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Arts & Culture

NOLA History: The Irish in New Orleans

History of the Irish in New Orleans in celebration of St. Patrick’s Day, beginning with the Irishmen who built the New Basin Canal and earned citizenship.

For some, St. Patrick’s Day in New Orleans might seem like just an extension of Mardi Gras, an excuse to keep partying and parading. To the contrary, the Irish have long played an important role in the formation and growth of the city, so the holiday is not only a time for revelry, but a time to celebrate the unique Irish heritage in New Orleans.

The earliest Irishmen to come to New Orleans did so with the French and Spanish. The British government ruled Ireland in the 17th and 18th centuries as hostile, conquered, territory. The Irish were not allowed to vote or to own land, and serious restrictions were placed on the Catholic Church in Ireland by their overlords, who belonged to the Church of England. It got to the point where ambitious Irishmen would leave their mother country for various cities in Europe to make their way in life.

One of the most common escapes for a young Irishman was to join the British army, but that was just too unpleasant an idea for some, so they took ship for Spain, joining with the Spanish (who were also Catholic) against the British. Many of these “Wild Geese” rose to positions of authority in the Spanish army and government. That is how Alexander (Alejenadro) O’Reilly made his way to Havana, Cuba, eventually becoming Louisiana’s second Spanish governor, and the first Irishman to hold a government position in New Orleans.

By the time New Orleans was sold to the United States, the British had well and truly made a total mess out of governing Ireland. The Irish soon discovered they had mutual interests with British shippers and merchants doing business with the United States. These merchants would load their ships with raw materials from the former colonies: cotton, indigo, tobacco, and other goods. They would offload them in Liverpool and other ports, and return across the Atlantic for more. The empty ships didn’t sail well, however, so the captains would load them with ballast. With so many Irish deciding to take their chances in the United States, the ship captains began to fill their ships with human ballast. They would stop first in Boston, New York, and Baltimore to unload their passengers, then head to the southern states. Some of the Liverpool captains would simply go straight to New Orleans, lying to the Irish by telling them they wouldn’t be all that far from family in New York. It didn’t take long before the Irish had “family in New Orleans,” though, and folks actually booked passage to the city intentionally.

Finding work in the United States was always a challenge for the Irish. There was always the army, but because the U.S. Army was dominated by officers of British and protestant descent, that wasn’t all that much better than joining the British army. Day labor was the best alternative in the Northern states, but the South already had a cheap labor force. Still, there were many jobs that were simply too dangerous or unhealthy for slaves to do which gave slaves too much of an opportunity for escape. In New Orleans, construction of the New Basin Canal was one of those jobs. The canal, which ran from Uptown out to Lake Pontchartrain, required that miles of swampland be drained and cleared, then the canal dug. No slave owner was willing to risk his farm labor on such a project. The Irish were willing to take those jobs, however, even though thousands (estimates range from a low of 4,000 to a high of 30,000) perished from yellow fever. Those who survived settled into the riverfront neighborhood on the south side of Magazine Street from the Garden District, in what was originally the city of Lafayette. Others made their way up the Mississippi River, establishing small farms in what is now Kenner and Destrehan. Others went the opposite direction, settling along what is now called “Irish Bayou,” resuming their West-of-Ireland lives as fishermen.

With the completion of the New Basin Canal in 1838, the Irish who survived that project were now established as part of New Orleans. The Catholic parish of St. Patrick was established in 1833, and the grand St. Patrick’s Church on Camp Street was built in 1840. This foothold in the community enabled Irish families escaping from the Great Famine of the 1840s. By the 1850s, the Irish had the means to build a second church, St. Alphonsus on Constance Street, near Third Street. That way, they didn’t have to go to Mass with the French or the Germans in the neighborhood.

Hard work and solid investments in the Irish community, as well as the city at large, enabled many Irishmen to become successful business owners, some of them becoming wealthy in their own right. Margaret Haughery arrived from Ireland in Baltimore, then moved to New Orleans, where she operated a dairy cart, eventually opening her own bakery. Even when Margaret didn’t have much profit from the cart or the bakery, she still gave what she had to help feed orphans. When she died in 1882, she had become one of the city’s greatest philanthropists, helping others rise out of the slum conditions of the Irish Channel.

James Gallagher, Sr., converted his last name to a more-French style, and as James Gallier, became one of New Orleans’ leading architects. As in other American cities, the Irish took jobs in law enforcement. In 1888, David Hennessy, a man of Irish descent, was appointed chief of police in New Orleans. Hennessy was aggressive in combating the influence and moves of the Italian Mafia in the city. Hennessy was assassinated in 1890. It was widely believed the Italian Mafia in the city was behind the assassination. When those suspected of being behind the plot were acquitted at trial, others took the law into their own hands, lynching those who stood trial.

new orleans food
Grilled Ginger and Whiskey Shrimp over a potato, broccoli and cheddar cake with fresh tomato remoulade, one of Cheff Matt Murphy’s creations at The Irish House (author’s photo)

Since the 19th Century, the Irish have become part of the gumbo that is New Orleans. Several organizations keep the heritage of Ireland alive and well. Irish pubs and restaurants, such as Finn McCool’s in Mid City and The Irish Houseon St. Charles Avenue, offer the charm, atmosphere, food, and, yes, the drinks of the old country. Carnival-style clubs march and parade for St. Patrick’s Day annually. In suburban Metairie, the Irish and Italians mended their fences and now celebrate both of their patrons (St. Joseph for the Italians) in a single parade.

Because that’s how it’s done in New Orleans.

Shameless self-promotion: Alejandro O’Reilly, David Hennessy, and Margaret Haughery are all Legendary Locals of New Orleans.

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. His latest book, Legendary Locals of New Orleans, is available at bookstores and online. He is owner of Yatmedia LLC (Social Media for Social Justice), and is @Yatpundit on Twitter.

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