One of the oldest and most colourful parades of the St Patrick celebrations is that of New Orleans, Louisiana. I missed it by a matter of weeks but I was told all about it during a three-week sojourn in that city by the Mississippi. It is held on the third Saturday each March.
The person who gave me the background was small wiry waiter with a pencil moustache who served in the crowded courtyard of O’Brien’s Bar and Restaurant in the French Quarter. First of all he took time to explain all about exotic Creole dishes like gumbo and jambalaya. When I told him I was Irish he became effusive and told me he was proud of his Irish ancestry.
He told me that O’Brien’s decked itself out in green flags and bunting for days before and after St Patrick’s Day. It was packed with many of Irish descent, especially after the flamboyant parade.
Later on, I read that the first such parade took place in the year 1809 and it indicated the early presence of Irish people in the city.
Coaled below the water line – Frank McNally on a prequel to the Titanic disaster, 150 years ago this weekend
Emigrants from Ireland began to arrive towards the end of the 18th century, some fleeing the reprisals and persecution that followed the rebellion of 1798.
It may have been a factor for some that New Orleans was a largely Catholic city, with French and Spanish religious traditions.
It seems that many of the newly arrived Irish were well educated.
They made their way in the business, professional and educational fields.
Anxious to be accepted as loyal citizens of the newly established United States, they often made public reference to the many Irish of all creeds and backgrounds who had served in George Washington’s forces during the American War of Independence
A rivalry developed within the Catholic church between the Irish and the those who spoke French.
The Irish wanted English to be used in some Masses. The irony is that many of them came from regions where the Irish language had been ridiculed and systematically suppressed under British rule and replaced by English. Irish Catholics established St Patrick’s Church in 1840 and it became a focal point for worship among them. It is still there today.
There was a surge of Irish emigrants in the 1830s fleeing the poverty and hardship in their own county. Many of these were only partially literate, with the women seeking work as servants and the man earning a meagre living as labourers.
When the construction of a shipping canal began in 1832 most of the workforce was Irish. It was hazardous, back-breaking work, using shovels and picks under the blazing sun. The canal had to be dug out of swampy ground where yellow fever was endemic. Several thousand died before its completion. Yet much of the working of the busy port of New Orleans fell into Irish hands at management as well as at labour levels. This led to opportunities to find better-paid work in other sections of the burgeoning economy.
A distressful period began in the 1840s when tens of thousands of destitute Irish began to flood into the city as they fled the Great Famine back home. They boarded ships in Liverpool that sailed to New Orleans to load cotton for the flourishing textile industry in Britain. The conditions on board were often bad, with overcrowding in poorly ventilated spaces and meagre rations.
When the emaciated immigrants disembarked and found shelter in fetid slums, they caused alarm and fear in the city.
They were seen as especially prone to infection and to spreading the diseases that regularly ravaged the area, especially yellow fever. It was not then known that it was the swarms of mosquitoes that were the carriers of this plague.
An inspirational woman who did an heroic amount to alleviate the worst effects of the widespread poverty was Margaret Haughery, who originally came from Leitrim. Driven by compassion and her own dire experience, this successful businesswoman helped set up and provide financial support for orphanages and food distribution outlets.
When she died in 1882, leaving her fortune to charity, a marble statue of her was erected, one of the first to a woman in the United States.
It took several decades for these Irish to recover from their many disadvantages and take a firm foothold as valued citizens of the city.
The waiter in Pat O’Brien’s said that the St Patrick’s Day parade marked out the Irish as the most distinctive ethnic group in New Orleans.
While it was not anything as big as the Mardi Gras parade it was a proud celebration of how well the Irish had done over the centuries, despite the privations of many.
“Behind all the festivity there’s a bit of triumphant swaggering and that’s okay too,” he said.