Historian: Irish have deep roots in New Orleans

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NEW ORLEANS (WGNO) - “The Irish entered the annals of Louisiana History with a bang." That is how Tulane Professor Laura Kelley’s book The Irish in New Orleans begins. Fitting – since Lieutenant General Alejandro O’Reilly arrived in 1769 on a mission to quell a rebellion.

The Irish-born O’Reilly, who was actually raised in Spain and served in their military, demanded colonials swear allegiance to Spain. After a year, he left. Several of the Irishmen who came with him stayed.

“We have a base that’s here that grows slowly with these different individuals. So much so, that we have the first celebration of Saint Patrick’s Day in 1806,” said Kelley.

The largest wave of Irish immigrants started around 1845, with the failure of the potato crop: The Great Famine.

“The ticket prices were just about the same from Liverpool to New York or going from Liverpool to New Orleans. So you had this choice while sitting on the docks of Liverpool. And New Orleans was smaller, a Catholic City and if you had wanted to get into the interior of the United States, it made sense to come here,” said Kelley.

And the Irish population in New Orleans boomed, accounting for 25% of the population by the mid-1850s.

“We had more Irish [in New Orleans] than in Philadelphia and Baltimore. We were on par with Boston, and only New York City had more Irish. So New Orleans in 1859, and on the eve of the Civil War, was as much an Irish city, as it was a Creole one,” said Kelley.

But New Orleans was captured in 1862, shortly after the Civil War began and the South went into economic decline. Irish immigration in New Orleans went from a flood to a trickle.

“Cotton is no longer King. And the Transcontinental Railroad was finished by 1865, so we’re entering into a different transportation age. From the perspective of an immigrant, you’re going where you think there’s economic opportunity. New Orleans no longer had that shine to it," said Kelley.

The number of Irish immigrating to New Orleans began to dwindle, but Irish culture flourished.

“When normally you need this sort of influx of immigrants to come in and refresh the pool, keep it alive. We didn’t have that, but the identity coheres, gets stronger and becomes a badge of honor in places like the Irish Channel and Mid City,” said Kelley.

And to this day, Irish culture and tradition thrives in the Crescent City.

Their magnificent churches, filled with incredible artwork and intricate designs, still stand strong around Uptown after nearly two centuries.

Irish bars and restaurants have become a landmark in New Orleans as well.

“The pub is a second home of any Irishman,” said Kelley.

So the next time you're grabbing a pint at Finn McCool's or the Irish House or staring in awe at the beauty of Saint Alphonsus, you will remember Irish culture isn’t just celebrated here in New Orleans on St. Paddy’s Day, but every day.

You can get Laura Kelley's book The Irish in New Orleans for $24.95 at many local independent bookstores like Octavia Books, Maple Street Book Shop and Faulkner House Books in the French Quarter. It's available on Amazon as well. If you want to tell your own Irish story or get an autographed copy of the book visit: www.lauradkelley.com

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