The greening of New Orleans: A toast to the city’s first recorded St. Patrick’s Day celebration
From early in the city’s history, Irish people had been finding their way to New Orleans, whether they were refugees or the religious, warriors or wandering adventurers. But as Laura Kelley points out in her book “The Irish in New Orleans,” there’s a difference between people who happen to share a common heritage and people forming a bona-fide ethnic community. For the Irish of New Orleans, that community can be traced to spring 1806, with the city’s first recorded public celebration of that most Irish of days, St. Patrick’s Day. According to a write-up in the Orleans Gazette, a healthy crowd — including the governor, the secretary of state, judges — showed up to mark the occasion, which was capped by a series of toasts to everything from the shamrock to General Washington to “the three C’s of Louisiana: cotton, cane and corn.”
The party that was started in 1806 is still going on. In other places, St. Patrick’s celebrations last but a day. In New Orleans, it’s a season unto itself. Last weekend, the annual block party at Parasol’s and the 70-year-old Irish Channel St. Patrick’s Day Parade rolled. This weekend, it was Jim Monaghan’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade in the French Quarter and the Downtown Irish Club Parade. Next weekend, the Louisiana Irish-Italian Parade rolls through Metairie. And that’s just a partial listing of the Irish celebrations on tap in New Orleans, a city as green as any other city on St. Patrick’s Day.
- In 2016, U.S. News & World Report ranked New Orleans’ St. Patrick’s Day celebration as among the 10 best in the United States.
- While Irish immigration to New Orleans had been a near-constant throughout the city’s history, what was a relative trickle turned into a flood in the 1840s, as the Great Famine prompted mass migration from Ireland to the New World.
- By 1850, one in five residents of New Orleans was Irish, and the city was recognized as having the largest Irish population of any city in the South.
- Many Irish chose to settle in New Orleans instead of other port cities because of the Catholic tradition here, which they figured would give them at least a taste of home.
- Early on, Irish were looked down upon by the city’s residents, to say the least, with want ads in newspapers at times including the now-infamous phrase, “No Irish need apply.”
- One of the jobs Irish found themselves doing in New Orleans was digging the New Basin Canal, which both difficult and dangerous. With slave owners hesitant to risk their slaves on it, the Irish stepped in. Over the course of the project, which was started in 1832, between 8,000 and 20,000 Irish died while working on the six-mile canal due to on-site accidents, yellow fever and other diseases. Many were buried essentially where they fell along the route of the canal, which followed the present-day route of the Pontchartrain Expressway and West End Boulevard. The canal has since been filled in.
- In 1990, the Irish ambassador to the United States attended the dedication of a stone Celtic cross at the end of West End Boulevard. It reads: “In memory of the Irish immigrants who dug the New Basin Canal, 1832-1838, this Celtic cross carved in Ireland has been erected by the Irish Cultural Society of New Orleans.”
- The New Basin Canal isn’t to be confused with the Irish Channel, which isn’t a body of water at all but a historically Irish neighborhood between the Garden District and the Mississippi River.
- Among prominent figures of Irish heritage in New Orleans history are architect James Gallier, after whom Gallier Hall is named; philanthropist Margaret Haughery, whose statue stands at Camp and Prytania streets; and Alexander O’Reilly, who served as the second governor of Louisiana while it was under Spanish rule.
Amid all the toasts on that St. Patrick’s Night in 1806, arguably the most memorable was reserved for the people of Louisiana, about whom was said: “May the sons of St. Patrick ever deserve and be blessed with their smiles.” More than 200 years later, that blessing holds, as the city and its Irish community have forged a bond worth celebrating. Not only did the Irish help build New Orleans physically, but they’ve done so spiritually, contributing to the great cultural gumbo that makes the Crescent City so easy to love. So, whether you’re Irish or Irish for a day, sláinte — and here’s to 200 more years of green.