Folks from Ireland used to talk about the Auld Sod. They meant the old country, the land of their roots.
Buffalo has its own Auld Sod.
It lies in the Valley and the Old First Ward, neighborhoods near downtown where the Irish originally settled. This was where the Irish held their earliest St. Patrick's Day parades. Proud Hibernians in long coats and stovepipe hats marched in tribute to the patron saint of Ireland, whose feast day is March 17.
In the 1940s, the parade got too big for its kelly green breeches and moved to Main Street, and later to Delaware Avenue. It's a sight to see, and was a previous adventure on our 100 Things list. But the Old Neighborhood St. Patrick's Day Parade, taking place this year on March 11, offers a glimpse of how things used to be.
The Old Neighborhood has its own gritty prettiness. Irish flags fly from the lampposts. Our Lady of Perpetual Help still presides over O'Connell Street – a street where, according to legend, everyone lives to be 100. There are frame houses, picket fences, gardens, quaint corner taverns, and railroad tracks. The landscape is quirky with age.
The parade begins at noon at the Valley Community Center, 93 Leddy St. It then wends its way down South Park Avenue, Elk Street, Hamburg Street and South Street.
"This is a real neighborhood-based parade," said Margaret Overdorf of the Valley Community Association. Overdorf, called Peg, got the parade started in 1994, and runs it still. "It wends through the streets, past St. Stephen's Church, a mainstay of the neighborhood years ago. There are a lot of generations of people whose roots were here in these old neighborhoods."
Overdorf has seen the parade grow over the years.
"The first year I had it on the day of St. Patrick's Day. We had 25 people, I was screwing up the school buses, so we moved it to a Saturday," she said. "We get a lot of people now. Lots of floats, lots of people. A lot of suburban people come in with their floats, bagpipers and bands. Sometimes we get them from Rochester."
As big as it gets, the parade will always have a homey, grassroots feel.
Buffalo clans march beneath their banners. Among them last year were the Gallivan/Herlihy Clan, and the Casey/Leonard families, bearing with them a giant white buffalo. An ostentatious sign read: "The Cleary's, 22 Kentucky St., 1884-1984."
Politicians feel like family. Look for Carl Paladino and Mayor Byron Brown. This year the Grand Marshall is Mark Schroeder, who is challenging Brown in the next mayoral election.
Everyone has a place. Shirts have been spotted saying, "Kiss Me, I'm Polish." St. Patrick beams benevolently on the Shriners in their fezzes, ancient antipathy between Catholics and Masons forgotten. Organizations you never heard of appear from the ether. The Police Emerald Society. The Buffalo Firefighters Pipes and Drums.
Crowds line the entire route. One prime viewing spot is Gene McCarthy's Tavern, the legendary gin mill on Hamburg Street.
"We get busy. But we also have the patio, and we set up heaters. We have an outside bar, an inside bar and lots of bartenders," promised general manager Margo Kowal. "It's very easy to get a drink."
As you sip your stout, don't be shy. Ask your fellow revelers about the old neighborhoods.
"You learn a lot of history," Kowal said. "A lot of the people who come here are from around here, so you get to learn about the history of the Valley and the Old First Ward. It's a very friendly atmosphere. People are very friendly, not snobby. Everyone talks to everyone."
Show up early. Mingle with parade participants in the morning at a continental breakfast at the Valley Community Center. Try not to trip over the little Irish dancers. After the parade, head to one of the neighborhood gin mills, or back to the center for the grand Irish Hooley with live music by Poor Ould Goat.
What's the weather going to be like, you ask?
Sure, and in 1936, St. Patrick's Day brought a record-breaking storm of heavy snow. A thousand Buffalo buildings collapsed, and across the border, the roof of the Fort Erie Hockey Arena came thundering down. Trolleys and plows were hopelessly stuck. The Irish, God love them, dug themselves out – and three days later, the parade went on as scheduled.
"We've had some memorable weather days," Overdorf laughed. "Forty, 50-mph winds, and sleet.
"The hardy souls in the parade, the hardy souls on the sidelines, I don't know who's crazier."