“Irish Famine commemoration will feature bands, block party, Irish Fest” read the headline in the New Orleans Times-Picayune on Tuesday.
Has the Irish Famine suddenly become hip?
Well, New Orleans will certainly do things differently. The Famine commemoration in America, funded in part by the Irish government, moves to a different city every year to showcase the history and linkage of the Great Hunger to the great American story.
It will be held from November 6 – 9 in the Big Easy culminating in a “Famine Commemoration Gala.”
Yes, I know New Orleans is the Big Easy with a great reputation for letting it all hang out, but a swinging Famine commemoration somehow does not hang together that well.
There are many academic and commemoration events too, it must be noted, some involving major institutions such as Tulane University.
But the overwhelming impression is an Irish version of Laissez les bons temps rouler!" the Cajun expression meaning "Let the good times roll!"
Is it appropriate for a Famine commemoration? Is this what works these days? A kind of Disney-fied celebration of what happened to millions of Irish during the Great Hunger from 1846 to 1852?
The Irish history in the Crescent City is especially poignant, as the website New Orleansonline.com site notes.
“New Orleans was a thriving port city, the itineraries of many (Famine ships) boats ended here and the passengers simply stayed.
“In addition, Irish immigrants often found cheap passage to New Orleans because after cotton ships unloaded their cargo in Liverpool, captains needed to load their holds up with human ballast for the return trip. Conditions, needless to say, were far from ideal.
"Living conditions for the thousands of Irish immigrants once they arrived in New Orleans were also far from ideal. Poor and living in slums, the Irish were particularly susceptible to a series of epidemics (Yellow fever) that periodically swept the city. Many Irish labored on the New Basin Canal, a dangerous project which claimed thousands of lives."
That is it, in a nutshell. It was said Irish lives were cheaper than slaves' lives because slaves could be sold.
So should the Irish of New Orleans be throwing a block party and gala ball to celebrate that history?
Justin Murphy, an Irish musician who also works as a professor of Anthropology at Seminole College in Orlando, told the Times-Picayune that New Orleans is the perfect place to host Irish events such as the Famine Commemoration.
"New Orleans isn't generally thought of as having an Irish history," said Murphy. "But a huge number of Irish immigrants came here in the 1800s, and they left a huge impact on the city – they helped to build New Orleans' initial infrastructure. Ireland isn't unique in having a diaspora, but during the famine, while something like 1.5 million people starved, more than 1.5 million emigrated. Those emigrants have left an indelible mark on many countries, including America.....the famine created a space for Irish culture to flourish in America."
Indeed it did and the New Orleans Irish are celebrating the positive from the Famine. Leave it to the Crescent City to find a way to turn a tragedy into an upbeat history lesson.
Still, not all history can be reduced to a block party and a gala ball and a carnival. The line between a commemoration and a celebration is a difficult one to draw.
It will be interesting to see how New Orleans pulls this event off.