The mu­ral fundraiser that saved the Ir­ish heart of South Buf­falo

The Buffalo News - - SPORTS -

The Buf­falo Ir­ish Cen­ter had been “trashed,” in the words of Mary Heneghan. Four­teen months ago, two mid­dle-of-the-night in­trud­ers, their masked breakin chron­i­cled by se­cu­rity cam­eras, broke through an en­trance­way and made their way to the main of­fice, where they forced their way through an­other door.

Once in­side, the bur­glars tore open a drop box. They hur­ried out with a safe con­tain­ing $5,000 in cash, along with pay­roll checks and his­toric doc­u­ments linked to the ori­gins of the old South Buf­falo YMCA on Ab­bott Road, re­born 49 years ago as a neigh­bor­hood cen­ter for Ir­ish cul­ture.

Heneghan has served as di­rec­tor for more than two decades. She watched as chang­ing gen­er­a­tions, and the ex­o­dus of many grown chil­dren of Ir­ish-Amer­i­can ori­gin from South Buf­falo, led to a dra­matic drop in mem­ber­ship. It placed more weight on the shrink­ing core of vol­un­teers who main­tain or host Ir­ish dance classes, lan­guage cour­ses, an Ir­ish li­brary, live mu­sic and even such neigh­bor­hood sta­ples as fish dinners every Fri­day.

A year ago, Heneghan feared the bur­glary – no ar­rests have been made – might serve as a death blow. Com­bined with prop­erty dam­age, to­tal losses climbed be­yond $12,000. That was a for­tune for a lit­tle com­mu­nity cen­ter whose dues-pay­ing mem­ber-

Sean Kirst

ship is 150, and whose ac­tive mem­bers are a frac­tion of that num­ber.

Now, as Heneghan pre­pares for big crowds on this St. Pa­trick’s Day weekend, she wel­comes you to stop by and ad­mire a new mu­ral that be­came the en­gine of an un­likely res­cue.

“It helped to keep us open,” she said.

Be­fore the bur­glary, direc­tors of the cen­ter had hired an artist, Judi Witt, to cover an ex­te­rior wall with a mu­ral in­tended to por­tray both the sym­bolic jour­ney of a fam­ily from Ire­land to Buf­falo, and the achieve­ments of all im­mi­grants.

Com­pleted last year, it fea­tures the grain el­e­va­tors where so many new­com­ers once worked, as well as the St. Pa­trick’s Day Pa­rade and other tra­di­tions of joy and faith linked to Ir­ish her­itage.

To pay for it, the direc­tors came up with a plan that in­volved paint­ing a stone tower on the wall, along­side the mu­ral. Donors could buy a “stone” in that tower and ded­i­cate it to vol­un­teers or neigh­bors who played a role in Ir­ish Cen­ter his­tory.

Heneghan was hop­ing to break even. In­stead, in the months af­ter the break-in, the idea took off and made thou­sands of dol­lars more than she ex­pected.

Heneghan be­lieves part of that em­brace came down to word-of­mouth about the cen­ter’s plight, a re­al­iza­tion that a place al­ways viewed as part of the South Buf­falo land­scape was sud­denly in trou­ble.

There was also a more in­ti­mate fac­tor. The cen­ter it­self was al­ready a kind of me­mo­rial. It ex­ists only be­cause of tire­less ef­forts by a half-cen­tury’s worth of vol­un­teers, many who died with­out any mon­u­ment. The stone tower gave fam­i­lies a vis­i­ble way of say­ing thanks to par­ents and grand­par­ents for ev­ery­thing they did through do­na­tions that started at $500, then went up.

The re­sponse has been so great, Heneghan said, that Kennedy Sign & De­sign – the out­fit that painted the tower on the wall – is run­ning out of room.

There is a stone, for in­stance, to honor Cather­ine Casey, who died 10 years ago at 101 on New Year’s Day. She was an Ir­ish im­mi­grant who went back and forth in her youth be­tween her home­land and Buf­falo, fi­nally ar­riv­ing for good on Easter Sun­day, 1949, with her hus­band, Pa­trick, and their five chil­dren.

Three of those sib­lings – Sheila Dorsey, Mary Casey Lynch and Bren­dan Casey, ac­com­pa­nied by Kath­leen Lal­ley Casey, his wife – ar­rived at the cen­ter Fri­day to share tales about their fam­ily.

“We were blessed to be born over there,” said Sheila, who at 80 hopes to soon re­turn to a long­time job sell­ing concessions at Sabres games, once she re­cov­ers from hip surgery. Their mother, Sheila said, was al­ways grate­ful for Buf­falo be­cause life had been so dif­fi­cult in Ire­land. Both Bren­dan and Mary were born at home, in a tiny cot­tage on a sprawl­ing es­tate where their fa­ther worked.

Pa­trick even­tu­ally set­tled into a job at Beth­le­hem Steel, while Cather­ine be­came an an­nual cham­pion of the St. Pa­trick’s Pa­rade, in which she marched un­til she phys­i­cally could not do it any­more.

At the Ir­ish Cen­ter, Cather­ine was one of the main cooks, rou­tinely pre­sid­ing over corned beef and cab­bage. Her chil­dren re­call how she once pre­pared three en­tire tur­keys at home and asked her daugh­ter Ellen to drive them to the cen­ter, be­cause Cather­ine and her hus­band never owned a car.

In say­ing farewell to Ire­land, Cather­ine left be­hind many peo­ple she loved “but she never dwelled on it,” as Mary said. Her phi­los­o­phy was that you kept work­ing and look­ing for­ward, find­ing so­lace in your faith and in the kin­ship that al­ways brought her back to the cen­ter.

“It was her home away from home,” Bren­dan said, a feel­ing shared for years by the late Kay and Farry Con­way, bet­ter known as Fred, a cou­ple also born in Ire­land.

They ar­rived sep­a­rately, in the early 1950s, and were mar­ried in Buf­falo. While they raised their nine chil­dren in Ken­more, the Ir­ish Cen­ter was cen­tral to their lives. Fred Con­way, who re­tired from a state job as a car­pen­ter, was a found­ing mem­ber and served on the first board. Kay, for decades, was a vol­un­teer.

Fri­day, two of their chil­dren, Mary Con­way Reiser and Anne Con­way Sul­li­van, joined the Caseys at the cen­ter. “They loved this place,” Sul­li­van said of her par­ents.

Their fa­ther was a sto­ry­teller, a guy al­ways will­ing to share a joke. Their mother was far more se­ri­ous, which led her hus­band to some­times re­fer to her as “Mother Su­pe­rior.” Fred’s daugh­ters can still point out ex­actly where their fa­ther wove his sto­ries at the bar, and the fam­ily link to the cen­ter car­ries on:

Sev­eral of the 25 Con­way grand­chil­dren have taken Ir­ish dance lessons in the build­ing, taught there or played for the Buf­falo Fe­ni­ans, a Gaelic foot­ball team based in the build­ing.

Fred lived to be 86, and Kay to 91. In 2001, one of their grand­daugh­ters, Kelly – who now lives in Dublin – asked them the kinds of ques­tions about life we all wish we had asked our par­ents and grand­par­ents. She wrote it down when they told her how no one saw them off when they left Ire­land. Their fam­i­lies were heart­bro­ken, un­sure of whether they would ever see them again.

Kay Cham­bers Con­way re­called how a church steeple at Cobh was the last thing she saw as her ship left the har­bor, be­fore the peak van­ished into the hori­zon and she turned her heart to­ward Buf­falo.

To the Con­way chil­dren and grand­chil­dren, there was no ques­tion. Their par­ents de­served a stone on the wall.

All told, the mu­ral not only paid for it­self, it made a profit far be­yond losses from the bur­glary and gave the Ir­ish Cen­ter a much­needed boost. To Heneghan and other of­fi­cers, the ur­gent mis­sion now is reach­ing younger gen­er­a­tions. Those new mem­bers will de­cide whether the sense of com­mu­nity nur­tured by that honor roll of vol­un­teers con­tin­ues to ex­ist.

“With­out this place,” Kath­leen Casey said, “I think many of those con­nec­tions would melt away.”

Sharon Can­til­lon/Buf­falo News

This will be the first St. Pa­trick’s Day for an ex­pan­sive mu­ral cel­e­brat­ing the her­itage of the Buf­falo Ir­ish Cen­ter. From left are Mary Con­way Reiser; Mary Heneghan, chair­man of the Ir­ish Cen­ter; Mary Casey Lynch; and her brother, Bren­dan Casey.

Robert Kirkham/Buf­falo News

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