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Arts & Culture

The Odd Couple: New Orleans’ Irish-Italian Phenomenon

A love of parties and parades provides common ground for New Orleans’ Irish and Italian cultures, resulting in the annual Irish-Italian parade.

Chianti/Guinness. Muffaletta/Corned Beef Reuben. Volare/Oh, Danny Boy. What could New Orleans’ Italian and Irish communities possibly have in common, you ask? Answer: the desire to parade and party! Besides the separate celebrations of Irish heritage on St. Patrick’s Day and Italian heritage on St. Joseph’s Day in New Orleans, they unite for the Irish-Italian parade!

The Irish-Italian Parade has been rolling through Metairie since 1983, when a jovial Irishman decided “it was time.” During his term as president of the Krewe of Zeus, Eddie Renton, Sr., saw his St. Patrick’s Day Marching Club outgrow Metairie’s parade, so he took the opportunity to invite his Italian friends to join together in forming a cross-cultural phenomenon.

New Orleans Irish-Italian parade
Irish and Italians marching side by side at the 2010 parade (Photo courtesy of http://www.lairish-italian.org)

The coming together of these two groups is especially interesting considering their history of bad blood. A wave of Irish immigrants arrived in New Orleans at the end of the 18th century, while the majority of Italians (mostly Sicilians, actually) got here in the 1880s. They were not pals.

Tension between the two groups escalated and erupted in 1890, when many believed Italian immigrants were responsible for the murder of Police Chief David Hennessey. Over a hundred men were arrested, but later released. When a trial resulted in acquittals, a mob stormed the jail and murdered eleven Italians. A rather colorful vignette at the Musee Conti Wax Museum depicts the event, should you require visual interpretation.

Obviously, New Orleans’ Italians and Irish have since mended fences, enjoying a series of festive events leading up to the parade. A luncheon is held at the Hilton in January to introduce the new grand marshals (one representing each group). A week before the parade rolls, the groups come together for a toasting party and a dinner dance, both featuring Irish and Italian delicacies.

The existence of such an event illustrates the phenomenon that is New Orleans’ extraordinary multiculturalism. Not only have multiple cultures managed to retain and celebrate their own customs and cuisines for centuries, but the city’s incredible sense of community allows them all to coexist, intermingle, and create fabulously uncommon events. An Irish-Italian parade – who’d have thunk it? The whole world could learn a lesson from this amazing coalition!

Preceding the Irish-Italian parade are the individual processions of each culture, first this weekend at the Italian-American St. Joseph’s Day parade at 6:00 p.m. in the French Quarter and then on March 17 at one of the many St. Patrick’s Day parades.

If you think that’s cool, there’s a parade in St. Bernard Parish that includes Irish, Italians, and Islenos – the Spanish/Canary Islanders who arrived in the region in the 1700s!

This year’s Irish-Italian parade rolls on Sunday, March 18 at noon. For more information on the route and history of the parade, please visit their site. For more information on the history of Italians in New Orleans and the Southeast, visit the American Italian Museum

Still more left to be desired on New Orleans Irish traditions? This GoNOLA Radio podcast will give you the lowdown on St. Patrick’s Day and Celtic New Orleans.

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