I have to admit that I’ve never really paid that much attention to Irish culture and communities in New Orleans. This was not a conscious decision, but I know it is not something to be proud of. In my defence, I think this is because I have Irish ancestry myself not too far back in my family, so have always thought, “I know about Irish people” and have been drawn instead to learning about aspects of the city’s culture that are less familiar to me.
But on my most recent trip to the city, I found myself encountering the Irish aspects of New Orleans, almost by accident, several times – and I am very glad I did.
First, I visited New Orleans’ Irish Cultural Museum, after walking past it while on the way to somewhere else and realising I had to stop and go in. In this wonderful education and events space, I learnt about how much Irish people and those of Irish descent have contributed to New Orleans throughout its history. To name just a few instances out of many: building churches; service in the police force; adding another valuable layer to the city’s rich musical culture.
I also learnt how much these people suffered, whether on the ships from Ireland to New Orleans, where as many as ten per cent of Irish passengers lost their lives, or during the yellow fever epidemics that struck the Irish community particularly hard, or in terms of the prejudice and discrimination that dogged them for many years.
Then, a few days later, I also encountered the history of New Orleans’ Irish people on a visit to the excellent New Canal Lighthouse Museum on the shores of Lake Pontchartrain. I heard how Irish people helped to build the New Basin Canal that used to meet the lake near the site of the lighthouse, and also how this work took the lives of perhaps as many as 30,000 Irish people, many of whom were buried in the levee beside it and are now commemorated with a Kilkenny marble Celtic cross dedicated by the Irish Cultural Society of New Orleans.
All this made me think again about London’s Irish communities. Because of its geographical and cultural proximity to Ireland, London has seen many, many Irish people make their way here throughout its long history. One piece of research has even estimated that as many as 77 per cent of Londoners have Irish blood. I can’t verify the accuracy of this, but in my experience you don’t have to look very far in the city to find a person with someone Irish in their family tree, or a sign of the influence Irish people and culture have had on the city, from Catholic churches, to Irish pubs, to festivals.
Irish people and those of Irish descent have suffered in London, just as they suffered in New Orleans. A notorious example of this is the “no Irish, no blacks, no dogs” signs that reportedly could be seen in the city on properties to rent in the mid-twentieth century. While some question whether these actually existed, what is certain is that there is a long and complex history of British racist prejudice towards Irish people, bound up with colonialism, Irish politics, anti-Catholic sentiment, and economics.
Being reminded of this history and how it connects to my own by learning about Irish people in New Orleans has made me resolve to pay more attention to Irish communities everywhere, as I owe a good part of the nature of my life today to the efforts and trials of my Irish great-grandparents and other forbears. There is also the happy fact that having Irish ancestry makes me part of a huge global family, and gives me another, particularly personal, connection to New Orleans.