This weekend, there’s no better place to be Irish than New Orleans.
The International Irish Famine Commemoration, the Irish government’s annual reflection on both the terrible losses and incredible survival stories of the Great Irish Hunger, is taking place in the Big Easy.
It’s as if the city and its Irish community have been waiting for years to tell their Irish story and are more than rising to the occasion now that they have the chance.
And what a story it is – over 200 years of shared history, from the first wave of largely middle class Irish emigrants in the 1700s, to the thousands more who fled Ireland during the famine and made New Orleans their home. They formed communities – there’s still a neighborhood called the Irish Channel – toiled to their deaths digging the New Basin Canal, built churches and schools, fought in the Civil War and changed the history of the city with in-roads into banking, politics and cuisine.
Today, the Irish in New Orleans - both those whose ancestors came here generations ago and the many Irish-born who now call the city home – are immensely proud of that history and their continued impact on the Crescent City.
They waited on the bank of the Mississippi River on Thursday evening as the Francis Kelly, a ship carrying Irish dignitaries including Minister for the Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht Heather Humphreys, approached, mirroring the arrival of the Irish in New Orleans generations earlier.
There to greet the ship were members of NOLA’s Irish community and amazing young dancers from the local Muggavin School of Irish dance.
The view for Famine-era Irish emigrants arriving into New Orleans pic.twitter.com/vB7kvjffln— CG Ireland Atlanta (@IrelandAtlanta) November 6, 2014
At the Historic New Orleans Collection, which tells the story of all elements of the city’s history, from its Creole heritage to the many famous movies filmed there, the most solemn component of the commemoration kicked off with speeches from Atlanta Consul General Paul Gleeson, Minister Humphreys and Dr. Laura Kelley of Tulane University, one of the dedicated local organizers behind the commemoration and a professor of history who recently published “The Irish in New Orleans,” a definitive telling.
There’s perhaps no one better qualified to talk about the many connections between Ireland and New Orleans than Dr. Kelley, an Irish American who has lived in the city for many years and made it her mission to explore its past. In addition to the many historic links, she pointed out a connection of experience and character.
“Rebirth, rebuild, rejoice” became the motto of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina flooded a shocking 80% of the city. But the city, thanks to the determination of its residents and aid from around the world, rebuilt, carried on with indomitable spirit, and is now blossoming in a renaissance.
That determination, she said, is equally applicable to the Irish who, devastated by the Great Hunger of 1845-1852, set out to build new lives across the Atlantic. By 1860, one-sixth of the city’s population was Irish.
Immigration from Ireland to New Orleans is by no means a thing of the past either, she added, with many Irish born making their mark today.
The educational crux of the commemoration, “Ireland and New Orleans: From the Famine to Katrina – Stories of Recovery,” a symposium hosted by Tulane University, took place Saturday in the historic St. Alphonsus Church, built by Irish, and featured insights into the Famine and its aftermath from experts in the field. The range of topics – from famine education, to charitable giving during the Great Hunger, to the famine Irish in the American Civil War – was astounding and concluded with profound remarks from Minister Humphreys.
IrishCentral will bring you these stories, much more about the history of the Irish in New Orleans, and highlights from all four days of the International Famine Commemoration.
Below is the full schedule for Saturday and Sunday. Proceeds from all ticketed events help fund the commemoration activities and support local non-profits including Lantern Light Ministries and food pantry, founded by Irish nun Sr. Vera Butler, and Café Reconcile, which empowers at-risk youths from poor communities, providing them with job training and placements. For a full list of events and further information visit www.ifnola2014.org.
Historical Tour of Irish New Orleans. 10:00 – Noon, the Irish Channel: This tour led by Tulane University historians will explore the neighboroods in which the Irish settled and the churches they built, and visit St. Patrick’s Cemeteries, where so many Irish are buried. Participants will have the opportunity to learn why New Orleans is the most Irish city in the South.
Irish Fest at Kingsley House in the Irish Channel. 9:00 – 5:30: This new festival in the Irish Channel will remember the past and celebrate Irish culture with a ceili and traditional music sessions, Irish cooking demonstrations and food vendors, Irish sports demonstrations, dancing and a historic art exhibit on the Great Famine. Proceeds from Footsteps to Fight Famine, a 2-mile march for famine and disaster awareness, will benefit disaster relief. Gaelic football will make a special debut at Irish Fest 2014 when teams from across the U.S. compete at Annunciation Square .Dancers from the entire southern region will come together for the first-ever casual dress Irish dance competition in New Orleans. Dancers will perform modern and traditional dances dating back to the early 17th century at this feis hosted by Muggivan School of Irish Dance.
Irish Network New Orleans Commemoration Gala. 7:00 – 11:00: This black-tie event held by Irish Network-New Orleans (IN-NOLA) will feature music by the renowned Celtic rock band Black 47 and traditional Irish dancing and music, as well as New Orleans cuisine from some of the city’s finest restaurants, including committee member and acclaimed restaurateur Dickie Brennan’s establishments.
Dedication and blessing of Hibernian Memorial Park. 1:00 – 4:00: Dedication and blessing of a new four-acre park on the site of the historic New Basin Canal. The Ancient Order of Hibernians of Louisiana will celebrate the launch of the Hibernian Memorial Park with refreshments, food, and music on the park grounds. At the heart of the park in Lakeview is a Celtic cross erected in 1990 to honor the Irish laborers who built the canal.