Irish Channel

Behind the Irish Channel: New Orleans’ connections to Ireland

Close your eyes and imagine walking around New Orleans today and hearing an Irish accent from one out of every four residents. It must have been an amazing place to live.

by Matt Haines | March 13, 2019

St. Patrick’s Day is upon us, and since we haven’t had a parade in a whole week, it can’t come soon enough! But while New Orleanians have a general understanding that Irish immigrants played a role in shaping this city, I think we’re fuzzy on some of the details.

For example, by the 1880s, the neighborhood encompassed by Magazine Street to the north, First Street (approximately) to the east, the Mississippi River to the south and Toledano Street (give or take) to the west had been given the name, “Irish Channel.” But how did it get that name?

Some say it’s because the Irish “channeled” into the area during the earlier decades of the 19th century. Others say it’s because heavy rains would pool up in the streets of this neighborhood heavily populated by Irish immigrants. Or maybe it was meant to be a jocular reference to a stretch of the waterway separating Ireland and England — referred to as the “Irish Channel” in the 19th century. “Hey, guys, it’s practically the Irish Channel over here!”

Who knows? Not us.

And how Irish did the Irish Channel get? Actually, not as Irish as we tend to think. While there was a large proportion of Irish immigrants in the neighborhood by the middle of the 1800s, it was really more of an immigrant neighborhood, in general. In fact, there were more Germans in the neighborhood than Irish; and the numbers of French, British, and African-Americans were also sizable.

But that’s not to say, there weren’t a lot of Irish in New Orleans. They just didn’t all settle in that one neighborhood. I was so surprised to read that, by 1850 , somewhere between 20 percent and 25 percent of the city was Irish!

Close your eyes and imagine walking around New Orleans today and hearing an Irish accent from one out of every four residents. It must have been an amazing place to live.

Our city was home to the largest number of immigrants from Ireland in the American South, and those immigrants did so much to build our current home. So let’s look at how they got here, what they did once they were here, and how we can honor those contributions during this week leading up to St. Patrick’s Day.

The colonial Irish

Another common misconception is that immigration from Ireland to New Orleans began in earnest during the Potato Famine of the mid-19th century. Actually, the Irish began arriving once the Spanish took over Louisiana from France in 1763.

In fact, Louisiana’s second governor under Spanish rule was Alejandro O’Reilly, an Irishman by birth who enlisted in the Spanish army to serve a Catholic monarch. (Why? More on this later.)

O’Reilly was sent to New Orleans to restore order after more than 500 French, German and Acadian Louisianians — who preferred French rule to Spanish rule — banded together to expel the previous Spanish governor, Antonio de Ulloa.

When O’Reilly arrived in 1769, he did so with 2,000 Spanish soldiers — many of them Irish. He invited 12 French leaders of the rebellion against Ulloa to dinner. (If I was them, I wouldn’t have accepted this invitation, but they did.)

After hearing their account of the events, O’Reilly ordered six of them to death. The street on which they were executed earned the name “Frenchmen Street,” and the governor earned the nickname, “Bloody O’Reilly.”

When New Orleanians think of early Irish immigrants to the city, we tend to think of them as poor and working class. In the 1700s, that was not the case. The Irish generally arrived for military service or business. Many remained in the city long after O’Reilly had left, with jobs as wide-ranging and lofty as running the area’s militia, negotiating with Native Americans, and supplying the entirety of the army with flour.

But why did so many Irish choose to serve the Spanish monarch? In short, largely Catholic Ireland was being ruled — and largely persecuted against — by Protestant Britain.

The British government enacted brutal penal laws during the 17th and 18th centuries that were far-reaching, but had the combined effect of economically destroying Ireland’s Catholic subjects. For example, plots of land that had been owned by a family for centuries, could now be taken from them just because that family happened to be Catholic.

Rather than endure persecution, many Irish families emigrated to Catholic countries like Spain and France. Then, after a 1798 uprising in Ireland failed to end British rule, a larger wave of Catholics decided to leave their home country rather than face continued persecution; and many came to places in America friendly to Catholicism, such as New Orleans.Passage from Ireland to the New World wasn’t cheap, so, like the wave that had arrived in earlier decades, these Irish weren’t poor. This group tended to be in the middle class and worked as financiers, doctors, attorneys, educators, journalists, printers, and more.

But the Irish that arrived after the failed 1798 rebellion were more likely to come directly from Ireland and with a strong sense of Irish heritage. They created their own local militia — the Republican Greens — the first Irish charitable and social club, and even an organization — the Friends of Ireland — which collected money to send back to pro-Catholic candidates in Ireland.

This growing community would be attractive to an even bigger wave of Irish immigrants arriving just decades later.

A Green Wave

During the 1820s and 1830s, a second wave of Irish immigrants arrived in Louisiana. But worsening conditions back home meant this group was much poorer than the first.

Many of them were escaping the economic depression afflicting all of Europe due to the Napoleonic Wars, which ended in 1815. Ireland’s high population density — as well as a series of poor harvests and periodic famines — motivated many residents to leave their homes.

The booming cotton business also contributed. Ships would depart the Mississippi River for Europe, full of cotton. Rather than return empty, they would offer cheap passage to Europeans looking for opportunity in America. And the squalor conditions impoverished Irish met on these ships earned them the nickname, “Floating Coffins.”

The antebellum period was a golden era for New Orleans’ economy and the hope of opportunity — plus the heavily Irish and Catholic populations — made for an appealing destination. Officials also tricked many immigrants, however, convincing them the major Irish centers of the Northeast — like Boston, New York and Philadelphia — were much closer than they actually were.

Like in much of America, Irish immigrants in New Orleans helped to build rail lines, roads and canals. They arrived in the city in large numbers in the 1830s, which is the same decade the Pontchartrain Railroad and the New Basin Canal were finished. (It wouldn’t paint the complete picture, however, to say that Irishmen only helped to build the infrastructure. Several of their countrymen also held stake in a company that owned and financed the projects.)

Building the New Basin Canal was an especially dangerous job. The canal was built as a shipping lane from Lake Pontchartrain through the swamp to the booming “American” business district of the city. It was meant to compete with the Carondelet Canal that connected the lake to the rival Creole downtown portion of the city in the Treme and French Quarter.

Clearing swamps exposed workers to yellow fever,cholera and many other deadly diseases. Mortality rates were so high, slave owners didn’t want to risk the lives of their human property on the project. New Irish immigrants, on the other hand, were considered expendable, with boatloads of poor, Irish flooding the city and willing to perform back-breaking work for $1 per day. From 1832 to 1838, it’s estimated that between 8,000 and 20,000 immigrants died digging the canal.

The New Basin Canal stretched from present-day West End Boulevard and Robert E Lee Boulevard (in the 19th century, this was the lakefront) all the way to today’s Union Passenger Terminal at the edge of the Central Business District. It served its intended purpose for more than 100 years, and was filled in by about 1950.

Most of the dead were buried in unmarked graves wherever they died along the canal, so — in November of 1990 — the Irish Cultural Society of New Orleans dedicated a large Kilkenny marble Celtic cross in New Basin Canal Park to commemorate the Irish workers who labored on the city-changing project.

The Great Potato Famine and a growing community
By the 1840s, Britain’s Penal laws had, both, directly and indirectly resulted in an overreliance on the potato. The average Irish man, for example, was eating more than 14 pounds of potatoes every single day!

So when a natural potato blight destroyed much of the potato crop between 1845 and 1849, it became a devastating crisis. For example, in 1844, 8.5 million people lived in Ireland. Over the next 10 years, nearly 2 million of those would leave the country, and another 1 million would remain and die as a result of the famine. By 1911, the population of Ireland was only 4.39 million — barely more than half what it was before the crisis!

During the famine, many of the victims able to leave fled to New Orleans, where there was already a growing Irish community. This was a big moment for what would become the Irish Channel.

Through the 1820s, the area was mostly sugar plantations. As it was sold and gradually subdivided, the nascent neighborhood was known as “Lafayette” — not to be annexed by New Orleans until 1852.

During 1840s and ‘50s — as immigrants escaped the Potato Famine — the main point of debarkation was Adele Street, at the edge of the Irish Channel and pretty much where the Walmart sits today.

Those that were fortunate enough to escape the famine and survive passage across the Atlantic arrived at Adele Street with very little money. Most stayed close to where they landed and took up residence in simple accommodations. Construction in the Irish Channel boomed between 1850 and 1890, and the housing type of choice — as it was in many of the poorer areas of the city at this time — was the shotgun home (particularly the shotgun double).

As Irish families settled the neighborhood, it sparked a chain reaction, encouraging more Irish to stay near others from their home country. St. Alphonsus Church was built for the growing Irish Catholic community in 1855 and — one of the few surviving national examples of a richly multicolored church interior predating the 1870s — it has since been declared a National Historic Landmark. Services were so popular in the latter decades of the 1800s that the city added additional street cars to transport the large number of attendees there.

St. Alphonsus was part of a religious complex — referred to as “Ecclesiastical Square” – once occupying five adjacent blocks. This included two other churches — one for the French and one for Germans (St. Mary’s Assumption Church, which is the only church of three still in use today) — an orphanage, nine school buildings, a gymnasium, three churches the priests’ residence and gardens, two convents, stables, a laundry and other supporting buildings!

The entire complex was administered by a section of Catholicism known as Redemptorists. In the decades following World War II, the development of low-income housing in the neighborhood, as well as “White Flight” migration to the suburbs, caused a reduction in the St. Alphonsus’ congregation. It closed in 1979 when the congregations of the three churches were merged, and today it is home to the St. Alphonsus Art and Cultural Center, which is open to visitors every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m.

Working on the docks

While just decades earlier, many Irishmen would have been found digging the New Basin Canal, for example, by the 1850 census, half of the Irish men in New Orleans were listed as employed in a field other than “common laborer.” They were represented in nearly every field, from medicine to education to engineering to one of several local breweries in the Channel. And, like in many other cities across America, they began to dominate the port and the commerce associated with it.

This especially made sense in New Orleans, where so many Irishmen lived in the Irish Channel — a neighborhood directly adjacent to the dock. They worked as mechanics, draymen, screwmen and in a host of other roles.

We often think of Irish immigrants in New Orleans as being victims of their challenging circumstances, but that also wouldn’t be the complete picture. Decades before unions existed, Irish steamboat workers shut down the port several times in the 1850s, refusing to work or to allow anyone to cross the picket line until wages were raised.

They worked collectively to limit the number of screwmen, for example, as a strategy to limit demand and keep wages high. Even the impoverished immigrants working on the New Basin Canal banned together for one of the first successful strikes in the city. And Irish women took advantage of the unmet demand for domestic and service industry workers by negotiating for better working conditions and flexible schedules that better allowed them to meet their familial and community commitments.

But sometimes this collective action could turn into what some called “clannishness.” The Irish often extended economic opportunities to family members and other Irishmen, with reports of Irish mechanics using physical force to intimidate and exclude enslaved workers and free men of color from the trade.

The Irish Channel — especially around the docks — became a haven for thieves and prostitutes, while gang activity centered on the corner of St. Mary Street and Religious Street. Conflicts often generated from ethnic tension in the neighborhood and manifested between groups such as the St. Mary’s Market Gang, the Shot Tower Gang, the Pine Knot Gang, the Ripsaw Gang, the Crowbar Gang, and others.

After Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860, the Irish supported the South’s desire to secede, afraid that an end to slavery would result in free blacks taking their employment and position in society. In New Orleans, it was the Irish community that provided the largest number of recruits to the Confederate army.

Notable Irish(wo)men

Irish immigration to New Orleans slowed dramatically after the Civil War as the South’s economy struggled to recover. But the number of Irish men and women in the Channel who shape our city continues to grow into the present day. Here are just a handful of many possible examples.

Margaret Haughery (aka “The Bread Woman,” “New Orleans’ Bread Woman,” “Mother of Orphans,” “Mother to the Motherless,” and Saint Margaret”) was a 19th century Irish immigrant who used money made from her many businesses — most notably in bakeries — to fund her life’s real mission: to take care of the destitute, to feed the poor, and to build orphanages. Her statue, dedicated on July 9, 1884, in the Lower Garden District, near where Prytania street runs under the Crescent City Connection, is the first publicly erected statue of a woman in the United States, the first monument to an American female philanthropist, and the only known statue to a baker! New Orleans produced many great boxers in the early 20th century. The corner of Rousseau and St. Mary streets hosted so many street fights, it was known as “The Bucket of Blood.” Boxing promoter, Johnny Galway, an Irish Channel resident, would visit the corner to recruit fighters; and boxers from across the country — such as heavyweight champion, John L. Sullivan — would come to New Orleans to train. But local boy, Martin Burke — who fought around the country and was even sparring partner to the famed Jack Dempsey — was idolized most of all in the Channel. Burke became a symbol of Irish Pride and gave hope to the community that “anyone stood a fighting chance.”

Also in the early 1900s, Eleanor McMain served as head resident of the Irish Channel’s Kingsley House, the largest and most influential settlement house in the South. Settlement houses provided services such as daycare, education and healthcare to improve the lives of the poor in the neighborhood they served,and McMain transformed Kingsley House into a focal point of progressive movements in the New Orleans area. She furthered women’s causes in the early years of suffrage and, today, a school on Claiborne Avenue bears her name.

Celebrating St. Patrick’s Day

The first St. Patrick’s Day celebration in New Orleans was held in 1806 and was attended by the governor, as well as several other state dignitaries. It was a warm affair that included dinner and 17 boisterous toasts — with attendees drinking to everything from George Washington to the king of Spain to the Irish shamrock.

The celebration has evolved over the years, but — with few exceptions — it’s typically involved a parade (or many). And even though technological advances eliminated the need for as much man power on the docks — and the neighborhood is now much more African-American and Latino than Irish and German — the Irish Channel remains the central location of festivities.

The neighborhood retains much of its architecture from the late 19th century. Those shotgun houses, plus several breweries and neighborhood bars, remind us what it might have been like to live in the Channel when 1 in 5 New Orleans residents were still Irish!

Matt Haines

Matt Haines

Matt Haines lives in New Orleans and writes about all the cool stuff.
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