Usually, when we speak about the Irish Diaspora in the USA, New Orleans is not among the cities that first come to mind as centers of Irish population and culture. We think of the city as a savory gumbo of Spanish, French, Creoles, Afro-Caribbean and Africans and pay little attention to the pull effect this strategically placed port city on the Mississippi might have had on an island with a long history of losing her population through outward migration.
As such, I am pleased to have been invited to share with you some of what I learned over the years as I dug deep into the archives. Let’s start with . . .
The (Very) Early Days
Irish entry into the annals of New Orleans history occurred with a rather loud bang when, in 1769, the imposing figure of Lieutenant General Alejandro O’Reilly arrived in New Orleans with a contingent of 2,000 Spanish soldiers, including a regiment of Irish, to quell a rebellion in the city. During the previous year, members of the Superior Council, prominent merchant, planters, and upwards of 500 French, German, and Acadian farmers, artisans and ex-soldiers, had marched on New Orleans and expelled the acting Spanish governor, Antonio Ulloa. The colonials were not pleased being Spanish and wanted to return to French rule. However, France, having given away most of the Louisiana territory to Spain in 1762, had no desire to resume any responsibility over this wayward frontier town. It was an inauspicious beginning for the Spanish colonial era.
Alejandro O’Reilly was born in County Meath in 1723 and came from a family with a tradition of military service. His grandfather had fought with James II as a colonel heading up the O’Reilly Dragoons. His father, Thomas O’Reilly, had left Ireland as one of many of the Wild Geese, as the Irish emigrants of this era were called, and settled with his family in Zaragoza, Spain. At age eleven, Alejandro joined the Spanish military and served as a cadet in the Regimiento de Hibernia, the Hibernian Regiment. With a keen eye for strategy and talent for fighting, he soon reached the rank of Brigadier.
O’Reilly’s dramatic entrance into the city commenced with a cannon salute while column after column of Spanish soldiers, among them many from the Regimiento de Hibernia, lined the three sides of the Place des Armes, the current Jackson Square. On signal, 2,000 Spanish soldiers shouted “Viva el Rey” while cannons onshore and on ships blasted their response. Needless to point out, O’Reilly rather swiftly re-established Spanish rule. The King, in fact, had provided O’Reilly with the appropriately broad authority for this mission to “organise [sic] legal proceedings and to chastise, conforming with the law, the exciters and associates of the insurrection”… “entrust[ing O’Reilly] with extensive and full power and authority” that extended to the use of force, if necessary.
O’Reilly used the royal mandate and asked the leaders of the rebellion to dinner. He listened politely to their version of events and promptly arrested thirteen of them. Spanish law gave O’Reilly the distinct advantage of serving as Judge and Jury during the subsequent proceedings. The defendants shared a common argument: Ulloa never presented his credentials (true); never raised the Spanish flag over the Place des Armes (also true); and, therefore, never took formal possession of the colony (true by inference). Consequently, so the leaders of the rebellion argued, the defendants and the other participants in the rebellion had really expelled only a private citizen and, therefore, could not have committed treason. It was a clever argument, but not persuasive to O’Reilly. He pronounced twelve of the thirteen arrested dinner guests guilty as charged. Of these twelve gentlemen, six were given death sentences and the remaining ones long jail terms. All of them lost their property. The ruthlessly efficient manner in which O’Reilly dealt with the rebellion earned him the moniker “Bloody O’Reilly”.
Nearly forty years later during the early American period, a group of Creoles would pay tribute to the 1768 rebellion and the men executed by renaming the street where the executions took place, Frenchmen.
After imprisoning the remaining leaders, O’Reilly issued a general pardon from the King for all the other participants. He also required that everyone swear an oath of allegiance to the Spanish crown, a request with which unsurprisingly, everyone complied. During the year of his stay in New Orleans, O’Reilly set out to put some order into the affairs of the colonial outpost. To that end, he abolished the French Superior Council and then established the Cabildo with judicial, legislative, and executive authority. Furthermore, through the Cabildo, he instituted a Spanish code of laws and skillfully integrated French laws to ensure a smooth transition. O’Reilly also met with the chiefs of Indian nations, Grand and Petit, smoked the calumet with them and promised to continue the French policy of annual gift-giving; furthermore, he outlawed Indian slavery. In addition, he introduced a Spanish version of the Code Noir that offered more paths to manumission and more rights for the enslaved. All this he accomplished in less than a year and then set sail for Spain. Upon his arrival, the Spanish King awarded him the title of Count. While his stay in New Orleans was brief in duration, his influence on the city was profound.
Several of the Irishmen traveling with O’Reilly stayed in Louisiana after his departure. Maurice O’Connor was placed in charge of the militia, and Arthur O’Neill assumed the responsibility of negotiating with Native Americans. Another Irishman, Oliver Pollock, a merchant living in Havana, moved to New Orleans in 1769, and O’Reilly gave him the lucrative contract of supplying the militia with flour.
Pollock hugely benefited from his friendship with the fellow Irishman O’Reilly. Not only had his friend given him the exclusive contract to supply the over 2,000 strong Spanish military, but O’Reilly also began to expel all British merchants in the colony. Furthermore, he made trade with England, the traditional enemy of Ireland and Spain, illegal. Pollock remained in New Orleans and, with a near monopoly on many goods needed by the military, quickly made a vast fortune.
The Irish of the colonial period, like “Bloody” O’Reilly or his friend Oliver Pollock, were part of the colorful, ragtag bunch of early inhabitants of New Orleans. The colonial sacramental records of St. Louis Cathedral list many men and women from the Emerald Isle and provide a compelling picture of the type of Irish immigrant that came to New Orleans and the reasons for emigrating during the Colonial Era. The documents show that the two main avenues by which the Irish came to the city, like the paths of Alejandro O’Reilly and Oliver Pollock took, were typically military service or business opportunities.
The colonial era differed from the subsequent period in that it was marked by certain key individuals who happen to be Irish, rather than by a large wave of Irish emigrants to New Orleans. No ethnic enclave existed yet; the city was a heterogeneous cluster made up of individual experiences. However, collectively, the Irish of colonial New Orleans were different in important ways from the Irish of the thirteen British colonies. Irish immigrants there were primarily Presbyterians who would later become known as the “Scotch-Irish", whereas Louisiana attracted Irish Catholics because it was part of the Catholic Atlantic world that also included France and Spain.
The 1790s were a tumultuous time in the Western Hemisphere. The French Revolution began in 1789, the Haitian (St. Domingue) Revolution in 1791, and both precipitated wars between and among the nations of Europe. Ireland also saw revolutionary activity on her shores, and the failed 1798 Rebellion resulted in a number of exiles fleeing Ireland to Europe and America; New Orleans was among the places that received some of these refugees. Those arriving in New Orleans at the turn of the new century encountered a fast-growing town in a constant state of flux. The sudden purchase of Louisiana in 1803 surprised most people in and outside of New Orleans. The local Creole population resisted yet another change in territorial master, and suspected the newly arrived, non-French speaking, Protestants and Governor Claiborne of dubious motives. The transition was fraught with uncertainty but also rich in opportunity, as New Orleans was becoming the main depository of all goods travelling down the Mississippi and her tributaries. Within a few short years, in 1812, the first steamboat, fittingly called the New Orleans, would begin plying its trade up and down river. The golden age of the Crescent City had begun.
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