Remembering New Orleans ‘ Irish Immigrants

New Orleans is built upon layer after layer of strata, and its population followed suit.   The current Pontchartrain Expressway, running from Pontchartrain Boulevard to the Union Passenger terminal, located at Loyola Avenue, was built along the route formerly known as New Basin Canal.  In 1831, the New Orleans Canal and Banking Company was formed to begin construction of the canal, which was to connect Lake Pontchartrain through the “swamp” to the Uptown section of the city.  By 1838, after an expense of $1million, the 60-foot wide, three- mile long canal was complete enough to be opened to small vessels.  It took seven years to build, and countless lives of the Irish immigrants who were coming to the city in hordes back then. Yellow fever  in the 19th century was a ruthless killer.  Estimates range from 4,000 to 30,000 deaths of immigrant Irish workers digging the canal. Today, the canal has long since been closed   For more information, see NOLA is as much Irish in its heritage as it is French or Spanish. It’s not just about green beer.  New Orleans grew physically to accommodate new residents, making it the second largest population of Irish immigrants, only to New York City.“The Irish were the catalyst for making New Orleans a metropolitan city,” says Fitzmorris. According to Tulane historian Terrence Fitzmorris, “The city’s vibrant economy based on trade drew immigrants like the Irish.  They were part of the powerful regional and Atlantic economy that made New Orleans a global city.”

The Irish thrived here.  They have contributed, among other things, the distinctive New Orleans accent that has been likened to a Brooklyn accent.  St. Patrick’s Church, the gorgeous Gothic Catholic church in the Central Business District, was built to serve the Irish immigrant population in 1833 and is the oldest building in the Central Business District.  According to Terrence Fitzmorris, the Irish brought their strong sense of parish life to the area and left as their legacy the powerful devotion that characterizes New Orleans Catholicism.

The Irish really changed the face of the city.  The famous local architect, James Gallier, who built the old City Hall building now known as Gallier Hall, was actually James Gallagher, and French-ified his name to fit in better with the prevailing French Creole culture he found in the early 19th century.  The Irish Channel, an old neighborhood abutting the river, was home to many Irish dock workers and is still the site of the St. Patrick’s Day celebrations and the parade sponsored by the Irish Channel St. Patrick’s Day Club, coming up this Saturday.  Get your Irish on!

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