'Against the Grain': How the Irish Made History in 'The Ward'

A funny thing happened to Tim Bohen on his personal quest to validate a family legend about the proper spelling of his surname. While exploring a narrow genealogical trail through the vast landscape of Irish-Americana in Buffalo, New York, Bohen discovered detours that continuously led back to four “insulated” square miles along the Buffalo River and the Outer Harbor, known as Buffalo’s Old First Ward.

In Against the Grain: The History of Buffalo’s First Ward, Bohen reveals his personal story of ancestor Timothy Bohane. Bohane was a hake fisherman from Skibbereen, but the characters and history that emerged in his research yielded a diverse, fascinating collection of stories of the earliest days of the Queen City. Together, they chronicle the rise and fall of this working-class setting -- known to locals to this day as “The Ward.” Reaching back to its prominence in the Industrial Age, the book narrates the contributions, conflicts and ultimate success of the predominantly working class famine Irish, mostly from Kerry, Clare and County Cork, who settled in this “island” on the city’s south side. 

Since the 1840s, massive grain elevators and factories dwarfed the saloons, flop houses, tenements and modest family homes of Buffalo’s boxed-in First Ward. The neighborhood was completely surrounded, by the Buffalo River, canals, a ship’s basin, bridges and railroad tracks, and became a notorious haven predominantly for illiterate Irish immigrants. Earning meager wages as unskilled waterfront laborers, particularly as grain “scoopers,” the Irish and other European immigrants toiled under the controlling eyes of saloon bosses who dominated every aspect of life in The Ward in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

From these modest beginnings came legendary characters and All-American heroes. 

Against the Grain tells the colorful stories of the ward’s unique intersection with history, including natural calamities that befell its earliest settlers, aggressive and active support for Irish nationhood -- including the ill-fated 1866 Fenian invasion of Canada -- and the contributions of generations of its inhabitants to American history. The ward's contributions, underscoring the Irish reputation for scrappiness, include the Buffalo Irish regiments sent to fight in the Civil War and repeated and violent labor-management confrontations that led to prolonged work stoppages, contributing to the formidable power of unions in America.

Ultimately, Bohane tells the story of a notorious and colorful cast of characters including William “Fingy Connors.” General “Wild Bill” Donovan, boxing great Jimmy Slattery, Buffalo Mayor Jimmy Griffin and funk superstar Rick James.

We recently caught up with Bohen, a business professional and amateur historian who lives in Buffalo to discuss Against the Grain, his first published piece.

Kevin Gorman: Tim, tell us the meaning of the name of the book Against the Grain. Why did you decide that was so appropriate?

Tim Bohen: The title of my book, Against the Grain, served two purposes.  First, it captures the fact that many First Warders worked in the grain trade [as a community] for over 150 years.  Second, the title captures the insular nature of many of the residents of this community, who sometimes had an independent mind compared to their fellow Buffalonians. The phrase “against the grain” can have a negative connotation, but I mean it in only a positive way.

Gorman: How does a search to confirm the spelling of the family name lead to a five-year journey to explore an entire community?

Bohen: I literally was searching for the proper spelling of my last name when my aunt gave me an eight-page history of my ancestors from this area called the First Ward of Buffalo.  My curiosity led me to the library at the Irish Center in Buffalo where I discovered more articles and memoires detailing the interesting history of this unique neighborhood. Originally, I was going to write a short history about my family who lived in this interesting neighborhood.  But I changed the scope of the project to a comprehensive history of the First Ward due to the interest from the many people with whom I discussed the topic.  My family became a very small part of this important history.

Gorman: What made Buffalo a major destination for Irish Immigrants in the 19th century, particularly the First Ward?

Bohen: Buffalo in the 19th century was an industrial powerhouse with burgeoning industries such as grain transshipment, lumber, manufacturing, and railroads.  All of these industries required unskilled laborers and the Irish were happy to fill these positions. There were certainly other Irish immigrants who were semi-skilled who shuffled off to Buffalo, but the vast majorities after the Famine were unskilled laborers.

Gorman: There were essentially two Irish communities that sprang up in Buffalo. The First Warders, who hailed from the southwest of Ireland during the Famine years in particular, predominantly from Clare, Kerry and Cork, and the Irish West Side of Buffalo, which was constituted largely from recent arrivals from the rest of Ireland. What drove these differences?

Bohen: Two distinct Irish communities arose in Buffalo. The majority of famine immigrants who came from southwest Ireland landed in the waterfront community called the First Ward.  Irish immigrants who were semi-skilled or had some money when they arrived in Buffalo were able to settle in an area called the West Side of Buffalo.  Many of these immigrants came from areas of Ireland that were not as devastated by The Famine. They also tended to work as lawyers, merchants, or simply had higher-paying jobs, which allowed them to live in a neighborhood away from the commotion and pollution of a industrial/residential neighborhood like the Ward.  The West Side Irish and those from the Ward often vied for power during the 19th century and early part of the 20th century.

Gorman: Many neighborhoods in older American industrial cities would evolve as older nationalities would make way for new immigrant communities, even in the case of Buffalo's West Side. How is it that the First Ward could hang to so many more generations of its Irish?

Bohen: It is true that many Irish neighborhoods in the United States lost their Irishness in just a couple of generations. The West Side of Buffalo is an example that changed over the years from Irish to Italian to Puerto Rican to immigrants from Asia and Africa. The First Ward, however, remained Irish for almost six generations.  One of the reasons is the physical geography of the neighborhood isolated these residents from the rest of the city. Canals, railroad tracks, the Buffalo River, towering grain elevators and Lake Erie kept the Irish residents separate from other Buffalonians.  The second reason is political. The Irish controlled one of the political wards of Buffalo and with that control were able to obtain an outsized portion of civil service jobs for their constituents. There were many benefits for the Irish to remain in the First Ward and to keeping it homogenous.

Gorman: What role has The Ward played in city, state and national politics, and what prominent Americans emerged from The Ward?

Bohen: First Warders produced many interesting political figures. General William “Wild Bill” Donovan was probably the most famous First Warder as well as the most famous 20th century Buffalonian.  Donovan was the most decorated soldier in World War I, and during World War II President Franklin Roosevelt tasked him with founding the O.S.S. — the precursor to the C.I.A.  First Warder John C. Sheehan led Tammany Hall in New York City for several years and was the sheriff, as well.  Meanwhile, his brother, “Blue-Eyed Billy” Sheehan was lieutenant governor of New York state and an influential power broker in New York state politics for years.  Their brand of politics, which was appropriately called Sheehanism, was rejected by both Grover Cleveland and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Both future presidents thwarted the higher political aspirations of the Sheehan brothers.  John Lord O’Brian served in numerous presidential administrations in the Attorney General’s office while Thomas V. O’Connor served as Assistant Secretary of Labor and chairman of the U.S. Shipping Board.  William “Fingy” Conners served as the chairman of the Democratic Committee of New York, and he was the largest employer on the Great Lakes for many years as chairman of the Great Lakes Transit Corporation.

Wiiliam J. Gorman (center, facing camera) with the Blackthorn Club nearly a century ago, St. Patrick's Day, First Ward, Buffalo

Gorman: How does the story of the Irish in Buffalo's First Ward differ from other Irish American communities that blossomed in the 19th and 20th centuries?

Bohen: The story of the Irish from the First Ward in Buffalo mirrors other Irish communities in Boston, New York City, Chicago, and Philadelphia. In fact, during the 19th century, it was equally important. In all of these cities, downtrodden Irish immigrants arrived on the shores of America with nothing and many were thriving within in a few generations.  Due to the efforts of politicians, the Catholic Church, and labor unions many were able to move into the middle class.  One area where the Ward differed from some of the other Irish communities in the United States is the fact that it remained Irish for so many generations. People moved around in the Ward, but many families never left.

Gorman: Please give a couple of examples of how, during [America's] Civil War period, Buffalo's First Ward Irish made major contributions to both the American Union and to Irish nationhood.

Bohen: The sacrifices of the 155th and 164th New York Volunteer Infantry regiments probably mirrored those of other Irish units in the Civil War.  Both units suffered high casualty rates -- 60% and 64% respectively. Their important contributions in the Virginia Campaign at the end of the war were an important factor in the Irish gaining respectability in the Buffalo newspapers, which were virulently anti-Catholic and anti-Celt prior to the war. 

One of the fascinating intersections of First Ward history and international affairs occurred in 1866, the year after the Civil War ended.  The Fenian Raid, an event that is well known in Canada and Ireland, was a plot by Irishmen to capture Canada and hold it ransom for Ireland’s freedom.  Over 800 men, including a regiment of First Ward men, crossed the Niagara River into Canada as part of a multipronged campaign. While the Fenians won the first battle against the Canadians and British, the U.S. government intervened and prevented more Fenians from crossing into Canada, so the effort died out.  This military campaign, however, was an important event in the epic struggle for Ireland’s freedom.  In addition to providing many men for the effort, the First Ward also housed men, guns, and supplies for the invasion.

Gorman: Besides the spiritual development of its flock, what role did the Church play in the development of the First Ward? What was different about the Church in Buffalo's First Ward community than in other communities in Buffalo or across the country?

Bohen: The Catholic Church played a significant role in the progress of the Irish residents in the Ward.  Bishop John Timon built schools, hospitals, St. Vincent de Paul societies, and numerous other charitable organizations, which improved the material welfare of the immigrants.  He also brought in numerous religious organizations such as the Mercy Sisters who also assisted in his efforts to lift up the residents of the Ward.  Church leaders also led efforts to reduce the rampant alcoholism in the Irish community and to increase home ownership.  In later years, Bishop James Quigley, a former First Ward pastor, led striking First Ward grain workers in an effort to restore their wages. It was one of the important events in the U.S. Catholic Church’s involvement in labor issues and later led to Quigley’s appointment as Archbishop of Chicago, which was a hotbed of labor unrest.

Gorman: What has changed about the First Ward in the last generation? What does the future hold, as you see it?

Bohen: One of the most profound changes to the First Ward was the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway in 1959. Within just a few years, Buffalo’s important strategic location on the eastern end of Lake Erie proved to be irrelevant, as goods could now go through Canada out to the Atlantic Ocean.  No neighborhood in Buffalo was more acutely impacted than the First Ward.  Thousands of waterfront jobs disappeared, and this adversely affected the neighborhood. 

Fortunately, the prospects for the Ward are improving.  It is strategically located next to downtown Buffalo and near the shores of Lake Erie, which is being transformed from its industrial past to a series of beautiful parks and bike paths.  The Buffalo River, which runs through the community, is also becoming a recreational destination, and the entire First Ward community is becoming an important Irish heritage area complete with a museum and numerous hiking and biking tours. And the grain silos are coming back to life as a tourist destination featuring artisans, even extreme sports like climbing and rappelling. Soon there will be a multimillion dollar art and light show featuring these historic structures that form a man-made canyon on the Buffalo River.

Gorman: Put 'The Ward' in the context of the Irish American experience. In what ways is it unique and in what ways does it mirror so many other stories?

Bohen: The First Ward of Buffalo was certainly one of the most important Irish American neighborhoods in the United States in terms of the important people it produced and the events that took place there.  In many ways, it mirrors other Irish neighborhoods where abundant jobs helped propel these immigrants into the middle class.  Its longevity makes it unique compared to many other Irish communities in North America.

For more about the book and its author, visit http://www.oldfirstward.com/

Kevin P. Gorman is a fifth generation Irish-American with Famine-era roots in Buffalo’s First Ward. Kevin is a marketing executive based in Rochester, New York.  He graduated in 1986 from the State University of New York at Buffalo with a Bachelor of Arts in History and Political Science.

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Tags: Against the Grain, Buffalo, Military History, Tim Bohen, War Worldwide, William J. Donovan, World War I, World War II, urban life

Comment by Ryan O'Rourke on June 14, 2013 at 3:26am

Great stuff.  Thanks for this piece, Kevin!


Founding Member
Comment by Kevin P Gorman on June 14, 2013 at 6:25am

Many thanks Ryan!

Comment by Eamon Loingsigh on June 14, 2013 at 8:04am

Very interesting article. Although my family is from County Clare and then Brooklyn, there was a part of my grandmother's family on my father's side that lived in Albany. Also, Osining is often mentioned, but that was because of some rogue uncles who were sent to Sing Sing, haha... Eamon

Comment by Kelly O'Rourke on June 15, 2013 at 2:08pm

Very interesting!

Comment by William J. Donohue on March 12, 2015 at 10:01am

Kevin, 

I suggest you go on my website: www.billdonohue.ws for more info on me and my book. Much of the book takes place in the First Ward so well described by Tim Bohen. The protagonist of my book, Patrick Donohue, was born in the Little Dublin section of Rochester and was brought to the First Ward with his brother, John, by his maternal grandmother, Maire Joy, when his parents died in a cholera epidemic that swept through Little Dublin in 1849. 

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