What was life like in New Orleans' Irish Channel in the early to mid 20th-century?

The Works Project Administration (WPA) conducted a series of interviews with the people of the Channel in 1941.  Many of those interviewed had been long time residents of the area and frequently spoke about what life was like in the Channel while they were growing up. There was a strong consensus on several points- the Irish Channel was a close-knit community with large families where men enjoyed a good drink and frequently resolved disputes with their fists.

Some aspects of life did change post-WWI.  Many of the residents interviewed told of owning goats and drinking goat’s milk growing up, also of taking goats to the levee to graze.  One of the streets, Adele St, was even referred to as “Goat’s Alley”. Father Fagan, a Redemptorist priest at Irish-built St. Alphonsus who was raised in the Irish Channel on the corner of St. Mary and Annunciation described that “We had cows and pigs and turkeys and chickens and –like everyone in the Channel—goats!” . . . I had to go every evening and get our goats from the Levee and bring them home.”  This distinctly rural character was very much part of everyday life in this section of New Orleans well into the 20th century.

 

“A funny thing, nearly everybody in the Channel had goats, and they’d come out there on the river front, where they had his hard oil cake and yellow meal stacked and just eat away. We’d catch ‘em and paint ‘em black and red with the marker’s ink. You should have seen ‘em.”  -- Richard Braniff


It was also quite usual to see turkeys being driven down the street on the way to market.  Women would show off that their family could afford a fine Sunday turkey dinner by letting the turkey's tail feathers stick out of the food basket on their way home from the market and then later by placing them on top of the trash for all the neighbors to see.  Often poorer folk took the turkey feathers and imitated the ritual so others would think they too could afford the fowl every Sunday.  To do one better, families would place their cooked turkey in the windowsill “to cool” - but really to have them on exhibit for all to see.  

 

“And the first turkey we could buy we put it in the window so everybody could see father was making money again.”

 

But not only turkeys were driven down the street; so were cattle!  Channel resident John P. Bayer described the “bull drivers on horses, getting the beef through the streets” claiming “everyone would run” to get out of the way.  Bayer’s father was a butcher in the Irish Channel and killed cattle in his own backyard. “He had a pen built back there and the bull drivers would run four or five heads right through our gate on into the pen. My father would start butchering about twelve in the day… At 6:00 pm he would quit and he would take the meat to market for 2:00 am.”  Bayer also armed himself with a gun when he traveled to the market at these early hours.

Civic improvements came slowly throughout the city and to this neighborhood in particular. One resident of the Irish Channel in 1941 voiced a complaint commonly repeated that “the streets were just mud holes when it rained”.  And as testimony to the fact that little ever changes in politics, he continued his account exclaiming that “we had a politician trying to get back in office say, ‘If we’d vote for him, he’d pave Rousseau St. with pan-cakes and flow molasses in the gutter, then the poor would never be hungry.” Streetlights were also slow in coming to this part of town but were finally in operation by WWII.

Home wakes were still common in the early part of the 20th century. The laying out occurred on a “cooling board”; the kitchen or dinning room table with a cloth laid over it. Children would collect orange leaves from citrus trees located throughout the neighborhood, and the mothers would pin them on the cloth in the shape of a cross. Camphor leaves would be placed in a bowl under the corpse and around the house to hide the smell. All the pictures and mirrors would be covered with cloth. A large bowl of tobacco, clay pipes and whiskey would be on hand for all guests as well as plenty of food.

Everyone seemed to attend the wakes, whether you knew the person or not. Jim Dolelan related what others said repeatedly “all the neighbors came to sit up all night” for the wake was a gathering place for all families.  It was a collective effort by the community to support another member of the neighborhood; prior friendship or a direct relation didn’t matter. John McCurdy captures the sentiment in this account,  “the Irish would help each other—then.  When they were working on the river, they’d stop to go to the funeral of men they didn’t know They’d hire a carriage from Donegan and all go together to give the poor divil (sic) a good send off.  There was a man died with consumption and four of them went to Donegan and paid for a cheap funeral: At the wake that night, father took a soup plate and put five dollars into it and said ‘ Here’s how sorry I am. Come on and show the widow how sorry you are!’  And they got two hundred dollars together. She opened a little store to sell threads and needles and so on and sent her two boys to school.”  The strength of the neighborhood had always rested on “togetherness”: in life and in death.

Perception of the Channel depended upon whether you were a resident or an “outsider” to the community. The reputation of the Irish as being “clannish” in general, was frequently used to describe the Channel.  Coupled with this clannishness was a sense of retributive justice that was the code of the Channel.  As Mrs. Powell explained “That’s the Irish, they’re secretive.  If you beat me up I couldn’t repeat it to a soul or call a cop, but in less than a month I’d get even—that’s the Irish.” While Mrs. Smith’s comment “you won’t find a quarrel if you’ll stay out of it [Channel]” demonstrates the pervasive sense in this neighborhood that there were those that “belonged” while the rest of the city’s population were considered outsiders. The loosely translated Irish phrase Ni neart go cur le cheile—“Togetherness is Strength” captures the sentiment and goes a long way towards explaining the pervasiveness of clannish behavior. Centuries of Penal laws and oppressive rule formed a culture that only relied upon the immediate members of their communities.   

 

“His speech is very Irish with a mixture of New Orleans own dialect, 'goil”'(girl), 'poisonality' (personality), 'dem' and 'dose,' which I shall not attempt to write.”  -- Comments made by WPA- interviewer Maude H. Wallace about Richard Braniff

 

If you would like to order a copy of Dr. Kelley's book "The Irish in New Orleans" you can order it from Amazon.com by clicking on the following link: The Irish in New Orleans

If you would like a personalized autographed copy, you can email Dr. Kelley directly at the following link: Dr. Kelley's Autographed book

Top image by Peter Sekaer

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Tags: Diaspora History, Living History, Louisiana, New Orleans, United States

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