The Luck Of The Irish Cab Ride
The Irish are all around us.
Whether you’re ordering a pint of Guinness at Erin Rose or Parasol’s, dining on Dublin-born Chef Matt Murphy’s Bangers and Mash at The Irish House, attending Sunday Mass at St. Patrick's Catholic Church or making a withdrawal from an Hibernia Bank, you’re doing business with the Irish.
According to the Embassy of Ireland in Washington, DC, some 70 million people around the world claim Irish roots. Dr. Laura D. Kelley and the local cab driver that picked her up at the airport 22 years ago are 2 of them.
“He sounded like he was from New York,” historian Kelley said of the cabbie who drove her to Tulane University on her first day in town. “But, he said he was born and raised in ‘The Channel.’ He told me about the Irish in New Orleans, and, like many people, I was unaware there was such a strong Irish heritage and community here and that serious research hadn’t been done with it.”
To paraphrase Ireland's Nobel Prize winning poet, William Butler Yeats, there are no Irish strangers, only friends we haven't met yet. Kelley was on her way to check out Tulane’s Ph.D. program when she met the driver who, obviously, had kissed the Blarney Stone, and whose glib gift of gab steered Kelley towards her life’s work – discovering how the Irish shaped New Orleans and their omnipresent economic influence that still exists today.
Kelley, a professor at Tulane and the Academic Director for Tulane’s “Summer in Dublin” program, is also the author of the newly published “The Irish in New Orleans.”
Octavia Books, located at 513 Octavia St., New Orleans, is hosting a book-signing event for Kelley tonight, Thursday, Dec. 4, at 6:00 p.m.
Kelley’s grandfather, Leo Kelley, was born in Ireland. The 4th of 11 children in his family that made it to adulthood, he immigrated to the U.S. “Growing up, I heard stories about Ireland from him,” Kelley said. “And, I still remember how my Dad was discriminated against for being Irish and an Irish Catholic. That was until John F. Kennedy made being Irish Catholic cool. Fortunately for us, it’s been cool ever since.”
Kelley had lived in Manhattan, the Caribbean, Mexico and Europe, but she was fascinated with the idea of studying in New Orleans, which she considers the most non-American of our nation’s cities. She said the biggest misconception about the Irish in New Orleans is that they were only laborers and ditch diggers. “In fact,” she said, “they represented every occupational field from lawyers to doctors to politicians, blacksmiths and cabinet makers. They helped build the infrastructure of this city and are partially responsible for the golden age of church building as well.”
The Irish started coming to New Orleans at the end of the 1700s in an effort to flee British persecution. Here, they first celebrated St. Patrick’s Day in 1806, Kelley discovered, and they created social clubs and charities, a vibrant theater circuit and built Catholic churches.
Kelley said Ireland’s “Great Famine” of 1845 forced another wave of Irish out of their homeland and to America through 1852. In New Orleans, the Irish found that working along the Mississippi River offered many economic opportunities in a fast growing city. It also led to many deaths, when they toiled on the dangerous New Basin Canal that was to connect Lake Pontchartrain with the area that’s now the Central Business District.
“In 1850, 25% of the population in New Orleans was Irish,” Kelley said. “At the height of the Irish boom the Irish population per capita rivaled that of Boston and Philadelphia, and they added to the dynamics of the city and economic enterprise to the benefit of the city.”
“When the Irish were arriving in the antebellum era, the main work source was the River,” she said. “Then, you lived near where you worked, where you went to church and went to school. The Irish were involved in the River trade along Tchoupitoulas Street.”
According to the Historic District Landmarks Commission, working class Irish, German, French and Italian immigrants, and African Americans, settled near the waterfront docks and lived in simple shotgun cottages in and around the area bound by Jackson Avenue to Delachaise Street and Magazine Street to Tchoupitoulas Street.
“If someone came back from the 1800s, they wouldn’t recognize it today,” Kelley said of The Irish Channel. “It’s changed dramatically. You don’t see the dynamic element of the River now. It’s hidden from site. As important as the Mississippi is today, in many respects you don’t see it on a daily basis. It’s hidden from national consciousness, too. But if you cut off the Mississippi River from the rest of America, you’ll see how important New Orleans is to the national economy.”
The multi-ethnic community of The Irish Channel suffered some hard times due to gang activity, prostitution and thievery, but the region also fostered the growth of historic churches, dance, sports and musicians. The Commission said the area was home to all the members of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, the first jazz band to record an album and tour in Europe.
While the demographics shifted over the years and many homes were torn down to make way for the St. Thomas Development in 1941, the neighborhood is still changing and celebrated today, most notably during St. Patrick’s Day when The Irish Channel parade winds its way through the district and parade float riders throw cabbage, potatoes, onions and carrots needed to make an Irish stew.
“The Irish Network New Orleans has a motto,” Kelley said. “365 not just 3/17.”
It means there should be Irish awareness all year around, she explained, and not just on March 17.
The Irish Network New Orleans (IN-NOLA) has more than 500 members and it’s become one of the largest chapters of the national Irish Network (IN-USA). New Orleans was chosen by the Irish government to host the 2014 Irish Famine Commemoration from Nov. 6 – 9. The international festival honored the struggle and rebirth of the Irish as a result of the potato blight in Europe in the 1840s. IN-NOLA hosted the “green” tie gala at Gallier Hall.
IN-NOLA’s mantra is enforced by many local organizations that focus on keeping the Irish legacy alive: The Irish Channel St. Patrick's Day Club, the Irish Channel Corner Club, the Ancient Order of Hibernians in Louisiana, the Emerald Society of New Orleans, the Friends of St. Alphonsus, Comhaltas Ceoltoiri Eireann/New Basin Canal Branch, the Ulster Project, the Downtown Irish Club, the Daughters of Lir, The Irish Cultural Museum and the Muggivan School of Irish Dance.
When Ireland’s economy took a hit in 2008, Kelley said it led to more Irish immigration to the States and New Orleans. “We saw another outward brain drain, to Ireland’s detriment,” Kelley said. “The Irish who come to New Orleans say it reminds them of home. They hear church bells. People take time to talk to their neighbors. They say moving here and living here is more an extension of home than being a stranger in a strange land.”
From Spanish governor Alejandro “Bloody” O’Reilly to Margaret Haughery, beloved Irish guardian of the city’s orphans, to architects James Gallier, Sr. and Jr. (the Irish descendants’ real last name was Gallagher), to Pat O’Brien’s (during Prohibition the bar was known as Mr. O'Brien's Club Tipperary), to the Irish-American Brennan restaurateur family, who opened their first restaurant in 1946, to Belfast natives, and Mid-City residents, Pauline and Stephen Patterson who own and operate Finn McCool’s and Treo, old and new Irish still command a grand presence in the local landscape that Kelley researched for 10 years for her book.
Kelley said “The Irish in New Orleans,” is visually rich, thanks to the photography of Carrie Lee Pierson Schwartz, and she’s halfway through her second book featuring all the great stories she couldn’t fit into her first one.
“The Irish story is one about a sense of community,” Kelley said. “The Irish are deeply enmeshed in the social, cultural and political fabric of New Orleans. To the Irish, New Orleans represents the very best of the American dream. There are economic opportunities here, and they find acceptance of who they are. New Orleans is an open society with a joie de vivre that continues to attract people.”
“Dublin is a lot like New Orleans,” she said. “They’re both compact, young and vibrant cities with lots to see and do with great music and great food. And, the Irish can laugh during tough times, which, we in New Orleans can identify with. Just look at what we did to our refrigerators after Katrina.”
Kelley will also be signing her book on Saturday, Dec. 13, at an Irish Christmas Celebration at St. Alphonsus Art and Cultural Center, and on Thursday, Dec. 18, at 7:00 p.m., at the New Orleans Athletic Club.