, Commercial, and General Public Interests (Buffalo: J.N. Matthews Co., 1902), 143.

(55) It can be argued that some third-generation Irish-Americans could have been involved in unskilled work, thereby increasing this percentage. Unfortunately, due to problems of identification, these are subsumed within the "non-Irish" category.

(56) Evans family manuscript.

(57) Stephen Powell, Rushing the Growler: A History of Brewing in Buffalo (Buffalo: E.S. Ferguson Library, 1996), 18-20.

(58) Evans family manuscript.

(59) Ibid.

(60) Buffalo Evening News, 13 May 1972.

(61) Marion R. Casey, "From the East Side to the Seaside: Irish Americans on the Move in New York City," in Ronald H. Bayor and Timothy J. Meagher, eds., The New York Irish (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), 399.

(62) Buffalo Times, 7 January 1932.

(63) Evans family manuscript.

(64) Sarah Missik, "Education in South Buffalo," unpublished paper, State University of New York at Buffalo, quoted in Seller, Ethnic Communities and Education, 31.

(65) See the recollections of James "Jim Boy" Smith in David Isay, Holding On (New York: W.W. Norton, 1996), 107-10.

(66) M. Carol Herwood, All the Old Familiar Places: Memories of South Buffalo (Buffalo: self-published, 1997).

(67) Buffalo Courier, 28 December 1953.

WILLIAM JENKINS received his Ph.D. in Geography from the University of Toronto. His dissertation was entitled "Geographical and Social Mobility among the Irish in the United States and Canada: A Comparative Study of Toronto, Ontario, and Buffalo, New York, 1880-1910." He has published articles in Irish Geography and The Tipperary Historical Journal, and is co-author of Tipp Co-op: Origin and Development (1999).
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Author:Jenkins, William L.
Publication:Eire-Ireland: a Journal of Irish Studies
Geographic Code:1U2NY
Date:Mar 22, 2002
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