When you think of Irish cities in the US, New Orleans wouldn’t ordinarily top the list.

But the city’s Irish community passionately believes New Orleans has a remarkable Irish past and present to share – just as extensive as those of Boston and New York, and just as rich as those of Chicago and San Francisco.

They had the chance to tell their story November 6 – 9 as the host city of the 2014 International Irish Famine Commemoration.

Over the course of four days, New Orleans locals, visitors, and Irish dignitaries including Heather Humphreys, Minister for the Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, the department in charge of Ireland’s famine commemoration, paid respects to the many Irish who died during the Great Hunger and suffered in its wake with a comprehensive symposium on the famine hosted by Tulane University, an exhibition of Irish famine history and art at the New Orleans Irish Cultural Museum, and the official dedication of Hibernian Memorial Park in the city’s Lakeview neighborhood.

Map of depopulation of Ireland 1841-51 at Famine exhibition at Irish Cultural Museum of New Orleans @ICMNOLA pic.twitter.com/zSBc0w2l4c

— CG Ireland Atlanta (@IrelandAtlanta) November 8, 2014

They explored the impact the Irish had in the Big Easy from the 1700s through to the 1900s with a tour of historic Irish New Orleans, and celebrated the city’s Irish culture with an Irish Fest and a black tie gala that highlighted the Irish dance and GAA scenes growing in New Orleans today and the contributions the Irish have made to the city’s cuisine, business sector and politics.bear

With leading famine historian Christine Kinealy they discussed the many surprising sources of aid during the Great Hunger, from the Choctaw Native Americans to the Quaker Society of Friends, and officials from both New Orleans and Ireland recalled the $1 million support Ireland granted following the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. A 5K charity race and event ticket sales raised funds for the Red Cross and local charities combating hunger and poverty, including two Irish-helmed organizations, Lantern Light Ministries and Café Reconcile.

We also dropped in to see the wonderful work being done for the homeless by Sister Vera at the Lantern Light Project pic.twitter.com/Sujvg6avtG

— Heather Humphreys (@HHumphreysFG) November 6, 2014

The Famine Commemoration, launched in 2009, is the Irish government’s annual reflection on An Gorta Mor, Ireland’s Great Hunger, which lasted from 1845 – 1852, claiming the lives of 1.2 million and forcing the emigration of 1.8 million. Each year, a different Irish county hosts the national commemoration, and a city with a strong Irish diaspora hosts the international commemoration – Toronto, New York, Liverpool, Boston and Sydney have all participated to date.

There are perhaps too many ideas currently crammed under the umbrella of famine commemoration. Reflecting upon the terrible losses, celebrating the triumphs of those who emigrated and raising awareness of hunger related activism and aid today are all important and fitting. Using the opportunity to further reaffirm Ireland’s status as one of the best countries in the world for direct foreign investment is not, though it is to be expected as required itinerary for a ministerial visit.

What’s proving to be the most interesting element of the International Irish Famine Commemoration is the chance it gives host cities to explore, share and revel in their Irish history and culture.

The international commemoration events are a real local effort, primarily organized by members of the host city’s Irish community. In order to be considered, an organizing committee must put their city forward for selection.

In the case of New Orleans, this was largely driven by Irish Americans born and raised in New Orleans, including Judge James F. McKay, Honorary Consul of Ireland for Louisiana; Dickie Brennan of the famous Brennan restaurant family; Matthew Ahern and Terry Landry of the Irish Cultural Museum of New Orleans; Fionnula McGlinchey Monsted; Ronnie Burke; Joni Muggivan of the Muggivan School of Irish Dance, the first ever dancer from Louisiana to compete at the Irish Dance World Championships; and Dr. Laura Kelley, immigration historian at Tulane University. It was also spearheaded by Irish-born who have made the Crescent City their home, such as Adrian D’Arcy, president of the Irish Network New Orleans, and by Paul Gleeson, Ireland’s Consul General to Atlanta and the Southern US.

Ireland's famine changed New Orleans

The Great Hunger is still in many respects a gaping wound in Ireland’s history and cultural psyche. It took over a century for scholars, historians and wider understanding to catch up to the truth of the devastation – what people suffered, what landlords did and did not to, what the British government could have done and what they did instead. There is still so much more work to be done and research to be conducted on the Great Hunger and on Ireland’s lesser-known later famines in 1879 and 1925.

At the same time, to think about the famine without taking into consideration those 1.8 million who emigrated is to miss the bigger picture.

The lives of many of these people ended when they boarded the boats that would take them away from Ireland – called, at their worst, coffin ships for the decrepit conditions and the widespread disease that prevented many of the passengers, already weakened by extreme hunger, from completing their journeys. As Caroilin Callery of Strokestown Park and the National Irish Famine Museum in Co. Roscommon pointed out in her speech at the Famine Commemoration symposium, of the 1,490 Irish who set sail for Grosse Ile, Canada’s Ellis Island, from Strokestown, over 50% never made it to mainland Canada, either dying at sea or in quarantine.

It is important to honor them and remember the suffering they endured, but it is equally important to celebrate those who survived. That’s what Strokestown is doing in partnering with the University of Toronto – trying to track down the descendants of the other half.

How different would US history, the history of Irish America and the Irish American community today be if the nearly 1.5 million who came to the US during the famine had never emigrated? Their reasons for leaving Ireland were tragic and the conditions they fled infuriatingly avoidable. But the effect they and their descendants had on their new countries and cities cannot be overstated and is very worthy of celebrating.

This is especially the case in New Orleans, which by 1850 had a larger Irish population per capita than Philadelphia or Baltimore and by 1860 was home to 38,000 Irish – one sixth of the city’s population.

As Dr. Laura Kelley pointed out, one of the things that separates New Orleans from Boston, New York and Chicago, is that Irish immigration into the city never again neared the heights of the famine years.

“When the Civil War came in 1860 our Irish immigration slowed to a trickle and then to a drip – a random Irish person coming here every so often. The Irish population in other cities such as Boston continued to grow because Irish immigration did not stop when the famine stopped. It continued well into the 20th century, subsided for a time, and then picked right back up in the mid to late 20th century. And yet again with the Celtic Tiger – when that bubble burst in 2008 we saw an outward migration, a brain drain from Ireland to other places largely because of economic distress,” she said.

An immigrant historian, Dr. Kelley studies not only the Irish but also other groups in New Orleans including Italians, Germans and Vietnamese. The interesting thing about the Irish, she explained, is the way they held on to and perpetuated their Irish identity.

“New Orleans is different from other places because we didn’t get that constant influx of Irish immigrants. So technically we should all be assimilated, we should all have become proper New Orleanians or Americans and forgotten our Irish heritage, but we [didn’t], and that’s one of the fascinating things about the Irish in New Orleans.”

The people

The stories of Irish people who left their mark on the history of New Orleans were shared throughout the commemoration events. There was Alejandro O’Reilly, born in Co. Meath in 1723, whose family left Ireland with the Wild Geese and settled in Spain. After joining the Spanish militia at the age of 11, O’Reilly rose steadily through the ranks, and in 1769 he was appointed by the king of Spain to quash a rebellion in New Orleans, which wanted to return to French rule, and establish order in the port city. O’Reilly, remembered as Louisiana’s second (if unofficial) governor under Spanish rule, did all this within a year and left many of his Irish friends in positions of power.

As Kelley explains in her recently published “The Irish in New Orleans,” in the 1700s Louisiana was especially appealing to the Catholic Irish who wanted to escape England’s strict penal laws and to descendants of the Wild Geese who wanted to journey from their adopted countries of France and Spain and had sufficient funds to do so.

There were the Maccarty brothers, whose descendants would rise to positions of power throughout Louisiana. There was Judge James Workman, an Irishman who became Judge for the County of Orleans from 1805-07 and in 1818 helped form the New Orleans Hibernian Society, which offered advice and assistance to newly arrived Irish. And there was James Gallier, born James Gallagher in Co. Louth in 1798. An architect, he moved to New Orleans in 1834 and went on to build some of the city’s most important structures, including its former City Hall, now known as Gallier Hall.

Celebrating #irishNOLA @ historic Gallier Hall New Orleans @IrishNetworkUSA Fun fact Gallier was originally Gallagher pic.twitter.com/CR3iiTHwmS

— IrishCentral (@IrishCentral) November 9, 2014

The most captivating story of all, however, is that of Margaret Haughery, a revered figure in New Orleans history known as “Mother of Orphans,” “The Bread Woman of New Orleans,” and simply “Our Margaret.”

She was born Margaret Gaffney in Co. Leitrim in 1813 and left Ireland for Baltimore with her family in 1818. Her parents died of yellow fever in 1822, leaving nine year old Margaret to fend for herself. She was taken in by a Welsh woman who had traveled to the US on the same boat as Margaret and her family.

Margaret married Charles Haughery, an Irishman, in 1835, and they moved to New Orleans in the hope that the warmer climate would improve Charles’ health. It didn’t, and by 1837 Margaret had lost both her husband and their infant daughter Frances. Illiterate, orphaned and widowed, Margaret worked in a laundry and also began to donate her time and whatever portion of her wages she could spare to a children’s asylum run by the Sisters of Charity.

She was soon employed by the asylum, tasked with gathering food donations for the children. When the sisters opened a new orphanage, she was given more administrative responsibility and bought two dairy cows so that the orphans would have milk. Thus began her astounding legacy as a businesswoman and philanthropist.

Margaret started a dairy cart which grew so successful that she was able to fund the construction of the Female Orphan Asylum of the Sisters of Charity in 1840. After saving a bakery from bankruptcy, she started a bread cart, an enterprise that eventually grew into a large steam bakery. With this income, she helped the Sisters of Charity to build many more orphanages and asylums throughout New Orleans, personally taking on any debt and working to create nurturing, comfortable environments for the children.

Margaret touched the lives of hundreds of New Orleans’ orphans, poor, elderly and ill. She was so widely beloved and respected that when she died in 1882 at the age of 69, her obituary ran on the front page of the Times-Picayune and she received a state funeral, reportedly attended by thousands, ranging from the state’s leading religious and political figureheads to orphans from around the city. In her will Margaret divided her wealth among New Orleans’ orphan asylums, giving to each regardless of affiliation.

Two years after her death a statue of Margaret was unveiled at Camp and Prytania Streets. It was the first-ever public monument to a woman in the history of the U.S.

In recent years there has been renewed interest in Margaret in her home county, Leitrim. A group called the Margaret of New Orleans Tully Committee is working to reconstruct the cottage where she was born, to share her story, and to campaign for her beatification. Two of the committee members, Maura Williamson and Helen Corcoran, flew to New Orleans for the Famine Commemoration and paid an emotional visit to her statue. So well-known was Margaret that its engraving only contains her first name, no further information was thought to be necessary.

Tomorrow: The three things that took the Irish in New Orleans from a group of individuals to an established community, the famine Irish and the forgotten Irish, and the Irish of NOLA today.