By 1901, there was a well-established Irish community living and working in Buffalo, for the Irish, like the Germans, were among the earliest of Buffalo's settlers. Most of the city's Irish emigrated from their home country in response to the Irish Famine, and arrived in Buffalo during a period when the city was rapidly growing as a grain port. As the century progressed, Buffalo would become a major transportation hub for shipping and rail and a center of heavy industry. Both the German and Irish immigrants played major roles in the city's growth. However, while the Germans became part of Buffalo's political and economic mainstream, the Irish were somewhat socially isolated by century's end, in part because they maintained a much stronger ethnic identity, with emphasis on family ties, Ireland and the Catholic church.
The Irish were an
integral part of the labor force during the periods of Buffalo's heaviest
growth. It is difficult to say with any certainty, however, exactly what
role the Irish as a group, may have played in the Pan-American Exposition.
With the exception of a few diocese-supported publications, there were
no ethnic Irish newspapers to refer to1, and personal
accounts have been difficult to obtain. Nonetheless, there is ample evidence
allowing us to speculate as to just what role Buffalo's Irish community
played in the construction and operation of the Exposition.
While it is estimated that there may have been as few at 400 Irish-born in Buffalo in the early 1830's2, within 20 years, the population had grown to over ten thousand. Most were Catholic and arrived in the years following the Great Irish Famine. They settled primarily in the First Ward, a low-lying area south of the city's central business district near the waterfront, which was lined with grain elevators, warehouses and factories. Buffalo's first Roman Catholic Bishop, Fr. John Timon, organized the St. Vincent de Paul Society to aid those immigrants escaping the famine and established St. Brigid's Roman Catholic Church in response. The church became the spiritual and social center of the First Ward and while originally home to families of numerous ethnicities, by 1880, 70% of the ward's population was Irish.3
In the early periods of settlement, most of Buffalo's Irish were unskilled or semiskilled laborers who worked in the regions immediately adjacent to the First Wardas longshoremen, at the nearby Buffalo Union Furnace, and on the railroads. Because of the First Ward's proximity to the numerous grain elevators that lined the Buffalo River, the city's "grain-scoopers" were predominantly Irish. William Jenkins writes,
In the spring of 1899, while Buffalo leaders were engaged in planning the Pan-American Exposition to be held 2 years later, scoopers, freight handlers and other dock workers on the city's waterfront went on strike, bringing Great Lakes commercial transport to a standstill. The scoopers were not protesting against the lake shipping companies or local industrialists, rather, their complaints were waged against the freight contractorsfellow Irish saloon bosses common in the First Ward, who held exclusive contracts with the elevators and shipping companies to control the labor supply. William Connors, in particular, was the grain contractor against whom this strike was directed. He was an Irish saloon-keeper who "contracted with shipping companies to unload grain from ships in Buffalo's harbor, and then in turn signed on men to do work. This arrangement was highly profitable for Connors, but also highly exploitative, since the men worked on a day-by-day basis with no job security, and Connors picked the men who spent the most money in his saloon to perform the labor."6
The strike created a volatile environment and could easily have lead to violence between the strikers and the Connors camp. Despite their notoriety for anti-labor crackdowns, police and City officials exhibited restraint, although both Connors and the scoopers accused them of favoritism. The police did not support Connor's attempts to bring in scab labor and "Democratic Mayor Conrad Diehl, finding himself in an awkward position, took no public stand. The Common Council, according to its printed proceedings, did not discuss the strike..."7 and the administration's overall apathy toward the dockside labor unrest was apparant.
Bishop James Quigley proved to be an important force in the dispute, defending the Irish workers against Irish contractor interests, and calling the saloon-system immoral. He was joined in the attack on Connors' forces by other clergyman, including Protestants from the city's leading churches.9 Despite the tension and the disruption to lake commerce, the strike was a relatively peaceful victory for the strikers (only one man was killed) and led to reforms in the saloon-boss system of labor, much to the benefit of the scoopers, longshoremen and other freight handlers.10
The Scoopers Strike may give the impression that most of Buffalo's Irish were unskilled laborers. It is true that most of the immigrants arriving during the 1850's began work as unskilled or semiskilled laborers. There were very few entrepreneurs and only two factory owners in 1855William Carland, who owned Gothic Hall and made ready-made men's clothing, and Augustine Keogh, who manufactured pianofortes.11
By 1900 however,
the Irish had become well established in the semiskilled and skilled
trades and were making strides in what we would refer to today as "white
collar" jobs. In looking at a sample of Irish surnames in the 1900
one can see a noticeable increase over previous years in the number of
professionals, clerks, shopkeepers and, among women, teachers. Most significant,
however, were the numbers of tradesmen listed, especially, blacksmiths,
carpenters, bricklayers, molders and other construction related occupations.
Over 16% of the sample fell into the category of "skilled trade",
while 12% were laborers, and 10% worked for the railroads.12
With so many involved in construction-related occupations, we can speculate that Buffalo's Irish played some sort of role in the actual construction of the Exposition. It was well advertised throughout the period newspapers that the pay for construction work at the Exposition grounds was very good and that laborers were coming to Buffalo from all parts of the country. With good pay and and abundance of construction work, it is safe to assume that the Irish tradesmen and laborers were involved in building construction and in operation of the railroads running to and from the grounds. It is unfortunate that, without any first-hand accounts, we can only speculate at this point.
The Buffalo Fire Department, with its heavy representation of Irish-Americans, was charged with fire protection of the Pan-American Exposition grounds with five fire companies assigned to protect the property and people at the fair. These five companies made up temporary Battalion No. 7, and included Engine 33, which consisted of a combination chemical engine and hose wagon, along with two horses. Engine 33 was located at the South Midway near the Indian Congress, and its crew included members of Buffalo's Irish and German communities. Hook & Ladder 10 is shown with their 65 foot Gleason & Bailey truck in front of their quarters near the Belt Line Station on the exhibition grounds.
This was also the case with the city's police department. "The plethora of Irish names in the annual reports of the Buffalo Board of Police is testament to the strong representation of the first- and second- generation Irish of the city on the force."14 Indeed, in reviewing the 10 precincts and 2 substations existing in 1900, Harring found that 8 of the 12 police captains had Irish surnames, as did 72% of the officers.15
only Pan-American Exposition event to feature some aspect of Irish culture
was "Irish Sports Week," which took place from August 28-31, 1901. Events
included Gaelic games as well as other Irish running and jumping events,
which were held in the stadium located on the Exposition grounds. These
activities gave local Irish-Americans a chance to compete against individuals
and teams from other areas and to showcase their national sports before
an international audience.
The highlight of the games was an Irish football match where spectators were treated to a free fight. "For roughness it has got the regulation college game scraped to a polish. Black eyes, bloody noses and cracked heads were much in evidence by the time the first half was over. The game resembled a free fight more than anything else."16
Press coverage by the Buffalo Evening News indicates that the reception for the Irish sporting events was rather lukewarm, in part because the games were so poorly organized and promoted. On August 30th, the News reported that "[t]he Irish sports in the Stadium have been so carelessly managed that they attracted but little interest yesterday."17 However, articles do describe the excitement of hurling, a game somewhat on the order of lacrosse. "It is pretty rough fun, but it is fast and the crowd liked it."18