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S. Buffalo Irishness upfront; Blackthorns beaming as they lead St. Patty's Day Parade

All was right with the world Sunday. Sunny skies. Temperatures hovering around 50. The sea of green surpassed only by the Blackthorns' black coats and top hats, walking sticks at the ready.

A crowd estimated at more than 100,000, one of the largest ever for a St. Patrick's Day Parade downtown, looked on as the 94-year-old South Buffalo social club led the annual march up Delaware Avenue.

"To march with these guys is just a pleasure," said Richard T. Donovan, a former Buffalo police commissioner and a 15-year member of the Blackthorn Club. "Leading the parade off, on a great day, a great crowd in the City of Buffalo, has just been fantastic."

With weather befitting the first day of spring, the crowds on each side of Delaware were three and four deep at spots, many of them craning their necks to see the bagpipers and Irish dancers, not to mention pols named Kennedy, Higgins and Kearns.

"One of our biggest thrills as kids was walking in the parade," said Jack Reid, president of the Blackthorns and the son and nephew of two former Blackthorn presidents. "It's so emotional, and it truly is an honor."

And what better group to lead the parade than one of Buffalo's oldest Irish organizations, a social club so elite, the only way to get in is when someone else dies.

"It's an ode to our heritage," said Blackthorn member Mike Kelly. "It's very important for the next generation to realize the struggles we've had over past generations."

Of course, every one of the 100,000 on hand Sunday was a little bit Irish. How else do you explain the overabundance of green hats, pants, shirts and, yes, even kilts.

"I've been coming for as long as I can remember," said Shaun Riley, of Kenmore, adorned in a plaid kilt and looking every bit of his "98 percent" Irish heritage. "It's as close as I can get to Ireland."

Melissa Nixon stood on the sidewalk -- with her 2-year-old son, Nicholas, in her arms and wearing a bright green shamrock headband -- waiting for the parade to reach the finish line on North Street.

"We came for the kids," she said. "I'm a mutt. I'm a quarter Irish, but I'm still Irish, especially today."

Just a few feet away, Melissa Kenney and Nicole Dopp, friends since kindergarten, talked proudly of their Irish heritage. Three of Kenney's grandparents were born in the Emerald Isle.

"Buffalo was built by the Irish," she said. "I think it's important for the younger generation to remember that."

Dopp, who's half Irish and half Polish, says the parade is one part of a one-two ethnic party punch that includes Dyngus Day.

"It's just a reminder of how it all started," she said. "And it's not just the drinking. It's the symbols and traditions."

It's also about family. Just ask Jane O'Sullivan and Ryan Johnson, who served as division marshals, the folks charged with ensuring that the eight-block parade stays on course and without incident.

By all accounts, they succeeded. Buffalo police broke up a handful of minor altercations but reported no major incidents or injuries.

"Heritage. Tradition," said Johnson when asked why he volunteers. "My grandfather was a grand marshal, and so was my father."

"My husband was one in 2006," added O'Sullivan.

The roots of Buffalo's St. Patty's Day Parade run deep, and no one knows that better than the Blackthorns.

The group has marched in it almost as long as it has been around, and, given the number of sons waiting to replace their fathers as members, there's no sign of that legacy ending.

"We both have close relatives who came over from Ireland," Blackthorn member Pat Gavin said as he stood next to Kelly. "We just want to pay tribute to that."

They also have sons who they hope will some day join the club and every St. Patrick's Day, rain, snow or shine, make the trek up Delaware Avenue.

And, most important, they hope their sons remember why they march.

e-mail: pfairbanks@buffnews.com

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