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Joseph Xavier Martin: Ancestral whispers reveal who we are

A recent “Torn-Down Tuesday” feature in The News was prosaic enough. It denoted the razing of St. Brigid’s Community Center, which sat across the street from St. Brigid’s Church on Fulton and Louisiana streets in Buffalo’s Old First Ward section.

The article described the meeting hall as a place where neighborhood people held union and political meetings. It also served as a site for planning the many St. Patrick’s Day Parades in years past.

One could only wonder at the fiery oratory that must have been tossed back and forth in meetings there during the great grain scoopers strike of 1899. It was serious stuff. About 1,500 scoopers, nearly all Irish-American, went on strike to break the death grip that waterfront boss William “Fingy” Conners held on the area.

And the host of parades planned there would elicit a smile and the telling of tales of the “creature” and how some of the lads fell under her grip during this most Irish of all holidays. The list of nicknames of those who met there is still legendary, names like “Diapers Reardon” and “Harbor Lights O’Brien.” The Irish always had a sense of humor – tragic humor, maybe, but humor still the same

Like most sons of the First Ward, I didn’t know much about the center. I grew up a few miles away in South Buffalo. But the address triggered a wash of memories. Two of the Martin family’s homesteads from another century, one on Louisiana and one at Fulton and Marvin, had stood nearby.

Hundreds of relatives of the Martin clan had attended many of those meetings talked about in the article. Unfortunately, like most working-class families, we have no written record of the life and times of the four generations before me that wandered hither and yon in these storied ethnic environs. Whispers of memories from the older relatives occasionally crossed my consciousness at wakes and weddings long past.

The Tevingtstons, the Martins, the Driscolls and a rota of other ancestors had once lived and interacted here. How I wish the walls of that storied hall could talk and tell me of their life and times, now but unknown except for the fading surfaces of slate and marble tombstones in Holy Cross Cemetery in Lackawanna.

What colorful tales of men and women struggling to make it through the day would emerge, stories of Irish immigrants learning to read and write their own language and carve out a trade with which to make their living in the new land. It would be a saga of laughter and the tears of the various inequities that faced all such people who lived on the margins of prosperity when their own first came to America. God bless the land for taking all of us in.

The much-respected Memories Museum, in the nearby Valley section, is now the only real repository of who and what we were as a people for those early generations of Irish immigrants. Bless the souls of its proprietors, who refused to let slip away the trace of our own during those early years.

Many have labored diligently to translate those ancestral whispers into print. Two of my own books, and a dozen or so interesting accounts by other sons and daughters of the First Ward, have tried to relate a tale or two and give meaning to a people who came to a great land with nothing. They rose through the ranks with the help of the religious, like the sainted nuns who worked and taught at St. Brigid’s.

Another part of our heritage has slipped beneath the wrecking ball. It is now but another story to be recorded and kept faithfully at the Memories Museum.