Irish in WNY / Congressman Brian Higgins
Building on his Irish history
Photo by Jim Bush
Name: Brian Higgins
Occupation: US Congressman, former history and economics instructor at Buffalo State College
How Irish: Paternal grandfather Patrick Higgins came over as an orphan from County Mayo. Paternal grandmother, Theresa Driscoll, emigrated from County Kerry. His mother’s family, also Irish, emigrated to Canada first and ended up in Buffalo a generation or two later.
Favorite Irish tradition: “The Old First Ward St. Patrick’s Day Parade. The Irish lived in the First Ward when they first came in big numbers—historically, that’s where the factories that employed them were. Because of waterborne disease, living along the waterfront was undesirable. There is a deep pride about the First Ward.”
Favorite Irish book, play, or movie: “There are so many contributions that benefit all Americans. The movie based on the story of Michael Collins, the nationalist leader who negotiated the 1921 Anglo-Irish Treaty, is one of my favorites. Authors include Tim Pat Coogan, Jack Holland, James Joyce. Playwright Samuel Beckett. Van Morrison. Bono.”
Congressman Brian Higgins has a multilayered sense of his “Irishness.” He embodies the history and the ideal of pursuing the American dream, as well as a compulsion to acknowledge a people’s and country’s experience while working to unite them, locally and nationally. From listening to family stories, to his curiosity-fueled travels, to his academic study, to his career as a politician forging relationships, Higgins lives and breathes this “great pursuit.”
As a youngster, Higgins recalls, “Oral history was the way you learned family history—passed down at social functions and funerals; I heard about Ireland’s struggle for independence. That piqued my curiosity.”
Higgins’ history involves paternal grandfather Patrick Higgins shipping over as an orphan from County Mayo. “My grandfather became a bricklayer,” says the congressman. “My dad and uncles followed in his footsteps.” His paternal grandmother, Theresa Driscoll, emigrated from County Kerry. His mother’s side, also Irish, emigrated to Canada earlier and ended up in Buffalo a generation or two later. Higgins grew up in St. Thomas Aquinas Parish in South Buffalo.
“Irish and Irish-Americans have profoundly influenced America and Buffalo,” Higgins says. “Between 1845 to 1849, Buffalo’s population almost doubled—in part because of Irish immigrating during the famine. They sought jobs in America’s northeast urban centers.”
According to Higgins, America’s “great promise,” and its strength is its mosaic-not-melting-pot makeup. “Many groups have contributed to the American experience and had success,” he says. “The Irish, after working in factories, started to become police officers and firefighters. These Irish policemen became familiar with the community—often they would parlay that into political careers.”
Another factor in Irish political success, he adds, is “mastery of linguistics—they are literate; they appreciate the English language.”
Through his own political career, Higgins now has relationships with Irish politicians including Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness. “Traveling to Ireland, you develop your own knowledge of the history,” he says. “I try to instill in my family an appreciation for where they came from. A lot of what I’ve experienced is similar to others.
“Families like mine—who were proud union bricklayers—literally and figuratively created a foundation for the next generation, so they could become lawyers and teachers—and members of Congress.”