Tonawanda News — This month — and Monday in particular — everyone wants to be Irish.
But whether you just pin a shamrock on your collar once a year (and perhaps hoist a Guinness or two) or remain
involved in the traditions all year, there exists a strong thread of Irish heritage and pride in the Niagara Region — from the early days of canal workers and stonemasons to community leaders and builders throughout history to those who carry the torch today.
Coming to America
At the Niagara County Historical Society and the Niagara County Historian’s Office in Lockport, much of the material on the Irish in Niagara County centers around research conducted by late county Historian David Dickinson, who presented a number of programs on the subject over the years.
Tradition says that the Irish built the canal, but many of those canal workers moved on to build other canals in the United States, Dickinson writes. But there’s no question that the Irish had a presence here — as evidenced not only by the many Irish names on stones in Lockport’s St. Patricks’s Cemetery and others around the county, but census numbers of the time.
According to Dickinson’s research, many of the Irish came to the area in the period from about 1835 to 1850, mostly right around 1845 (the year the Great Famine of Ireland began). By 1850, the Irish (first and second generation) population of Niagara County was 5,553 people — 13 percent of the county’s population of 42,276, a whopping 54 percent of which lived in the Town of Lockport (which is 24 percent Irish at that time.)
By 1855, 38.5 percent of the population of Lockport was Irish, Dickinson writes, and of all the soldiers at Fort Niagara in 1860, 60 percent of them were born in Ireland.
No matter how many of the canal workers stuck around, Niagara County’s Irish immigrants are inextricably linked with the construction of the Erie Canal. Lockport’s Big Bridge is the site of a monument commissioned by Lockport’s William J. Ryan chapter of the Ancient Order of Hibernians at the suggestion of Assemblyman Matthew Murphy of Lockport, according to a 1989 story in the Niagara Gazette.