Starr Gazing

Dr. Dan Starr
Retired Director of Athletics and Professor Emeritus of American History at Canisius College.


Personal Reflections on St Pat’s Day

It’s March, which means it’s time for the wearing of the green. St Patrick’s Day is upon us. Amy said, “Why not write about the Irish?” That was a good idea since I have written about other ethnic groups, so why not the Irish? Of course, everyone else has done so, so what might be a different angle? I guess it just has to be my own personal reflections!

Ah, now for a nifty beginning! I have been reviewing my files on our family genealogy over the past few weeks. My late friend, John (Shoes) Bewick, an amateur genealogist of some renown, gave me a treasure trove of information. I discovered that my paternal great-grandfather Bernie Flood was a saloonkeeper in County Longford. He was a prominent barman in the tradition of hall of fame bartenders like Kevin Godzich (part Irish) and Tom Harkins. In fact, Tom Harkins’ son, Tom Jr., claims that his dad was baptized in Mrs. Murphy’s chowder pot. Ah, I am blessed to have a relative in that illustrious company. My wife, full pedigree Irish (nee Callahan), often teases that I am at best a marginal Irishman. True, I am mostly Alsatian, but now I can legitimately drink green beer at the Irish Center on St. Pat’s Day. I have earned a measure of respect from the likes of Mike Flynn, “Mr. Amherst Gaelic League;” Kathleen Delaney, “Ms. Amherst League;” and Tim Bohen, recognized local authority on the First Ward.

I came to learn much about Ireland through my old friend Walt Sweeney. Walt and I logged many hours drinking beer together at the legendary Kenmore Tavern. We were drafted into the U.S. Army together; he has continued to be a close friend for many decades. Sweeney retired to Ireland years ago to be near to his ancestral roots in Donegal, way up north off the beaten track of the usual tourist stampedes. My wife and I have been fortunate to stay with Sweeney in his Carrigart, Donegal home. We made frequent visits to the Glen Pub, which is owned by Walt’s good friends, the McLaughlins. Those Irish pubs are superb places to socialize, sing, drink, and enjoy the Irish Crac. My daughters and other old friends sometimes joined us. Our trips are just thoroughly enjoyable.

My earliest remembrances of St. Pat’s Day celebrations took place in our fourth grade class. Our teacher (warden), was Sister Helena (aka Ann McCann of Lowell Mass). In her typical, stern, authoritarian way, she had us memorize and sing “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.” This was kind of strange since I doubt Sr. Helena even knew how to smile. In those days, in the 1940s and 50s, it seemed that the majority of clergy, priests, and nuns, had Irish roots.

Another favorite memory from early college days was the annual St. Pat’s Day parade in downtown Buffalo. All Canisius students were enrolled in the ROTC and all had to march in the annual parade. Mandatory or demerits! The ordeal of the march (really not all that bad) was made much better by the prospect of drinking beer afterwards. The age limit for alcohol was only 18 then. As soon as the parade ended, somewhere around North Street, we made a mad dash for the nearest saloon. Soon, all the taverns in downtown and midtown were packed with revelers. Our group usually ended up at the Knights of Equity, then located on or near Delaware Avenue. The Bewick family was always prominent there; John’s Mom, Bridie Moran, right from the old country, led the singing.

The annual St. Pat’s Day parade in those days left much to be desired. It consisted of a few bands, a couple of trucks with floats from Irish churches, and swarms of Irishmen and those who thought they were sort of marching along the Avenue. Over the years, improvements were made. Mike Flynn and his Amherst Gaelic League became prominent. My good friend Bob Farrington (a Kennedy, and thus a distant relative of JFK) could be found participating in any one of various Hibernian groups. The Blackthorns have become a regular part of the parade. For those unfamiliar, this is a distinguished, if a bit inscrutable, group of gents who outfit themselves in black tuxedos and wear some sort of green sash. Their heads are adorned with top hats and they walk along swinging a Shillelagh. Parade viewers who recognize a marching Blackthorn cheer lustily while other onlookers display puzzled looks wondering just who are those smiling faces strolling along the avenue. In recent years, the downtown parade has enjoyed hearty competition from a very colorful St. Pat’s Parade that winds through the narrow streets of the First Ward and the Valley. Peg Overdorf, without doubt one of our great Irish American citizens, was largely responsible for the founding of this “Old Neighborhood” parade.

There are many parades through the United States; the biggest, as most everyone knows, is in New York City. Chicago (where the Chicago River is famously made green) and Boston are close behind. Savannah, Georgia, to the surprise of many, is right up there with the best of them. The parade in New York (6 hours long) is always on the 17th. It is frequently marked by controversy, something to which the Irish are not immune. Ethnic, religious, nationalistic, and, most recently, gender issues are vented. As Zuke commented, “Don’t those Irish know that they have to be politically correct?”

I must mention Kevin Townsell’s Shannon Pub. It was on Niagara Falls Blvd. but is now closed. The pub featured the best of Irish music and served all sorts of Irish booze and beer. Like many Irish, he had an affinity for the Germans. Hence, Kevin sponsored “Drink and Stink” sessions on Saturday afternoons. Patrons (including cousin Kitty Siegel) drank Harp or Guinness and lunched on thick slabs of Limburger cheese with onions on rye topped with a wide assortment of mustards. Now there was a feast worthy of St. Patrick himself. Kevin is soon to open a downtown Haufbrauhaus, a mammoth type of Munich beer garden on Scott Street, close to Canalside/Harbor Place. It will be a promising gathering spot for both the German and Irish (and everyone else) to sing.

PS – Some odds and ends: 65 years ago, I worked in Townsell’s soon to be Haufbrauhaus for the Fairmont Creamery Company preparing large vats of cheddar cheese. That was on the eve of my leaving with the U.S. Army for Korea. How about this for a solid Irish name? Erin O’Sullivan Cavanaugh! Peg Overdorf is head of the Valley Community Association.


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