NEW ORLEANS -- The history of New Orleans can not be told without a chapter dedicated to the Irish.
"In 1860, there was a census done right before the Civil War. About 23-24% of the city was born in Ireland," says Matthew Ahearn of the Irish Cultural Museum.
During the late 1840s, a potato famine hit Ireland. Millions of Irish got on boats and left. Many ended their journeys at the port of New Orleans.
"When people talk about immigration today, a lot of what they are talking about--what America is and was with respect to the influence of immigration--they are really talking about the Irish," says Ahearn. "There was a point after a few huge crises in Canada and New York where they didn't except them any more. And, they would get diverted to New Orleans where they were, pretty much, just put on the levee."
They got off at the levee and didn't move far.
"The Irish Channel, if you look at it, follows these Irish Catholic churches that were built along the river. That's where the people settled because they worked at the docks," Ahearn points out.
Some of the churches that served Irish Catholics, or were built or designed by them, were St. Patrick's, St. Alphonsus, Sts. Peter and Paul, and St. Joseph (which was designed by Irish-American architect P.C. Keely from Brooklyn, N.Y.).
The churches that popped up in Irish neighborhoods changed the landscape of the city by adding Gothic towers and spires. But, the Irish also changed the city in a greater and more significant way. They were the labor force that dug the New Basin Canal.
"It was dug through a cypress swamp. It was a six-mile long waterway that connected Lake Pontchartrain to the Mississippi River," explains Ahearn. "It was crucial that you had this waterway that was efficient and safe and easy to secure."
The New Basin Canal gave the neighborhoods upriver from the French Quarter access to the lake. Goods could be transported from ships at the lake-end of the canal, near West End, to the basin close to the river, near the present location of the Union Passenger Terminal. It was easier for ships to unload at the lake than to go up the river to the New Orleans ports.
"The Irish spent six years digging that canal. It was all done by manual labor," says Ahearn. "Huge loss of life. Some estimates are as high as 30,000. It was a significant contribution and sacrifice by the Irish."
The canal has since been filled. There is a memorial to the Irish immigrants who dug the canal on the neutral ground between Pontchartrain Blvd. and West End Blvd.