Bill Donohue knows how to tell a story.
At lunch a few days ago in Gene McCarthy’s Tavern, he regaled the Politics Column with some favorites: his South Buffalo youth, his decade as a Catholic priest, his decision to leave, his Griffin administration stint as a community development guru, more politics as Gov. Mario Cuomo’s commerce commissioner and lots about a family of six children and a growing list of grandchildren.
But Donohue may have saved his best story for now. His new historical novel – “Himself: A Civil War Veteran’s Struggles with Rebels, Brits and Devils” – published by Buffalo Heritage Unlimited is now hitting local bookstores. The advice here is for this story to top any summer reading list.
McCarthy’s in Buffalo’s Old First Ward served as a most appropriate venue to dissect Donohue’s new novel, which unfolds in the venerable tavern’s waterfront neighborhood. Back in the mid-19th century, thousands of Irish immigrants flocked to the Ward’s docks, railroads, grain elevators and mills to find work. Many of their descendants now remain in a section of the city enjoying its own revival along with the rest of Buffalo’s waterfront.
Donohue revolves his story around his great-grandfather – Patrick Donohue – an orphaned son of immigrants sent with his brother from Rochester to be raised in the Ward by relatives. Pat and John grow up with Buffalo – then teeming with newcomers as it morphed into the nation’s busiest inland port.
“I decided to do the book for my own sake and my family’s sake,” Donohue explained, “and explore the patterns that flowed down to me and the rest of my family through Patrick.”
It’s a familiar immigrant story. Patrick and John receive little schooling, take on backbreaking work to support the household and rely on revered institutions like family and church.
But Donohue surpasses all those other accounts by weaving it all into Buffalo history. The notorious canal district beckoned the brothers to its saloons, Pat toils in the Union Iron Works near the present McCarthy’s Tavern and Bishop John Timon personifies Catholicism’s influence.
“Maybe because of the greatness of Father Baker, most Catholics here think of Timon only as the name of a high school,” Donohue said, explaining that the first bishop of Buffalo influenced the flock to adopt his pro-Lincoln and anti-slavery views.
“He said Catholics had a moral obligation to support the president in his efforts to save the Union,” Donohue explained.
And so Pat and John dutifully march off from Fort Porter to some of the bloodiest carnage of the Civil War – Hatcher’s Run, Petersburg, Cold Harbor – and the horrors of Pat’s months as a Confederate prisoner of war. The descriptions of burrowing out a hole in the ground just to survive will make you appreciate your warm bed a little more tonight.
There’s much more to this. Pat returns to Buffalo only to catch anti-British fever and get swept up in the Fenian Raid from Buffalo into nearby Ontario. His “capture” in a Fort Erie tavern only underscores the hilarity of the entire escapade.
Donohue learned much about his great-grandfather through military records, and how the government virtually ignored its Civil War veterans. Patrick’s encounters with government doctors who routinely denied benefits illustrates the awakening that eventually led to today’s appreciation for veterans.
And finally Pat’s battles with alcohol demonstrate the potential for total destruction of family life – an all too common experience in immigrant enclaves like the Ward.
In a sense, Donohue discovered “himself” in “Himself.” The story of his home town, the Civil War, his family and how it all boiled down to what he calls his “own selfhood.”
“It was a wonderful experience for me,” he said. “It’s caused me to contemplate some of my own behaviors and character.”
And it all makes for some darn good beach reading, too.