Irish-Americans in Buffalo - Table of Contents

History of Irish-Americans in Buffalo, NY

On this page:


Bishop John Timon

Three Churches

St. Joseph's Cathedral

Our Lady of Perpetual Help

Scoopers at work

Mayor Isaac R. Harrington

Mayor James Griffin

St. Patrick's Roman Catholic Church


Irish-American in Buffalo - An Overview

Excerpts from
"Ethnic Heritage Enriches Buffalo," by Anthony Cardinale, pub. in the October 12, 1980 edition of The Buffalo News

The Irish were the first immigrants to join the Yankees in what is now Buffalo. In I8I7 a small settlement south of Exchange Street, on "the Flats," included the O'Rourkes, the Bowens, the Daughtrys, the Mooneys. Most of them came by way of Philadelphia, Baltimore and New York. Many came through Canada. A few arrived with Joseph Ellicott to survey the land.

Patrick O'Rourke
's was the first Irish Catholic family, settling in about 1815.

When the Erie Canal was under construction, many Irishmen were attracted to this area to work at $1.87 a day. Irish immigrants played a key role in digging the canal, in scooping grain from ships using this system, and in building the railroads.

By 1841, the Irish had elected their first mayor, Isaac Harrington, and had built their first church, St. Patrick's, at Ellicott and Broadway.

Then came the great potato famine, which killed a million in Ireland and sent 1.5 million immigrants to America, between 1845 and 1855. When it was over, there were 10,000 Irishmen in Buffalo.

John Timon became the first bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Buffalo in 1847, beginning a line of 10 bishops of Irish origin down to the present. [See also: Bishop Timon and Immigrant Catholics in Buffalo, by Mark Goldman.]

As industry invaded the lake shore, the Irish in. Buffalo moved from the Flats to the Old First Ward, where they would be concentrated until spreading into South Buffalo around 1900. They lived in the poorest shanties, and when cholera struck in 1849, some 90 percent of the 877 dead were foreign-born laborers, mostly Irish.

Fenians: Not known for sidestepping a fight, the Irish fomented one of the most bizarre episodes in Buffalo's history by declaring war on England and launching an attack on Canada on June 1, 1866. Intent on forcing Britain to grant freedom to Ireland, the Fenians assembled in the First Ward and streamed out Niagara Street, 600 strong, and through Black Rock to the river.

Crossing after midnight, they unsuccessfully attacked the Canadians at Ridgeway, killing 9 and losing 8 men. Many of them had come from out of state for this invasion; now they settled in Buffalo. In fact, many of the attacking Irishmen were veterans of the Civil War. And it has been said that as many as one-third of the George Washington's troops were Irish. [See also: The Fenian Fiasco, by A. Wesley Johns]

With all this military experience in the New World, it should have come as no surprise that a Buffalonian of Irish blood, General William J. Donovan of World War I and II fame [and a graduate of St. Joseph's Collegiate H.S.], was the first American to win both the Congressional Medal of Honor and the next three highest national awards



The First Ward and the Valley

Excerpts from
"Houses of Worship: A Guide to the Religious Architecture of Buffalo, New York," by James Napora. Master of Architecture Thesis. Found at Buffalo Central Library, pp. 415-416, 437

Although they constitute two distinct neighborhoods, the First Ward and the Valley have long been recognized for their Irish legacy instilled upon the area during the city's formative years. They began arriving in the 1820s, fleeing the poverty of Ireland and chasing the dream of prosperity in the new world. In New York state, they found work constructing the Erie Canal and Buffalo's designation as its terminus provided a logical reason for them to remain. For after building the canal, many of them found work in the industries related to shipping.

As many of the early Irish immigrants had lived in the proximity of water in County Kerry near the Shannon River and in county Cork near the Lee River, it only seemed logical,for them to settle near water in this area. As industry relating to the transshipment of goods began to cluster along the basins and slips constructed at the end of the canal and along the Buffalo River many Irish immigrants began constructing homes there.

The initial wave of the 1820s was supplanted by a second wave of Irish immigrants in the 1840s and 1850s. Fueled by famine resulting from the failure of the potato crop, the Irish left their homeland. Destitute, many arrived here via the Erie Canal and took up residence amid the squalor of the waterfront. Along the docks, the railroads and the factories, they lived in the neighborhoods known collectively as the First Ward.


The Valley: To the east of the Ward stands the visible barrier of railroad lines. Separated by the tracks, this area became known as The Valley, as the only way in became via bridges over the tracks: Prior to their removal to the area near William and Fillmore Avenue, the northwest corner of The Valley, near the intersection of Elk and Van Rensselaer Streets, served as the location of the first stock yards in the city. As noted by the presence of St. Valentine's RC Parish, the area contained a sizable Polish population in addition to the Irish. The population of the neighborhood peaked at almost 5.000 people before the Irish migration to South Buffalo in the 1920s.

South Buffalo - Seneca Street

To dispel the belief that the Irish were the first to reside in the area, it was actually the Germans who held title to most of the land.

William Durstein, a German member of the Buffalo Creek Reservation Land company, was amongst the first to develop the land for residential use. On land adjacent to the city line, he constructed a large number of homes, creating a tight knit German community surrounding St. Paul's Reformed Church.

Widespread development of the area was slow in occurring prior to 1900. It was a well noted fact that the area was afflicted by flooding each spring, as both Cazenovia and Buffalo Creeks often went over their banks. Not until the creeks were straightened at the turn of the century did the problem dissipate, clearing the way for widespread development.

The major person responsible for developing the area was not German but Irish. Known as the builder of South Buffalo, William H. Fitzpatrick resided on a farm at Seneca and Bailey. Working with William J. Summers and Charles Mosher, he built most of the homes in the Butler Park area and many of those on Stephenson, Ryan, Geary and in the Seneca Parkside area. In housing he developed, a large number of Irish families, who moved from the old First Ward after the turn of the century, took up residence. In the 1920s he became a vociferous supporter of the construction of the New York Central terminal on the city's East Side, campaigning for the passage of the needed legislative approval prior to its construction.

The final burst of development in the area occurred in the 1920s. In 1926 the International Railway Company began a project to uniformly pave Seneca Street. With work completed, the intersection of Seneca and Cazenovia developed into the commercial center of the neighborhood, enriching the area with much of the character it has today.




The Irish Scoopers

Excerpts from
The Irish Community of Buffalo and the Pan-American Exposition (no longer online by June 2014)

In the early periods of settlement, most of Buffalo's Irish were unskilled or semiskilled laborers who worked in the regions immediately adjacent to the First Ward as longshoremen, at the nearby Buffalo Union Furnace, and on the railroads. Because of the First Ward's proximity to the numerous grain elevators that lined the Buffalo River, the city's "grain-scoopers" were predominantly Irish.

Scooping was seasonal work, dependent upon the traffic of shipping on the Great Lakes and Erie Canal. During the winter Irish laborers often took work on the railroads or as workers in other capacities such as digging canals and warehouse slips and repairing Buffalo's sea walls.

The Great Strike of 1899: In the spring of 1899, while Buffalo leaders were engaged in planning the Pan-American Exposition to be held 2 years later, scoopers, freight handlers and other dock workers on the city's waterfront went on strike, bringing Great Lakes commercial transport to a standstill. The scoopers were not protesting against the lake shipping companies or local industrialists, rather, their complaints were waged against the freight contractors -- fellow Irish saloon bosses common in the First Ward, who held exclusive contracts with the elevators and shipping companies to control the labor supply.

James [William "fingy"] Connors, in particular, was the grain contractor against whom this strike was directed. He was an Irish saloon-keeper who "contracted with shipping companies to unload grain from ships in Buffalo's harbor, and then in turn signed on men to do work. This arrangement was highly profitable for Connors, but also highly exploitative, since the men worked on a day-by-day basis with no job security, and Connors picked the men who spent the most money in his saloon to perform the labor.

The strike created a volatile environment and could easily have lead to violence between the strikers and the Connors camp. Despite their notoriety for anti-labor crackdowns, police and City officials exhibited restraint, although both Connors and the scoopers accused them of favoritism. The police did not support Connor's attempts to bring in scab labor and Democratic Mayor Conrad Diehl, finding himself in an awkward position, took no public stand. The Common Council, according to its printed proceedings, did not discuss the strike and the administration's overall apathy toward the dockside labor unrest was apparent

Bishop James Quigley proved to be an important force in the dispute, defending the Irish workers against Irish contractor interests, and calling the saloon-system immoral. He was joined in the attack on Connors' forces by other clergyman, including Protestants from the city's leading churches. Despite the tension and the disruption to lake commerce, the strike was a relatively peaceful victory for the strikers (only one man was killed) and led to reforms in the saloon-boss system of labor, much to the benefit of the scoopers, longshoremen and other freight handlers.

See also: Courier Express Building

Entrepreneurs: The Scoopers Strike may give the impression that most of Buffalo's Irish were unskilled laborers. It is true that most of the immigrants arriving during the 1850's began work as unskilled or semiskilled laborers. There were very few entrepreneurs and only two factory owners in 1855 -- William Carland, who owned Gothic Hall and made ready-made men's clothing, and Augustine Keogh, who manufactured pianofortes.

By 1900 however, the Irish had become well established in the semiskilled and skilled trades and were making strides in what we would refer to today as "white collar" jobs.

[For more information on grain elevators and grain scoopers, see Great Northern Grain Elevator.]



The Irish and the Pan-Am

Excerpts from
The Irish Community of Buffalo and the Pan-American Exposition (no longer online by June 2014)

Engine 33, Hook and Ladder Co. 10

The Buffalo Fire Department, with its heavy representation of Irish-Americans, was charged with fire protection of the Pan-American Exposition grounds with five fire companies assigned to protect the property and people at the fair. These five companies made up temporary Battalion No. 7, and included Engine 33, which consisted of a combination chemical engine and hose wagon, along with two horses.

Engine 33 was located at the South Midway near the Indian Congress, and its crew included members of Buffalo's Irish and German communities. Hook & Ladder 10 is shown with their 65 foot Gleason & Bailey truck in front of their quarters near the Belt Line Station on the exhibition grounds.

Occupations in the police and fire services have been historically, if not stereotypically, linked to Irish immigrants. Jenkins found that in 1900, of the Department's captains, lieutenants and firemen, the percentage of Irish was 39.5, 18, and 37.7 respectively.

This was also the case with the city's police department.

Pan-American Exposition Stadium

The highlight of the games was an Irish football match where spectators were treated to a free fight. "For roughness it has got the regulation college game scraped to a polish. Black eyes, bloody noses and cracked heads were much in evidence by the time the first half was over. The game resembled a free fight more than anything else."



Bishop John Timon
An Excerpt from
The"High Hopes: The Rise and Decline of Buffalo, New York." by Mark Goldman. Pub. by State U. of New York Press, Albany, 1983, pp. 82

Bishop Timon clearly wanted to establish his own parochial network of institutions. Thus, soon after his arrival in Buffalo, John Timon had turned his back on the Protestant community and had created a completely separate religious, educational and welfare system of his own.

Schools were his first priority. Objecting bitterly to Catholics having to pay taxes to a system that supported Protestant-controlled public schools, Timon demanded that the state come to the aid of Buffalo's Catholic schools. When this failed to happen, Timon embarked on an ambitious program of school building that made it possible for Catholic parents throughout Buffalo to take their children out of the public school system and place them in Timon's growing parochial network instead.

In addition to opening schools in the churches (St. Boniface and St. Mary's on the German East Side, St. Patrick's and St. Bridget's on the Irish South Side), Timon brought teaching orders of nuns and priests from Europe (Oblates, Christian Brothers, Sisters of the Sacred Heart, Grey Nuns, Jesuits, and Sisters of Charity) to open several teaching academies and high schools for the city's Catholic children.

Under the auspices of these orders, hospitals like the Sisters of Charity, Catholic foundling homes, homes for the Catholic aged, and a Catholic orphanage were all instituted within several years of Timon's arrival in Buffalo. By thus importing not only foreigners but Catholics as well to teach the city's Catholic youth, Bishop Timon shocked, surprised, and frightened the city's long-dominant Protestant leadership.

At times parochial and paranoid, Timon concentrated on the solidification of his own Irish, working-class community. At other times brazen and self. confident, he fearlessly challenged the haughty supremacy of the city's Protestant elite. Nothing embodied this latter quality more than Timon's long and secretly nurtured plan to build a cathedral in Buffalo.

Timon began to plan his cathedral shortly after his arrival in Buffalo. His ideas, however, remained a secret. While he made no secrets of his extensive travels -- in 1850-51 Timon traveled throughout Europe and Mexico -- they did not know that the primary purpose of his travels was to raise funds for the construction of a cathedral. Word eventually did leak out, corroborating people's suspicions, but then it remained unknown as to where Timon would locate his church. Given his prior predilections, it was generally felt that he would build in the First Ward.

Timon, however, had other ideas. Unbeknownst to all but a handful of advisors, Timon had in fact selected a site nowhere near either the First Ward or the German East Side. Instead he had chosen the most visible and centrally located piece of real estate in the city, on Church Street right between the two oldest Protestant churches in Buffalo.

Over a two-year period, Timon had secretly assembled plots of land in this most prominent and prestigious section of downtown with the specific yet unstated ambition of erecting thereon a massive Roman Catholic cathedral.

When in 1852 Timon's real estate activities became known, there was a last-minute effort within the Protestant community to buy back the land. It was too late, however, and in 1852 the cornerstone of St. Joseph's Cathedral was laid. Two years later the cathedral was completed.

[To read about the conflict between the German-American-controlled St. Louis Church and Bishop Timon, see Bishop Timon and Immigrant Catholics in Buffalo, also by Mark Goldman.]




The Irish and the Civil War

An Excerpt from
The"High Hopes: The Rise and Decline of Buffalo, New York." by Mark Goldman. Pub. by State U. of New York Press, Albany, 1983, pp. 93-94

The draft and the bounty system provoked intense reactions among the city's immigrants, particularly among the unskilled laborers, who were most vulnerable to the system. When combined with labor grievances, these reactions sometimes became violent and cruel. In late July and early August 1863, in protest against low wages, somewhere near one hundred dockworkers and stevedores, primarily Irish, went out on strike.

When their employers responded by hiring black laborers as strikebreakers, violence erupted. Coming within months of the Emancipation Proclamation, the strikebreaking by black scabs took on an ominous and complex meaning for the Irish waterfront workers. Were the Irish people really expected to offer their lives to free people who offered thanks by breaking their strikes?

Blacks, then, were the most obvious objects of the Irish anger and confusion, and in early August 1863, large numbers of Irish dockworkers struck out violently against the injustices of their predicament. Afraid that the disruption of the waterfront would seriously interrupt the booming wartime traffic, the city authorities responded quickly and forcefully. The Sixty-Fifth and Seventy-Fourth militia regiments, just returned from riot duty in New York City, were activated, and together with local police and a citizen posse of several thousand, were marshaled to contain the violence. These measures, along with a special plea for calm from Bishop Timon, failed to halt the angry dock workers who, striking out at Buffalo's blacks as the most obvious enemy, stampeded away from the waterfront, across the Main Street business section, and into the small, black residential section in the eastern part of the city. Finally, after several hours of uncertainty, the rioters were dispersed.


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