The Irish in New Orleans
New Orleans' population increased constantly during the entire antebellum era, from 17,240 in 1810 to 168,675 on the eve of the Civil War. Its growth during the 1830's - the population increased from 49,826 to 102,193 - made New Orleans the third largest American city.
During the 1840's the growth leveled off to 14,000. Until the late 1830's, the majority of residents were Negroes, the whites only accounting two out of five people in 1830.
By 1850 whites totaled 91,431 out of 116,375. The Reillys immigrated to New Orleans in late 1847 or early 1848. The city was strangely divided into three municipalities and suffered from a severe scarcity of habitable land. The division continued until about 1852.
The First Municipality was in the middle, Canal Street separating it from the "uptown" Second Municipality and Esplanade, from the lower Third Municipality.
The Second Municipality or uptown area was regarded as the American and progressive quarter, the First Municipality as the Latin Creole district, and the "Old Third" as the home of the immigrants.
The Third was the home of the Germans and Irish, in the third ward that extended to the St. Bernard Parish line, the Irish were the dominant ethnic group. (The Madel family lived in the third ward of the Third Municipality in 1850.) It was the one of the poorest section of the city with destitute Irish moving into shacks abandoned by Negroes during the height of the post-famine immigration.
Travel was relatively cheap to New Orleans; the boats that brought bales of cotton to Liverpool had attractive rates for immigrants on the return trip just to fill the ship, effectively serving as human ballast. The Irish stayed in the port city or traveled to another large inland city; because of their lack of education, skills and money; they were trapped by the need for a job involving manual labor. Because of the rapid expansion of New Orleans there was a large demand for unskilled labor in building houses and filling swamps.
They left Ireland in poverty and for the most part remained in that state in New Orleans. It was a port becoming increasingly important for both cotton and passengers; it was located in a region chronically cursed by epidemics because of the high water table, hot moist climate and lack of sanitation. The type of work, digging ditches and filling in marsh land brought them into close contact with yellow fever and Typhoid. In just one large yellow fever epidemic in 1853 12,000 died, over 1/3 of which were Irish. In 1850 11,130 of the 18,476 patients of the Charity Hospital were Irish. In the 1850s' a large portion of the inmates in the public insane asylum were also Irish.
A class distinction was made of the old (1830's - prior to famine) immigrants and the famine-immigrants. The earlier were generally considered to be more highly educated, intelligent and ambitious than the later immigrants.
New Orleans has always held an appeal to the Irish due to its Catholic traditions and because French and Spanish residents also harbored anti-British sentiments.
An early wave of Irish immigrants, fleeing British persecution at the end of the 1700s, landed in New Orleans and became well integrated into the economy and social life of the city. The first St. Patrick’s Day celebration was held in 1809. Irish social and benevolent organizations were formed, and Irish theater thrived.
The still existing St. Patrick’s Church was founded in 1833 because Irish parishioners wanted to attend services in English, not French. Immigrants from Ireland started arriving in significant numbers as famine began to drive them out of their homeland in the 1820s, a famine which peaked in the 1840s.
As New Orleans was a thriving port city, the itineraries of many boats ended here and the passengers simply stayed. In addition, Irish immigrants often found cheap passage to New Orleans because after cotton ships unloaded their cargo in Liverpool, captains needed to load their holds up with human ballast for the return trip. Conditions, needless to say, were far from ideal.
Living conditions for the thousands of Irish immigrants once they arrived in New Orleans were also far from ideal. Poor and living in slums, the Irish were particularly susceptible to a series of epidemics that periodically swept the city.
Many Irish labored on the New Basin Canal, a dangerous project which claimed thousands of lives.
Still many more immigrants came, shifting the racial balance of the New Orleans population from black to white. Irish immigrants even influenced the local accent. First-time visitors may expect the city dialect to affect a Southern drawl, but really it’s more like an accent out of Brooklyn where many Irish and other European immigrants also settled. In “New Awlins,” a crawfish boil is a “crawfish berl.”
Until it was bought by Capital One in 2005, Hibernia Bank was the largest local bank in Louisiana. Hibernia is an old term for Ireland, and the bank, founded in 1870, prospered and quickly grew because of its Irish clientele.
Although not really an Irish neighborhood anymore, an uptown area near the Garden District called the Irish Channel retains its original name, architecture, and neighborhood feel. It is still the center of St. Patrick’s Day celebrations, with Magazine St. parade riders throwing cabbages, carrots and potatoes to the crowds.