This month New Orleans celebrates St. Patrick’s Day with parades and parties dedicated to the city’s Irish heritage. Our partner site, KnowLA, The Digital Encyclopedia of Louisiana History and Culture, offers this history of Irish immigrants and their descendants in Louisiana, written by Dr. Laura Kelley of Tulane University.
Irish immigrants and their descendants formed one of the largest European ethnic groups in Louisiana, and particularly in New Orleans, which served as a major port of entry for émigrés to the United States. Only a small number of Irish residents lived in the Crescent City in the late eighteenth century; however, by 1850, one in five residents was from Ireland, and New Orleans had emerged as the city with the largest Irish population in the South. The Irish came to New Orleans primarily for the economic opportunities associated with the thriving port city but also because it was predominantly Catholic. On their arrival, they established strong, cohesive neighborhoods centered on local churches that were often financed and built by their respective communities.
Early Irish Immigration
Irish immigrants first came to Louisiana during the Spanish colonial period (1763–1800). After a 1798 uprising in Ireland failed to end British rule, many Irish left rather than face continued persecution. In fact, Louisiana’s second governor under Spanish rule was Alejandro O’Reilly, an Irishman by birth who had enlisted in the Spanish army so that he could serve a Catholic monarch. Irish emigrants, especially political exiles, frequently fled to the United States in general and to Louisiana in particular. The high cost of the journey from Liverpool to New York suggests that these early arrivals were primarily members of the middle class rather than the very poor, as is often erroneously suggested. In contrast to later Irish immigrants, these individuals integrated quickly, married local Creoles, and participated in the thriving port trade rather than agriculture. Many worked as financiers, doctors, attorneys, educators, journalists, and printers.
But integration did not keep the Irish from expressing their ethnicity and establishing their own community. The first St. Patrick’s Day celebration in New Orleans took place in 1809. In 1813, the city’s Irish residents formed their own militia, the Republican Greens. The Hibernian Society, the first Irish charitable and social club, was established four years later. In 1828, locals formed the Friends of Ireland and raised $1,500 to send to Daniel O’Connell, founder of the Catholic Association in Ireland, in support of his campaign for Catholic emancipation within the United Kingdom.
During the 1820s and 1830s, a second wave of Irish immigrants arrived in Louisiana. Many of them were escaping the economic depression afflicting all of Europe at the end of the Napoleonic Wars (1803–1815). Ireland’s high population density as well as a series of poor harvests and periodic famines motivated many residents to leave. At the same time, reduced transatlantic shipping rates — a result of the cotton boom — made it cheaper for them to do so.
The steady but slow stream of Irish immigrants to the city in the early 1800s swelled to a flood when the Irish Potato Famine struck in 1845. This event fueled a mass migration that would continue for another ten years. Other Irish immigrants, instead of sailing directly to New Orleans, chose to come to Louisiana using the overland route.
In Louisiana, as in the rest of the nation, Irish immigrants helped dig canals, hew roads, and build rail lines. The Irish provided the bulk of the labor to build the Pontchartrain Railroad and the New Basin Canal in New Orleans, finished in 1831 and 1838, respectively. Moreover, two Irishmen — Maunsel White and Charles Byrne — held major stakes in the New Orleans Canal and Banking Company, which owned and financed the canal. The difficulty of clearing local swamps and dangers of yellow fever, cholera, and other diseases contributed to a high mortality rate among the nascent immigrant community. Though the exact number is unknown, estimates indicate that between two thousand and twenty thousand Irish lost their lives while building the canal. Contemporary passenger ship bills and other transportation records do not substantiate the higher number, but the loss was devastating, whatever the exact toll.
Contrary to popular belief, the Irish were not only employed as common laborers: half of the Irish men listed in the 1850 New Orleans census had other occupations. Irish males were represented in nearly every field — from medicine to education to engineering. As in other cities, the Irish came to dominate the port and the commerce associated with it, often working as mechanics, draymen, and screwmen (skilled workers who used jackscrews to lodge cotton bales in the holds of sailing vessels).
Sometimes noted for their “clannishness,” the Irish often extended economic opportunities to family members and other Irishmen. This practice was also used as an effective bargaining tool and, on occasion, resulted in collective action. The first labor strike occurred in the 1830s, during the building of the New Basin Canal, which was largely dug by poor Irish immigrants. Also during that decade, Irish mechanics used physical force to intimidate enslaved workers and free men of color and to exclude them from the trade.
In the 1850s, Irish steamboat workers shut down the port of New Orleans on several occasions, refusing to work or allow anyone else to cross the picket lines. Captains and cotton factors were forced to negotiate with the strikers, and higher wages resulted. In 1851, the Irish also helped to organize the first proto-union, the Independent Screwmen’s Benevolent Society in New Orleans. This group limited the number of screwmen to fewer than five hundred, thereby keeping demand — as well as wages — high. They successfully managed to increase wages twice prior to the Civil War, though they only struck formally once.
Irish women also took advantage of existing work opportunities and used them to pursue economic as well as familial goals. The majority of Irish women worked as domestic servants or in the service industry. Because the demand for domestic help exceeded the workforce supply, many Irish women negotiated with their employers to accommodate their family and community commitments. Some insisted on better work conditions, for example, and the ability to leave early or come in late to attend wakes, baptisms, and similar activities.
One of these immigrants, Margaret Haughery, went from working as a laundress for the St. Charles Hotel to peddling milk from her dairy cows, to operating a bakery. A dedicated Catholic, Haughery donated many of her profits to orphan asylums during her lifetime and still managed to bequeath more than $50,000 to various charities upon her death. Her life and work were commemorated in a public statue completed in 1884; it still stands near St. Theresa of Avila Church, where Clio Street crosses Prytania and Camp Streets, in New Orleans.
The Irish Community in New Orleans
Irish immigrants had several reasons to settle in New Orleans. During the antebellum period — the city’s so-called golden age — a buoyant economic climate offered a great variety of jobs with excellent wages. In addition, housing conditions marked a significant improvement over those in Ireland. Food was plentiful and supplies regular, and the primacy of Catholicism enabled immigrants to practice their faith and to benefit from church-sponsored institutions.
The Irish who came to New Orleans built cohesive communities throughout the city, well beyond the area that is commonly known as the Irish Channel (bounded by First, Magazine, and Toledano Streets and the Mississippi River). Churches, often built largely through their parishioners’ efforts, usually anchored these neighborhoods. In 1833, St. Patrick’s Parish was established in the so-called American Sector, primarily to serve Irish Catholics. By 1850, however, it could no longer contain the size of the congregation. Moreover, many of the more recent Irish immigrants lived in other parts of the city.
Bishop Antoine Blanc, who later became the city’s first archbishop, supported Irish parishioners in their efforts to establish additional parishes, giving his approval for the building of St. John the Baptist, St. Alphonsus, and Sts. Peter and Paul. He also helped recruit Irish priests and members of an Irish order of nuns to serve in these newly formed parishes. Soon after the churches’ completion, Irish families petitioned for the establishment of their own schools. Within five years of their creation, both St. John the Baptist and St. Alphonsus had parochial schools; years later, novelist Anne Rice attended St. Alphonsus church and school as a child.
The local church also served as a resource for the Irish community during times of crisis. Epidemics of yellow fever, cholera, and other diseases were common, especially during the summer months, and the Irish, more than any other immigrant group, suffered during these outbreaks. In 1850, for example, Charity Hospital admitted 18,476 people, of whom 11,130 were Irish. To mitigate the effects of the high mortality rate, the Irish community founded Catholic orphanages, which provided temporary havens for children who had lost one parent and, if necessary, a long-term home for children who had lost both.
Louisiana Democrats actively wooed the local Irish community and rewarded those who showed up at the polls. As in other urban areas around the country, New Orleans’s Irish community became an important voting bloc, generally loyal to the Democratic Party. John Slidell, a local lawyer and politician, took advantage of this voting base, making sure Irish immigrants were quickly naturalized and that, on election day, they were transported wherever they were most “needed.” One of the more famous examples occurred in 1844, when Slidell sent boatloads of Irish immigrants downriver to Plaquemines Parish — with instructions to vote as many times as possible for Democratic presidential candidate James K. Polk.
Though most Louisiana Irish ardently supported slavery, many were initially reluctant to support secession in the period leading up to Lincoln’s election. After the 1860 presidential election, however, the Irish firmly supported the South’s desire to secede, often motivated by the fear that free blacks would threaten their employment and general position in society. New Orleans’s Irish community provided the largest number of recruits to the Confederate military. They were represented in all of the volunteer militias and comprised almost the entire 6th Volunteer Regiment, which fought in many of the Civil War’s major battles. Because New Orleans was captured very early in the war, these Confederate soldiers fought with little to no aid from home.
The Irish in Post–Civil War Louisiana
After the Civil War, the South’s economic decline significantly reduced Irish immigration to Louisiana. Individuals and families with established ties to the area stayed and attempted to prosper as best as they could. General postwar difficulties were compounded locally by the rapid rise of the railroad, which made the steamboat all but obsolete, thereby eliminating many of the port jobs the Irish held.
Despite this economic climate, Irish Americans formed the Hibernia Bank in 1870, which proved to be an important resource for the community. In 1874 the first chapter of the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH) was formed, quickly followed by three more chapters. Just as the Friends of Ireland had raised money for Daniel O’Connell in the 1820s, the AOH collected and sent funds to support Ireland’s cause for freedom in the late 1800s. Irish Americans again formed militia groups, this time affiliated with the AOH: the Irish Rifles and the Mitchell Rifles. Some AOH members also joined the Fenian Brotherhood and Sinn Féin, which were radical nationalist groups with the explicit aim of freeing Ireland from British rule.
Demonstrations of Irish ethnic pride in New Orleans continued throughout the twentieth century and can still be witnessed today. The city is home to numerous St. Patrick’s Day organizations and hosts many events to celebrate this holiday. In addition to an annual march conducted by the AOH, groups such as the Irish Channel St. Patrick’s Day Committee, organized in 1947, and the Downtown Irish Club, developed in 1976, sponsor local festivities.
In 1990 citizens concerned about the preservation of St. Alphonsus Church founded Friends of St. Alphonsus and succeeded in having the church declared a National Historic Landmark in 1996. At that time, the church also expanded to include St. Alphonsus Cultural and Arts Center, which offers tours, sponsors special events, and operates a small museum about the Irish Channel. Also in 1990, the Irish Cultural Society of New Orleans helped erect a Celtic cross on the neutral ground between West End and Pontchartrain Boulevards, commemorating thousands of Irish workers who lost their lives while digging the New Basin Canal.