Bob O’Connor: Growing up Irish in South Buffalo - The Buffalo News

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Bob O’Connor: Growing up Irish in South Buffalo

I grew up in the Gaelic Ghetto of South Buffalo. Nearly everyone I knew was Irish, with names like Masterson, Kavanaugh, Leary and Malley. My family history is similar to so many from my neighborhood. My grandmother was born in County Tipperary and emigrated from Ireland to Canada in 1911. She and her mother then crossed the border into the United States. They settled in Buffalo’s First Ward, where my mother and father would meet some 30 years later.

My parents moved up in the world by buying a house a few blocks from the Irish Center. My 10 brothers and sisters and I grew up and settled in the suburbs to raise our own families.

I went to Catholic schools and was unaware that most of the good Mercy nuns who taught me were also Irish. In fact, one particularly strict sister passed away a few years back and her obituary revealed that she and I shared the same last name.

My memories of Catholic school are both fond and dreadful. Back then, Mercy nuns wore the full black habit, traveled in pairs and were considered “brides of Christ.” Remember Ingrid Bergman in the movie “The Bells of St. Mary”? Well, the women who taught (and pummeled) me bore little resemblance to saintly Sister Mary Benedict. We talked tough when they were out of earshot, but we all lived in a perpetual state of terror. Those black flowing robes and nearly hidden faces were scary. Surely George Lucas based Darth Vader on a Mercy nun.

Those of us born in the ’50s were part of the peak of the baby boom. Our classrooms were overcrowded, but we had friends on nearly every street and there was never a shortage of kids for a game of baseball. There were 135 in my grade at St. Martin’s on Abbott Road. With such limited space, we had an incredible 45 students per classroom. It’s amazing we learned anything at all and it is little wonder that the nuns often behaved more like prison guards than teachers.

On any given Saturday afternoon, there would be literally hundreds of kids wandering the streets of South Buffalo. It was a time when your mother tossed you out of the house and you weren’t to return before – but not too late for – dinner.

There were no play dates, no soccer or tennis camps, and summer vacations tended to be a week or two in Crystal Beach. There was very little adult supervision and a great deal of freedom. It was a fine time, never to be repeated.

There are still a few of my schoolmates who haunt the bars of Abbott Road, South Park and Seneca Street. They talk of long-forgotten ball games and cute girls that are now dowdy grandmothers. It is both sad and reassuring to know that some things will remain constant. There will always be old men in the bars of South Buffalo remembering an imagined youth.

I am sitting in a coffee shop in the old neighborhood as I write this. It is bitter cold outside and two middle-aged women are nearby speaking in the unmistakable twangy, watered-down brogue of the area. I hear them discussing me in their Irish whispers. “Look at that one out without a coat,” says one. “At least he’s wearing a sweater,” says the other.

I think to myself, they sound just like my late mother and aunt, and then realize they are probably younger than I am.

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