WHEN author Richard Sullivan began researching his family history from his home in Hawaii a number of years ago, he had no idea it would lead all the way to Ennis and the colourful life of his great-great grandfather, John Sullivan.
His research has been used to create the novels The First Ward and its follow-up The First Ward II – Fingy Connors and the New Century as part of a planned trilogy. The novels recall the immigration of the Irish to Buffalo and the saga of his Ennis ancestor John Sullivan and Mary McGrady of Limerick as they began their new life in a new country.
Richard, who was born and raised in Buffalo, explained, “The First Ward is about a much-despised new immigrant group to America, the Irish, emigrating to Buffalo and basically taking over and not in an especially honorable way. It’s about my family, most of whom I only fully discovered recently, warts and all, thanks to the publicity they engendered that has been newly made available online via historic documents.
“It’s about their childhood life-long friend Fingy Conners, who enslaved thousands of laboring families in a diabolical system of waterfront employment that was literally indentured servitude and his fanatical control of politicians, of the police department, the entire Democratic Party of New York State, the entirety of the shipping trade on the Great Lakes, his ownership of powerful newspapers, of his importing brutal thugs from New York City and Chicago to murder and maim in Buffalo and his fierce battles with the leaders of the Catholic Church who sought to free the workers from his domination. It’s about America’s most beloved author, Mark Twain, who was editor and co-owner of The Buffalo Express newspaper, as experienced through the eyes of my great-grandfather who, as a boy, worked for Mr Twain.”
Richard, a former photographer for The Los Angeles Times who has previously published photo guidebooks of Hawaii and a fitness book for older people, explained it was his sister, Barbara, “the family genealogist” who first set the wheels in motion for the creation of this book.
“A few years ago, she sent me some names and I went online to Google and immediately, I began to find fascinating and troubling stuff about family members and discovered quite a few new relatives in the process. Seeing my ancestors’ names on the front page of The New York Times as the leaders in a shameful scandal was wonderful. The First Ward follows my family from the time they boarded a ship from Ireland to the US, to their final destination in the Irish ward in Buffalo that to this day is still iconically Irish. It was a highly industrial, very polluted, rowdy, saloon-filled working-class neighborhood whose Irish politicians came to control the entire city.
“I found lots of dazzling information and I would entertain my friend next-door with these discoveries at our sunset wine get-togethers where we watch the whales breach right offshore. She said, ‘You couldn’t make this stuff up if you tried. You should turn it into a novel.’ So, I began and it flowed together very naturally. My great-great grandfather, John Sullivan, died in the US Civil War, leaving his family in extremely dire circumstances and what I learned from his military records, obtained from the National Archives, alone would make a novel in itself.
“His two sons became a police detective and a powerful and corrupt city politician respectively and they ran with a diabolical crowd, so it makes for a great story. Most of The First Ward is true, heavily and overwhelmingly imbued with actual history.”
However, he insists, “Despite all the historical accuracy, The First Ward is still a novel. When people who have read The First Ward believe that something that is actual historical fact was conjured up by me, or they think that something that I made up is a historical fact, then I know I’ve done my job well. Two-thirds or more is actual history. Hundreds of news articles exist that tell the tale of my Sullivan ancestors. I excerpted a number of these word-for-word in the book. There is a fantastic amateur website, www.fultonhistory.com that has something like 14 million newspaper pages scanned or microfilmed and searchable. Much of the content is barely readable, so faded or poorly made were the microfilms but doggedly I searched using all kinds of criteria and was greatly rewarded. Because so much of the content is unreadable by the OCR software, there is still much in there left to be discovered. The trick is finding a way to get at this information, buried as it is within these pages that are there online, yet unsearchable.”
Richard explained that he knew nothing of his family’s connection to Ennis until he began his research. “I discovered John Sullivan through intensive research. Neither of my grandmothers would tell us anything about our family history — not even about our dead grandfathers. So I grew up believing we had some terrible secrets and I was right but there was much to be proud of as well. When I finally tracked back to John Sullivan from Ennis, it was a wonderful feeling. Recently, an American version of the British TV show Who Do You think You Are? aired, and I found that I felt the same as these celebrities who had newly discovered their family’s past, that it truly does expand who you are as a human, your world view. There’s a lot of tragedy and some shameful things in my family’s past but no matter, it suddenly protracted my horizons as a person, connecting me in unprecedented ways with history and I found that enthralling. I know John Sullivan is very common name but I’m hoping I can find some record of him in Clare. I’ve hit a wall in that respect,” he concluded.