The Irish are a wandering people. They had to be, what with the conflicts they had at home with their British overlords, as well as the famines that devastated the island in the early 19th Century. New Orleans, along with New York and Baltimore, was one of the ports regularly used by British shipping companies to move raw goods such as tobacco, sugar, and indigo back to the U.K. Navigating an empty ship across the Atlantic was difficult, so the Irish found it easy to book passage on these ships, escaping the horrible life at home.
Even though they arrived with next to nothing, the Irish who stayed in New Orleans had a significant impact on the city and its culture. Here are ten areas where the Irish made (and continue to make) major contributions.
Ten Irish Contributions to New Orleans
1. The New Basin Canal — Simply put, the New Basin Canal would never have been built were it not for the Irish. It extended through Lakeview, through Mid-City, ending at a turning basin at S. Rampart St. and Howard Avenue. Construction of the canal began in 1831. Because the land between the city and the lake was, for the most part, mosquito-infested swamps, the canal’s investors could not contract with slave owners for labor. The owners of slaves knew there would be a good chance their slaves would contract yellow fever or malaria, and dying slaves were not profitable. The Irish were coming off the ships in large numbers, and had no work. They took the canal-building jobs. Large numbers of them did get sick and die; estimates range from four to thirty thousand men lost. The deaths didn’t discourage the Irish, as they had nothing to return to back home. Upon its completion in 1838, the New Basin Canal became an important part of New Orleans’ commercial success for the rest of the 19th Century.
The New Basin Canal became less important economically in the 20th Century, and the city filled it in after World War II. There is a memorial out on the long green “neutral ground” between Pontchartrain and West End Boulevards in Lakeview — a Celtic cross honoring the men who gave their lives digging the canal.
2. Faith — It’s what kept the Irish going, even in the face of the worst cards in the deck being dealt to them. The Irish in the city asked the bishop to grant them their own parish on the Uptown side of Canal Street in 1833, where they established St. Patrick’s, building a cathedral-sized church to honor their patron. The church was completed in 1840. By the 1850s, even more Irish emigrated to New Orleans, moving further uptown. The diocese created a second parish, which included most of the old city of Lafayette (now the Lower Garden District and the Garden District and the Irish Channel). In 1857, the Irish community dedicated St. Alphonsus Church, directly across the street from St. Mary’s Assumption Church, which served the German Community. St. Alphonsus and St. Mary’s were two of the three churches of the uptown “Redemptorist Parish.”
3. Finance — Like most of the ethnic communities that settled in New Orleans, the Irish founded their own social societies. These societies helped the community pool resources to start business ventures, buy houses, etc. By 1870, a group of Irish investors incorporated Hibernia National Bank. A century later, Hibernia was the largest bank in Louisiana. The headquarters building occupies the entire 400 block of Carondelet Street in the Central Business District. It was the tallest building in Louisiana until the current state capitol building was built in 1932.
4. Work Ethic – The stereotypical “drunken Irishman” doesn’t do justice to the hard work and strong work ethic demonstrated by most Irish men and women in New Orleans. The best example of the Irish work ethic was Margaret Haughery. She started working a dairy cart, and eventually owned one of the busiest bakeries in the city. Like many Irish, Margaret never forgot where she came from, and her philanthropy was extensive. She is regarded as a saint by many, for the help she gave.
5. Design — Ask folks from New Orleans about architecture and the Galliers, father and son, will be on anybody’s list of the best. What many don’t realize is that James Gallier, Sr., changed his name from Gallagher, so he could get more design jobs from the French-Spanish Creoles. The original New Orleans families often did not trust immigrants, but they would trust a “Gallier.” His son, James Gallier, Jr., inherited his dad’s design skill. The City Hall building designed by Junior is still on Canal Street. As Gallier Hall, that building is the “ceremonial” seat of city government.
6. Music — Song and dance have long been part of Irish culture. The Irish influence has naturally blended into the gumbo that is New Orleans in general, but several local venues regularly feature Irish musicians. You’ll find Beth Patterson, Ruth Navarre, and others at Kerry Irish Pub and The Irish House.
7. Food — When you catch that cabbage, you’ll want to cook it! Corned beef and cabbage, the classic “Irish boiled dinner” is traditional food in New Orleans. While some places like Parasol’s and Tracey’s feature local cuisine, such as po-boys, The Irish House is a gastropub offering a solid menu of Irish creations. Chef Matt Murphy loves to adapt local ingredients to classic Irish stylings.
8. Soldiers — Involvement in the military affairs of Louisiana by the Irish goes back to the first settlers. Many Irishmen left their country to serve in the armies of Catholic countries in Europe, most notably Spain’s. In the mid-1700s, a Dubliner, Alexander O’Reilly, entered the Spanish army and rose to hold several important commands. In 1769, he was ordered to New Orleans, to put down a rebellion of French Creoles who expelled the first Spanish governor, Antonio de Ulloa.
Many Irishmen joined the American Army upon their arrival in the country in the 19th Century. Irish laborers served in the 1st Special Batallion, Louisiana Volunteers, as well as the 6th and 7th Louisiana Infantry Regiments. After Louisiana’s return to the Union, Irishmen continued to serve their country in all branches of the service. A new generation of Irish-Americans from New Orleans carries this tradition forward.
9. Community — From the beginning, the Irish in New Orleans stuck together. They lived near the wharves along the river, because that was the cheapest housing available. The main neighborhood for the community, the “Irish Channel,” is basically the area on the river side of Magazine Street, opposite of the Garden District. Magazine Street was the main dividing line between the rich and poor neighborhoods. Together, both areas became part of the “Redemptorist Parish,” named so because priests of the Redemptorist order staffed the three churches in the neighborhood. The Irish community of New Orleans now extends far beyond the Irish Channel, but that neighborhood is regarded as its spiritual center. The Irish church of the Redemptorist Parish, St. Alphonsus, has been de-consecrated as a liturgical building (St. Mary’s Assumption, across the street is the parish church), and now the church is used as a meeting, event, and concert venue. The church is maintained by a non-profit group, the Friends of St. Alphonsus. FOSA sponsor a number of events throughout the year, promoting Irish culture and raising funds to support the church building.
In the French Quarter, the pubs aren’t the only venues keeping the Irish traditions alive. In 2012, the Irish Cultural Museum opened its doors at 933 Conti Street. The museum, open on weekends and by appointment, tells the story of the Irish in the city through a documentary film, exhibits, and interactive kiosks. The Museum holds parties and other events, featuring Irish music and other entertainment.
10. Flying Cabbages! We Irish are, if nothing else, an entertaining lot. We gather as families and neighborhoods for no reason other than the weather is nice on a Saturday afternoon. For St. Patrick’s Day, there are five parades, two in New Orleans, two in Metairie, and one in St. Bernard, between March 15 to April 6. Yes, they really do throw cabbages from the floats!
In addition to those celebrations, Irish pubs around town are festive places year-round. Finn McCool’s gets national recognition as a top pub, and they serve a proper breakfast, while showing English football on Saturday mornings. Kerry Irish Pub and Erin Rose in the French Quarter, Mick’s Irish Pub in Mid City, Parasol’s and Tracey’s in the Irish Channel, and The Irish House on St. Charles Avenue all contribute to the Irish inspired nightlife scene in New Orleans.
New Orleans’ Irish roots are so strong, the city’s been selected as the location for the International Irish Famine Commemoration, scheduled for November 6-9, 2014.
Edward Branley is the author of New Orleans: The Canal Streetcar Line, Brothers of the Sacred Heart in New Orleans, and Maison Blanche Department Stores, in Arcadia Publishing’s Images of America series. He is also author of Legendary Locals of New Orleans. Branley’s latest book, New Orleans Jazz, will be available at bookstores and online on April 7th. He is owner of Yatmedia LLC (Social Media for Social Justice), and is @NOLAHistoryGuy on Twitter.