Feast and Famine as Minister addresses Irish in New Orleans

Victims of Irish Famine and Hurricane Katrina honoured by Heather Humphreys

 

For Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht Heather Humphreys, it is a busy time of commemoration.

On a visit to Louisiana, the Minister honoured the victims of the Great Hunger at the International Irish Famine Commemoration and the survivors who prospered in New Orleans after emigrating in the decades afterwards.

She estimated that as many as a quarter of a million Irish emigrants entered the United States through New Orleans and that the city’s Irish population grew to 38,000, or a sixth of its residents, by 1860.

“I have learned over the past few days of the determined and brave cohort of emigrants who came here and worked hard to establish a real presence in this city, economically, socially, artistically and politically,” she told a gala dinner hosted by the Irish Network New Orleans group on Saturday night.

“They formed tight-knit communities which helped and supported each other, encouraged other family members to join them – and indeed many of them sent the fare home.

“They became a force to be reckoned with in New Orleans and across the American south and I have seen the lasting legacy of these bonds.”

The incongruity of a gala dinner being held on a weekend to mark a famine commemoration was appropriately balanced on the evening with a one-minute silence dedicated to the victims of the famine.

The weekend’s events and commemorations also aimed to celebrate the influence that the Irish had, and that the continuing wave of new emigrants still have on this city. There is much to celebrate given the pride the people of New Orleans have in their Irish heritage.

Ms Humphreys told The Irish Times about the very strong association emigrants to the city over the past 20 years have with their Irish heritage and culture. “It was very humbling,” she said.

She also spoke of the famous hospitality of the Big Easy, telling the gala audience on Saturday night that the Irish delegation enjoyed the New Orleans food so much that it was a good job their return tickets were already bought and not based on what the visitors had consumed.

“If that was the case, it would cost the Irish Government a fortune to bring us back,” she joked, to laughter from the crowd.

Memorial

Afterwards, Ms Humphreys dedicated the Hibernian Memorial Park to the thousands of Irish immigrant labourers who died in the 1830s while building the six-mile New Orleans navigation canal, known as the New Basin Canal, that connected the city with Lake Pontchartrain.

On the visit, the arts minister also picked up tips from Mitch Landrieu, the New Orleans mayor and brother of the state’s Democratic Senate candidate Mary Landrieu, on measuring “cultural capital” to understand the effect of investment in arts on the economy of the city.

In austere times, this formula shows the benefit of arts investment, she said, and may help when “hard decisions have to be made”– for example, weighing up funding for an arts project or a hospital bed.

Louisiana is known as the “Hollywood of the South” owing to the tax incentives and talent that attract film productions such as Lincoln and Twelve Years A Slave and television series such as True Detective to be made in the state.

“What we need to be able to show is that there are huge benefits to investing in the arts and in our culture,” said Ms Humphreys.

The minister returns to Dublin today to prepare for the announcement of the 1916 centenary commemorations on Wednesday.

At 11am tomorrow, she will attend a ceremony to mark the anniversary of the first World War armistice at St Ann’s Church in Dublin, due to be attended by Andrew Murrison MP, the British prime minister’s special representative for first World War centenary commemorations, and the DUP’s Arlene Foster, the Northern Ireland Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Investment.

“There have been a lot of commemorations – all of this is part of a process to recognise the Irish that lost their lives in the first World War and there were 50,000 of them,” Ms Humphreys said.