Thousands of Irish return to their roots in Buffalo’s Old First Ward - The Buffalo News

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Thousands of Irish return to their roots in Buffalo’s Old First Ward

The Kavanys were there from West Seneca. The Cahills came from Derby. And, the Halls traveled even further – from Gowanda.

Clad in bright Kelly green, members of all three families converged on “the old neighborhood” – Buffalo’s Old First Ward – Saturday afternoon for the first of two parades in the city commemorating Monday’s Feast of St. Patrick.

The neighborhood, which boasts the Shamrock Run, Riverfest, the Swannie House and Gene McCarthy’s Bar & Tavern, might be the epicenter of Buffalo’s Irish cultural history. But an analysis of census data and ZIP codes shows those of Irish descent have fanned out far and wide, spreading a large swath of green across Western New York.

The deepest concentration of green on Saturday lined a breezy and chilled South Park Avenue, adorning it with flags, shamrocks ... and beer.

It was the neighborhood’s annual homecoming party, many said.

“Everyone is from the area down here,” said Mary Jane Kavany, a 76-year-old West Seneca resident who grew up in the First Ward, just a block away from where she watched Saturday’s parade with her daughter Jane and other family members. “I’ve been coming here for 70 years. I feel really like home.”

“It’s coming back to old roots,” agreed Debra Cahill – a shining green shamrock on each cheek. “It’s all about the old family atmosphere here. It’s about everybody getting together.”

Cahill – from the corner of South Park Avenue and Van Rensselaer Street, where she stood with her 22-year-old son Colin Patrick – peered down toward the 2½-story Fulton Street home where she grew up.

“My parents paid $6,000 for it in 1959. They still live there,” Cahill said. “It’s all about heritage. We want to keep it going. We want it to stay this way.”

The Cahills are among the nearly 1,400 Derby residents who claim Irish ancestry.

“It gives me a connection to a country I really do love,” said Colin Cahill, who attracted wide interest waving his large, colorful flag displaying all four provinces of Ireland. “It’s mostly the family. Obviously, the corned beef and cabbage is good, too.”

It wasn’t unusual to find families with roots in the First Ward and homes elsewhere in Western New York. Of the top three ZIP codes in the region with the largest numbers of residents of Irish descent, none is in the Queen City proper – though there are 37,457 residents of Irish background in Buffalo spread over 17 ZIP codes.

The most in a single ZIP code – 11,539 – live in Hamburg’s 14075, according to Census analysis of the state by the Syracuse Post-Standard. That accounts for 27 percent of the population there.

Next highest is Lockport, where 10,422 Irish descendants make up 20.4 percent of the population of the seat of Niagara County.

Third place goes to the Kavany’s Town of West Seneca, where Irish descendants account for nearly one in four in ZIP code 14224. In all, there are 9,666 Irish descendants in West Seneca.

The smiling Kavany, a few strands of shiny green beads strung from her neck, was a spectator Saturday – the first of three straight days set aside to honor her Irish heritage.

Today, Kavany will march in Buffalo’s annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade along Delaware Avenue as a member of the Ancient Order of Hibernians and the local Irish Club.

On Monday, the festivities take on a more religious tone, with a Mass to commemorate the feast day of St. Patrick, who brought Christianity to fifth-century pagans in Ireland. The service will be followed by a special Irish breakfast, she said.

Gowanda resident Sharon Hall, who said she is a “cousin of Rep. Brian Higgins,” believes Saturday’s “Old Neighborhood Parade” has a more “cozy feeling” than the more commercialized Delaware Avenue event because almost everyone is returning to the old neighborhood.

“They come from all over to see this parade, and it’s very down-home,” Hall said.

There were, of course, many in the crowd from across the traditionally Irish enclave of South Buffalo, including Julie Sands.

Sands, a Kimberly Avenue resident, lives in South Buffalo’s 14220 ZIP code.

Rich in Irish tradition, the neighborhood boasts the childhood homes of the late Tim Russert and Patrick Kane of the Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks. It also is the neighborhood with the highest concentration of Irish in the city.

In an area roughly bounded by South Park and Bailey avenues to the north, Dorrance Avenue to the south, Cazenovia Park on the east and Tifft Nature Preserve to the west, 8,795 residents claiming Irish heritage make up 36.2 percent of the population.

“You can come here and see your family and friends,” said Sands of the Old Neighborhood Parade in the First Ward. “It’s fun seeing everybody you know.

“Even if it’s cold, you still come.”


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