As a Buffalo gateway—as well as home to one of the city’s two St. Patrick’s Day parades—it’s hard to believe that any area resident would have no idea how to find the riverfront enclave known as the Old First Ward. But, during his five years of work on his first book Against the Grain, Buffalo author Timothy Bohen regularly encountered such confusion.
“When I mentioned (my book’s topic) to people who didn’t have roots in the Ward, their first question was always, ‘Where exactly is the First Ward?”
A passing survey of the aforementioned individuals may yield Ward knowledge results of “Irish,” “grain elevators” or “free Sabres parking.” But these people have never walked down O’Connell Avenue or Mackinaw Street; they’ve never found Sunday mass at Our Lady of Perpetual Help or a can of Genny Double Bock at Cook’s. They haven’t inhaled a Mazurek’s pastry heart or split a Carbone’s chicken finger pizza. And, unless they’re the masochistic type, they’ve never toured the neighborhood at a plodding, wind-restricted shuffle during the annual emerald slog known as the Shamrock Run.
“The story of wanting to know more about the First Ward started to overtake my concerns about the spelling of my last name,” said Bohen, nursing a Guinness under a Shane MacGowan serenade last month inside Gene McCarthy’s Tavern, a Ward institution. “I didn’t get answers on the spelling until several years after starting this journey.”
It’s proved a journey worth taking. Over the 258 pages of Bohen’s stirring march through Ward history, he takes readers through an exhausting amount of significant institutions, individuals and achievements, ones fueled by an immigrant population entrusted with managing lucrative waterfront commerce and building a lakefront city into a national economic power.
“This area played an integral part in not only feeding this country, but feeding the world,” said Bohen. “Being on the eastern end of Lake Erie, it was responsible for handling grain that was later made into cereal or dough for pizzas in New York City. It was all done right here in the First Ward, whether it was the milling of the grain or its shipment.”
But this information is just a piece of the First Ward’s significance to the region and, in particular, its Irish Americans. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find the neighborhood once housed one of America’s top five Irish immigrant populations, earning the constant guidance of Catholic leader John Timon, and earning Buffalo visits from such Irish independence advocates as Eamon DeValera and, more recently, Gerry Adams. On their trips into Western New York, they found the Ward, backdrop of the Labor Strike of 1899, violent and deadly railroad strikes of 1877 and 1892, and land once home to Michael Quinn’s Tavern, which hosted planning stages of the infamous Fenian raid on Canada in 1866. Also, the first Buffalo St. Patrick’s Day Parade? In the First Ward, and organized by tavern owner Quinn.
“I don’t think locals or people across the country have any idea of how important of an Irish center this once was,” said Bohen. “It was always on a short list of cities that Irish independence leaders would visit in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.”