The Irish in New Orleans: An Introduction

Laura D. Kelley’s Irish roots dictated the focus of her study, and Irish luck lent a hand when she met on her first day in the Crescent City a man from “da Channel”– the Irish Channel – with an unusual accent reminiscent of New York City even though he was born and raised in New Orleans.  Unbeknownst to many outsiders, Kelley included, the city had and still has a significant Irish community.   Laura D. Kelley realized then and there that she had found the subject and specific focus of her research. 

Since that “aha” moment twenty years ago, Kelley has developed numerous classes about the Irish as well as the culture, history and foodways of New Orleans and Southern Louisiana. In addition, she has directed several research projects with St. Alphonsus Art and Culture Center as well as Save our Cemetery, two non-profits located in New Orleans. These projects have uncovered different facets of Irish history of the city using traditional and non-traditional primary sources.  She considers herself fortunate to live in a city that contains such a rich culture and such rich archival resources. A lifetime is not long enough to explore all these opportunities.

Kelley will share excepts from her recently released book, "The Irish in New Orleans" and be available for a chat on February 21, to answer any questions you may have by this vibrant but often overlooked Irish community in North America. 

A bit of background from the author before we start ...

It all started a few years ago, on a sunny New Orleans’ afternoon, when I walked into a well-established archive here in the city to do some additional research on the Irish.  Following Standard Operating Procedure, I began to fill out the requisite information card stating my name, affiliation and line of inquiry.  For the latter spot I put “Irish in New Orleans”.  Yes, I know, a very broad category, but at the time I was looking into occupations, as well as activities ranging from militias to benevolent societies. It was a wide net I was tossing into this archival ocean. Imagine my surprise when the attendant took one look at my card and told me, more or less verbatim, the following

“We don’t have anything. We all know the Irish came here but no archival sources exist. You should give up your search because you won’t find anything. Others have tried before you and failed.”

I was, flabbergasted, stunned into silence – unusual for anyone of Irish descent.  After having recovered from my momentary disadvantage, I explained politely that, curiously, I had somehow managed to write an entire 277-page dissertation on the subject that included countless archival sources.  This pronouncement visibly displeased the archivist, and I concluded that the prudent option was retreat – again, an uncommon choice for someone of Hibernian character. 

Since then, I have often thought about that moment, wondering if any budding graduate students or visiting history buff interested in learning more about some long forgotten ancestor with a similar inquiry received such a categorical answer.  And yes, I admit, that one of the purposes of this book is to show my displeased archivist just how much material does exist and how many oral histories there are to uncover.  However, this book is more than that, somewhere along the line I decided that a book, which could reach a much wider and broader audience was needed: one that moved beyond the limited circles of academics and would make an enjoyable read for everyone interested in this subject. This then became my new focus and I am happy to share excerpts from it with the members of this website. 

The roots of the Irish are very deep and old in New Orleans.  They have been nourished over time by different sources and in many different ways. Irish New Orleans is much more than St. Patrick’s Day celebrations.  It encompasses all aspects of the city of New Orleans.  In fact, the Irish are woven into the cultural fabric of this city to such an extent that I think, it is just as applicable to call New Orleans an Irish city as a French, Spanish or Creole one.  I invite you to join me on this literary discovery of this obfuscated yet ubiquitous character of this great historical city of New Orleans.

A note of caution-- Like many Americans, we have the habit of using the term “Irish” to mean both “Irish-born” and “Irish-American.”  I have tried to correct it in the text but it will have slipped through here and there as part of the natural colloquialism. Sharing a common cultural heritage, and usually religion as well as kinship ties has blurred the lines between strict adherences to Irish and Irish-American.

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 

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

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