South Buffalo is Buffalo’s own version of Brooklyn. Brooklyn is officially a part of New York City, but it retains such a unique distinction that its denizens don’t allow themselves to tell people they’re from New York City. They’re from Brooklyn, damn it, and being tied down in name with those greedy fat cats over in Manhattan is annoying. So it goes in South Buffalo; no resident or native of the city’s lower third is ever from Buffalo. They’re all from South Buffalo, a culture away and geographically separated by the Buffalo River to make sure the Irish immigrant population doesn’t mix with the good, respectable Americans who were born in this country. This being the case, South Buffalo maintains a very powerful Irish flavor which is especially obvious during the Christian holy season of Lent, and during St. Patrick’s Day.
In the Irish Heritage District, Irish flags add flair and color to street lights, and street names are given in both English and Gaelic. Traditional Irish dance academies like Rince Na Tiarna and Clann Na Cara provide links to the culture of the motherland, and the people identify their areas by the closest Irish Catholic parish.
In Chicago, they dye the mouth of the Chicago River green and throw a parade. Nice gestures, but all they also did more to remind me that in Chicago, St. Patrick’s Day is seen as just that – a day. You wear green, uncork a Guinness, call everyone “lad,” and hope your hangover the following day in manageable. St. Patrick’s Day in South Buffalo is less a day with a weekend parade than a festival which lasts through the entire following week. It is comparable to the observation of Mardi Gras in New Orleans. The traditional music and dancing appears in many places in the neighborhood, the food is more readily available, and Guinness, Harp, and Bailey’s flow. Some of the restaurants and pubs even serve food and drink with a green tint. The only thing it lacks in comparison to a New Orleans Mardi Gras celebration is the publicity. St. Patrick’s Day in South Buffalo is serious business.
The shadow of St. Patrick’s Day was looming by the time I arrived in Buffalo. On my last full day in Chicago – which happened to be Mardi Gras (with my actual departure on Ash Wednesday, which seems appropriate) – I was expressing my thankfulness to my friends for being able to get to Buffalo in time for the St. Patrick’s Day festivities. I had anticipated the music and beer and the opportunity to get back in touch with the Irish community that had played such a dominant role in my childhood.
Rob was good enough to pick me up from my locale in West Seneca isolation and take me to the old neighborhood. When we got the the Buffalo Irish Center, where many of the big festivities were taking place, he introduced me to a handful of his other friends. Rob had been impressed with the way I inserted myself into Chicago’s countercultural elite. He told me how cool it was that I was taking an active role, weaving myself into the fabric of my adopted hometown. He didn’t tell me that he was doing the same thing in Buffalo, but to a lesser extent. Rob talked with pride about his competitive barbeque team, Buffalo Meatheads, and gave me extensive crash lessons on the local music and flavor.
Penny Whiskey’s Irish folk/rock fusion provided the evening’s soundtrack with a combination of traditional ballads and original rock. The band used bagpipes and a flute in their set while finding enough clout to add a Riverdance song to an AC/DC song. Rince Na Tiarna danced. After Rince Na Tiarna’s set, the general public took to the dance floor itself in small waves. Rob and I only drank mildly; I had a glass of Harp, having drank my obligatory Guinness earlier in the evening, and a small cup of Bailey’s. It was Val, Rob girlfriend, who gave everyone the most memorable drunkenness anecdote of the evening. After one too many rum and Cokes, she slid off her chair. While walking back to the car, she complained about her big toe being stuck to her sock, removed her shoes and socks and threw them aside, saying it was fine if no one picked them up (I picked them up anyway), only to wonder where they were just before getting to the car. Rob decided to take her back to his house before dropping me off.
Rob and I both spent the better part of the evening explaining my absence. It was more often than not Rob who initiated those conversations, probably just to explain who I was and where I’ve been to people I might have otherwise known fairly well myself if I stayed in Buffalo. The two common refrains for us were “He’s been in Chicago the last few years,” which is what Rob said when introducing me to his other friends, and “The economy there tanked too,” my reply to the inevitable questions about why I came back. People were confused about why I would want to leave a 21st century cosmopolis like Chicago, the third largest city in the United States, but even so, I was treated like the prodigal son.