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The Buffalo St. Patrick’s Day parade has a proud, storied history.

And through the years, the proud stories have obscured the history.

Ever since the first Irish and Irish-Americans donned sashes and top hats, picked up blackthorn sticks, flags and banners, and marched the streets to musical accompaniments, just as they will this afternoon, the annual parade has been an important part of local Irish history and culture. Through the years, the parade tradition has also lapsed for lengthy periods and been revived at least twice.

Possibly because of these lapses and revivals, people in four separate Buffalo families have grown up believing that their ancestor – Michael J. “Big Mike” Quinn, Henry J. Finn, John J. Carmody and John J. Ryan – organized, led or otherwise started the first St. Patrick’s Day parade in the city’s history.

Through the years, these conflicting claims have found their way into print many times, in magazines, newsletters and newspapers, as far away as the Dublin-based magazine “Ireland of the Welcomes” and as close to home as various Buffalo daily newspapers.

Perplexed and intrigued by the account she read in a 2012 Buffalo News article about the genesis of the parade, Carmody’s granddaughter Kathleen Lesniak, an associate professor of Science Education at SUNY Fredonia, has dug into the history of the parade, unearthing evidence of a far longer and richer tradition than anyone expected. And with her newfound knowledge, Lesniak plans to compile a complete history that not only pulls together all the legend and lore of the celebration in Buffalo, but also establishes the truth — what happened, when and why, along with who was involved.

“There are more people involved than one person,” said Lesniak. “Whatever my grandfather’s role is, I don’t know, but to me it’s not really the ‘who’ anymore. What’s interesting is being able to look at this as a phenomenon, and see that there are many, many discrepancies. The celebrations changed with different generations and they changed to accommodate shifting historical contexts and the values of the participants.”

Buffalo author Timothy Bohen said the confusion and conflicting claims about the parade echo situations he encountered several times while researching his 2012 book, “Against the Grain: The History of Buffalo’s First Ward.”

“This is pretty much business as usual,” said Bohen. “A lot of the things I had to research had multiple claims, and I had to do a lot of digging to try to find the real truth. I think in this case, some of it has to do with the Irish nature of being proud and wanting to say that your ancestor was the founder of the parade.”

But Irish cultural tradition also was a factor, Bohen said. “The Irish emphasized transmitting history orally, and that can lead to stories that get exaggerated as they are passed down the generations. Very rarely did I uncover any outright lies, but rather some truths that were stretched.”

Buffalo’s first parade

Irish immigrants to the United States have a long history of organizing and participating in St. Patrick’s Day parades, dating to before the American Revolution.

So it should be no surprise that Buffalo, where local historian and author Ed Patton said around 40 percent of the population was Irish in 1848, had robust St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, which included Masses, dinners, speeches and musical events. Those observances were reported in the early newspapers.

In mid-March 1848, members of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick, a fraternal organization formed by established Irish immigrants to assist both new immigrants and their countrymen suffering in the Great Famine at home, placed an ad in the Buffalo Morning Express announcing a St. Patrick’s Day dinner at the Western Hotel. A story in the same newspaper on March 17 lauded the event as one of “festive mirth and deep enjoyment” with “wit, sentiment and song.” No parade is mentioned.

But on March 16, 1848, with a small ad in the Morning Express, the organization announced what appears to be the city’s first parade. “The Friendly Sons of St. Patrick’s Society, will celebrate their National Festival, on SATURDAY, the 17th instant, by a procession from their Room to St. Patrick’s Church, from thence through the principal streets of the city, accompanied by HAMMOND’S BAND,” said the ad, which was signed by the group’s committee – Patrick Short, Michael Prior, Samuel Fox, Patrick Smith and John Smith, along with Mathew Garigan, the group’s secretary.

The news story in the Morning Express the next day held another tantalizing hint. “This is St. Patrick’s Day in the morning — a day in which our Irish fellow-citizens commemorate, with great good feeling and festivity. The various benevolent societies usually parade with their banners, badges and band of music …”

The wording – “the various benevolent societies usually parade” – suggests the possibility that smaller processions of individual groups predated the first officially recognized parade in 1848.

That parade was an annual event for at least 19 years. In 1887, a lengthy front-page story in The Buffalo Evening News said, “In Buffalo of late years a quiet celebration has been the rule. … The largest Irish parade ever held in this city occurred in 1876, the last year the St. Patrick’s Day parade was held here.”

Although the St. Patrick’s Day parade was revived at least twice – in 1915 and again in 1935 – the awareness that the first official parade dated back to 1848 survived for more than 100 years.

In 1952, a story in the Courier-Express was headlined, “French Revolt Cramped Irish Fete Data in 1848.” The story said, “Following the first observance, back in 1848, one daily newspaper announced briefly: ‘It is to be regretted that on account of the news of the French revolution, a full account of the procession and banquet of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick here cannot be published today.’ ”

The article continued, “The Friendly Sons’ first affair 104 years ago included a parade from St. Patrick’s Church to Ellicott and Batavia, the latter now known as Broadway.”

With the true genesis of the parade well-known as late as 1952, how could members of four families believe that their ancestor started the parade in the 19-teens?

The answer: Hints, documents, incorrect published accounts and, most of all, the lure of family lore.

‘A family story’

Buffalo parades have a complicated, fragmented history. They were held on several different routes, including Elk Street, Main Street and Delaware Avenue. Through the years, they were also sponsored by different groups, from the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick to the parade’s current sponsor, the United Irish-American Association of Erie County, which traces its involvement back to 1941.

Still, parades created a feeling of pride in four different local families, each of whom credited an ancestor for the tradition.

This happened “because of the fits and starts of the parade itself,” said Patton. “There were starts and stops, and somebody was aging out and we know that somebody picked up the torch. It’s quite possible that all of them can lay claim to reviving the parade. I think that’s a better way of describing it: they brought it back.”

Bill Hanavan of East Aurora grew up hearing that his grandfather, John J. Ryan, a shoe merchant, started the parade in 1912. “It was always kind of a family story,” said Hanavan.

In 1953 and again in 1954, Ryan’s role in the parade was mentioned in the Buffalo Courier-Express column “As I See It,” written by Jerry Evarts.

In 1954, Evarts wrote, “One of the original organizers of the annual St. Patrick’s Day parade,” John J. Ryan 82, “hasn’t missed a St. Pat’s parade since 1912 when he and several others, including William “Dutch” Adler, convinced scores of skeptics that such an affair would be successful.”

In other newspaper reports collected by Hanavan, the date of Ryan’s first parade was pegged at 1913 or even 1914.

Hanavan also has a handwritten page, apparently written by his grandfather late in life, in which he recalls: “It was in 1913 that (I) conceived a very large St. Patrick’s Day parade in the 1st Ward and was laughed and scoff(ed) at. ... (T)hose that laughed the loudest was delighted to get in front of it.”

‘Big Mike’ Quinn

The story told by Gerald Quinn of Buffalo, great-grandson of “Big Mike” Quinn, is the one that has been republished in the most places. It was even written into the “Local Legacies” history project of the Library of Congress.

Gerald Quinn believes that his great-grandfather organized and led the first “modern” parade as grand marshal in 1913. This story is told in a pamphlet published in 1991 by the United Irish-American Association of Erie County, which was celebrating the 50th anniversary of its sponsorship of the parade.

In the pamphlet, Martha Harkin, a Buffalo native who in 1978 became the parade’s first female grand marshal and was later named “official parade historian,” wrote a fanciful account of the first parade. “The year was 1913 and the January day was bitter cold,” Harkin’s piece began. After noon Mass, she wrote, “the brawny Irishmen … gathered at a local pub on Chicago Street to sort out the many issues of the day. Mike Quinn, the proud proprietor of the establishment, was in a pensive mood as he spoke of the need to pay tribute to the great St. Patrick on his March 17 feast day.”

In a 1991 interview with The Buffalo News, Harkin, who died in 2002, said, “The men used to gather on Sunday at Quinn’s Tavern at the corner of Chicago and Miami. From all the stories I’ve heard, that’s where the idea got started. It’s supposed to be the truth.”

Patton said, “She was accepting but skeptical that it was 100 percent accurate.”

Gerald Quinn uses a clipping from 1935 or 1936 from an unknown local newspaper to support his contention that there was a parade in 1913. Headlined, “Irish Paraders Dare Wind, Cold,” the article makes a single mention of a parade in 1913: “The cold March air penetrated uncomfortably, reminiscent of the parade in 1913 that was held in sub-zero weather …”

But that single mention in the mid-1930s conflicts with the newspaper reports of the day. Buffalo newspapers in 1913 carried lengthy stories on the events of the holiday, including Masses, speeches, dinners and school programs of Irish songs and dance, but did not mention a parade. In 1913, the Buffalo Evening News story said, “Coming as it does in the Holy Week, at the end of Lent, the day is not being observed as much in a social way as formerly.”

Then, in 1915, two newspaper stories explicitly said the 1915 parade was the first one in decades. On March 4, 1915, The Catholic Union and Times ran an article headlined, “Parade feature to be revived this year.” The story said, “After a hiatus of more than 30 years, Buffalo Irishmen and sons of Irishmen will this year feature a great parade in honor of the patron saint of the old land … St. Patrick.”

Also in 1915, the Courier reported, “St. Patrick’s Day this year will be celebrated with probably the best parade of its kind Buffalo has ever seen, although it has been twenty-seven years since there was a public demonstration.”

Edward J. Duggan was grand marshal of the parade in 1915 and parade chairman was William J. Shaddock. In 1916 and 1917, William H. Fitzpatrick was grand marshal. The parade continued at least through 1918, with Edward J. Duggan as grand marshal again, and in 1919, a story in the Buffalo Courier reported that the Gaelic American Athletic Association was “strong for parade” and hoping to see “a large number of soldiers and sailors in uniform take part in the procession,” upon their return home from World War I. But the parade tradition lapsed again.

The St. Patrick’s Day parade was revived for the final time in 1935 by a committee of nine men, under the direction of George J. Evans, Mike Quinn’s son-in-law. Besides Quinn and Evans, the men in the group were Timothy Harmon, James W. Mockler, Joseph J. Cooley, John J. Evans, Thomas F. Merrick, Coleman Perkins and Robert C. Lacey.

Mike Quinn was grand marshal of the parades in 1935 and in 1936. When he died two months after the parade in 1936, his obituary said that he was “grand marshal of many parades,” leaving the impression that he may have led others. But the grand marshals of the parades of the 19-teens did not include Quinn, and he was born in 1865, too late to lead any of the parades between 1848 and 1876. For most of Quinn’s life in Buffalo, no parades were held.

Still, Gerald Quinn, who has also researched parade history, said, “I’ve come to the conclusion that Big Mike started the modern-day parade.” Quinn has proposed that his great-grandfather be memorialized, possibly with a statue. “He was a strong leader and somebody who kept the Irish tradition and culture going.”

Besides his great-grandfather’s obituary and family lore, Gerald Quinn points to a photo of Mike Quinn that ran with the News story about the parade in 1936. Quinn says the photo is of “a much younger Mike,” yet he is “in the full garb of a grand marshal.”

Recent narratives about the parade have usually, but not always, credited Quinn as the originator and included the incorrect date of 1913. In a manuscript written in the 1980s titled “Trip Around Buffalo’s Water Front and Life in the First Ward in the Twenties, Thirties and Forties,” John Baldyga said Quinn’s tavern was the spot “where the first St. Patrick’s Day Parade got its start. Then the First World War came along and no more parades. Now after a lapse of some 18 years and the year now 1935 and St. Pat’s Day is approaching. Mike Quinn got things a moving. Word got around about getting St. Pat’s on the march again. ... Grand Marshal was as usual. Big Michael Quinn.”

When he wrote “Against the Grain,” Bohen said, “I went with the Quinn story because it seemed that all roads kind of pointed to that, even though I couldn’t find a confirmation, and then I just chalked it up that maybe this didn’t make the news, maybe it wasn’t newsworthy or was kind of an impromptu thing.”

Thomas Finn of Grand Island may have the best claim that his grandfather led the revival of the first modern parade in 1915. That revival was spearheaded by the Gaelic American Athletic Association, of which Henry J. Finn was president. In his 1937 obituary, Finn, a “well-known printing compositor and Gaelic leader,” was listed as “the originator of the revived St. Patrick’s Day Irish celebrations and brilliant street parades 22 years ago after a lapse in such activities for a number of years.”

Finally, Kathleen Lesniak of Amherst, John J. Carmody’s granddaughter, dates her grandfather’s involvement to the 1916 parade. She has a studio photo of her grandfather standing with four other men wearing sashes and top hats and carrying traditional blackthorn walking sticks. On the back of the photo is written the words, “The officers of the first St. Patrick’s Day parade, 1916, J.J. Carmody grand marshal.”

The inscription is a puzzler. Although it appears to be in her grandfather’s handwriting – Lesniak has compared it with greeting cards and other documents to be sure – it’s not true. The parade in 1916 was the second one in the 20th Century, and William H. Fitzpatrick was grand marshal.

“I heard growing up that my grandfather was one of founders and grand marshal in 1916,” said Lesniak. “As children we’d watch the parade downtown and we were all just very, very proud that he was involved in the earlier ones; that was our family history.”

The more Lesniak dug into the history, the more the mystery deepened for her.

A granddaughter’s search

Besides the photo, Lesniak had a Courier-Express article from 1969 headlined, “First Irish Parade Recalled.” The story listed five members of the Gaelic American Athletic Association – Carmody, Henry J. Finn, Michael Baker, Michael Cullinan and Bob Slattery – who had “decided that if New York City could boast a St. Patrick’s Day parade, so could Buffalo.” The story said that Carmody, “who was honored as grand marshal, led the group.” After a bit of digging, she said, “Obviously there is something wrong with that 1969 Courier-Express article, and as I looked at it I thought it was very mysterious. I went back to do some research on my own to really understand that time period.”

As she combed newspaper records, manuscripts and memoirs, Lesniak found a reference to the first parade in Buffalo in 1848. She then focused closely on the parades between 1915 and 1917, and the revival of the parade in 1935, researching the weather on parade days, the routes and sponsoring groups. She began to recognize some long-forgotten names among the leaders.

“As I looked into this more, I started to see more of a bigger picture,” she said. “For me, the question began to change from who was the first or when was the first into why and how the local St. Patrick’s Day celebrations developed over time in Buffalo.”

Lesniak found herself fascinated by the idea of teasing out the truth from a muddled and disputed history and preserving it for future generations. “It’s important to me that we understand our family history well, and that it’s passed along,” she said.

Where will she go from here?

“Let’s develop this history out,” she said. “Let’s invite people who have records and evidence to come forward, and let’s own this.” That could mean a website or a book, or both, she said. “The parade connects past and present for the people who are participating in it and the people who are watching it, It reinforces old memories, builds new memories.”

Bill Hanavan is ready to share the credit with other families. “I don’t think you’re going to find that any single one of them did it,” he said. “I think it was a group of the businessmen that got together and said, ‘Come on, guys, we’ve got to do something.’”

Lesniak agrees. “I have to say that it looks as though it was more of a group effort. Many people seem to have had a part, including some people we have never heard of, who never got any credit at all.”

email: aneville@buffnews.com