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The Irish Have Been Part Of New Orleans From The Beginning

Paula Burch
Laura D. Kelley in front of St. Alphonsus Church in the heart of the Irish Channel in New Orleans.

There’s a joke that approximately 40 million Americans descend from Irish Immigrants, but on St. Patrick's Day, that number swells to 100 million.

In our latest collaboration with Louisiana Cultural Vistas, Eve Abrams leads us back to New Orleans’ first St. Patrick’s Day festivity and traces why, over 200 years later, we’re still celebrating come March 17.

New Orleans, we know, is a city made of layers. Historian Laura Kelley decided to peel off the Irish one. Why? She explains:

“First of all, my last name is Kelley — and what you find with immigrant historians, they have a tendency to study their own group.”

Kelley’s grandfather is from Ireland, but when she first came to New Orleans, to attend graduate school at Tulane University, she was intending to study the Colonial era.

“And my taxi cab driver from the airport had this New York City accent, and I’m from New York originally,” recalls Kelley. “So I asked him where he was from, and he said he was from the Channel. And I said, ‘The what?’ And he said, ‘The Channel.’ Nobody thinks about New Orleans having an Irish aspect, so right then and there my research focus was born.”

It turns out Irish people have been in New Orleans pretty much from the beginning — during the French period, the Spanish colonial era, and throughout the 19th Century. Each era brought a different type of Irish immigrant, but in her book, The Irish in New Orleans, Kelley wondered:

“When do you move from being a bunch of random Irish people who happen to live here in New Orleans to a community?”

The answer: your first public celebration. And since we’re talking about the Irish, that celebration was St. Patrick’s Day, the holiday for the patron saint of Ireland. It was 1806, just two and a half years after the Louisiana Purchase.

To be clear, this wasn’t necessarily the first time St. Patrick’s Day was celebrated in New Orleans, but it was the first reported in the newspaper. And it was attended by some rather esteemed Irish gentleman, such as the Secretary of State, several judges, and Governor William C.C. Claiborne. The Orleans Gazette printed the toasts:

To the Armies that fight of the independence of their country! To the Army of the United States! To the memory of General Washington!

“There’s a toast to General Washington, not President Washington, which is really striking until you look a little bit deeper in the Irish psyche,” says Kelley. “The Irish are saying, look: we fought in the American Revolution, we fought against England. We fought for the patriot cause. And there’s this similarity between Ireland seeking to become independent of England. And they want to make the audience aware of that comparison.”

Remember, the early 1800s was a time when the rest of the world still thought of the United States as an experiment. These toasts were a way for the Irish to show what good American citizens they were, and also to point out how their homeland was seeking freedom from the same superpower the United States had.

But there were 17 toasts that day, and some were about showing loyalty a little more locally.

To the Irish Shamrock — may it find a congenial soil in the plains of Louisiana!
To the three C’s of Louisiana – Cane, Cotton, and Corn!
To the Fair Ladies of Louisiana – may the sons of St. Patrick ever deserve and be blessed with their smiles!

Louisiana, French-speaking and Catholic, was a little foreign and scary to the rest of the country. But the Catholic Irish felt they could fit with both Americans and white Creoles. Which is one reason parts of New Orleans became very Irish.

“If you want to know where the Irish settled, and this is true for any immigrant group, look and see where their churches are,” says Kelley.

The first in New Orleans is seven blocks upriver from Canal Street — St. Patrick’s, naturally — formed in 1832. From there the Irish churches move Uptown, to places we now call the CBD or the Warehouse District, which were once heavily Irish.

As for the neighborhood known as the Irish Channel, where it is, or was, depends on who you ask and when you asked. Generally speaking, it spans from Felicity Street to Jackson Avenue, between the river and the Lower Garden District. Or to some, it’s two blocks of Adele Street. Why this matters in the Channel, says Kelley, is being Irish determined whether or not you belonged.

Kelley says the feeling was “very much you’re part of the Channel, and then there’s the rest of New Orleans. If you are a stranger and come in you’ll be stopped on the street and asked 'who are you? What are you doing here?' And if you don’t have the right answer you will be ejected.”

There’s little risk of that today, but the value of community and being together in public places is still strong for both Irish-born and Irish Americans. It’s one reason why many of them stayed here.

“New Orleans reminded them of home,” Kelley explains. “They wake up in the morning, they hear the church bells ringing. People stop any time of the day — at the streetcar, in the store — and they talk. They ask after your family, after your mother, they’re not in a rush, that community is first, having a good time with everybody, sort of a joyous outlook on life. So much of that reminded them of home.”

Even though, at first, they were strangers and immigrants, in New Orleans the Irish found another place to call home.

This story of the Irish in New Orleans is part of a collaboration with Louisiana Cultural Vistas Magazine. Laura Kelley’s article “The Irish in New Orleans” appears in the Fall 2014 magazine and website, LouisianaCulturalVistas.org

Eve Abrams first fell in love with stories listening to her grandmother tell them; it’s been an addiction ever since.

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