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Bob McCarthy: When Ireland and politics intersect

Robert J. McCarthy

Take a look around our town today. Politicians are everywhere.

Maybe sunshine and receding snowbanks prompt their exit from winter lairs. But more likely because it’s St. Patrick’s Day, and people are celebrating, especially at that big event stretching along Delaware Avenue. If a senator or Council member – and everyone in between – can smile and wave on a happy occasion, then Rule 317 of the Official Politician Handbook lists the St. Patrick’s Day Parade as mandatory.

It all began on Friday when the Buffalo Irish Center hosted its annual corned beef and cabbage affair started 48 years ago by the late Assemblyman Dick Keane and his friend, Tom Blake. It has grown into the largest single assemblage of politicos in one place and time in all of Western New York (an undocumented statement – but can you name one larger?).

Until this year, the luncheon often revealed who was in and who was out for the coming elections. Kathy Hochul, now the lieutenant governor, actually announced her congressional candidacy at the 2011 affair. But the new and early political calendar hasn’t robbed the lunch of its importance – statewide officials like Comptroller Thomas P. (on this occasion, he always says, “P” is for Patrick) DiNapoli delight in a Buffalo appearance.

And it’s heaven for scribes watching the proceedings. They leave with a notebook full of gossip and tips. Hundreds of pols drinking and talking? What more could an ink-stained wretch wish for?

On this day when St. Patrick’s Day falls on Parade Day, the statewides will find themselves across the state on Fifth Avenue. They are forgiven for the granddaddy of all parades. But give pols like Sen. Chuck Schumer credit – he is a 10-time Buffalo marcher and remains one of the few statewides who remember the upstate affairs – even if his people hail from nowhere near County Waterford.

“I place such an emphasis on attending as many parades as possible every single year – especially in Buffalo, which has some of the best of the bunch  – because they give me an unrivaled opportunity to mix and mingle with my constituents, celebrating their incredible communities and hearing about some of the issues they face,” Schumer said in a statement. “From St. Patrick’s Day, to Taste of Buffalo, to Dyngus Day, the people of Buffalo have a sense of unbridled joy when celebrating their ethnic heritage.”

Even as Senate minority leader, Schumer visits all 62 New York counties at least once a year. It stands as no coincidence that the senator survives and prospers upstate.

Schumer, Hochul, Rep. Brian Higgins, Mayor Byron Brown, County Executive Mark Poloncarz and all the others trekking up Delaware Avenue today continue a tradition based in political necessity. It dates to New York City and 1762 when the Irish first felt the need to show their presence. Buffalo’s Irish began marching through the Old First Ward in 1848, according to Tim Bohen, a local historian and author of “Against the Grain: A History of Buffalo’s First Ward.”

There were reasons for such gatherings, Bohen says. First, they announced to the ruling elites that the Irish had “arrived.” And the emerging Irish pols did what pols do best – use the occasion to score points with voters.

“Often the parade was preceded by banquets in a hotel or hall where the politicians would go on about the accomplishments of the Irish to counteract the view that they were poor and ignorant,” Bohen said. “Then they would rail against the British and what they were doing back home.”

The political component has always dominated, he noted, whether countering the anti-immigrant Know-Nothings or seeking help for famine victims in Ireland. And others note that if “excesses” mark the parades of today (what tradition mandates those green boas and plastic derbies, anyway?), it all evolves from that original “we have arrived – notice us” statement.

There is no particular rhyme nor reason to today’s musings (oh, you noticed?). But today is St. Patrick’s Day, this is the Politics Column, and the guy who writes it is a McCarthy.

So on this Sunday we pause and say we’re glad the Irish “arrived.” And today will be a grand day – even for the non-pols among us.

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