An Interview with Laura Kelley
An excerpt of Laura Kelley’s recently published book, The Irish in New Orleans, appeared in the Fall 2014 issue of Louisiana Cultural Vistas. Editor David Johnson interviewed the author, a professor at Tulane University, about her research and events surrounding the International Irish Famine Commemoration that will take place in New Orleans from November 6–9. The commemoration is sponsored in part by the Consul General of Ireland.
What drew you to the Irish in New Orleans as a research subject and the topic of your book?
I was checking out graduate programs for my Ph.D. in history and, having heard somewhere that New Orleans has a section of town called “The Irish Channel,” I decided to take a look at Tulane University’s program. A highly entertaining cab driver, born and raised in said Irish Channel, informed me on the ride from the airport that “we Irish are everywhere in New Orleans—been here forever.” I liked Tulane’s history department and, since I could not find anything written about the Irish in New Orleans, save for one book, I decided to attend Tulane. Within a few short months, I realized I had hit pay dirt. The formative presence of the Irish here in New Orleans is ubiquitous and far-reaching—a gold mine for historians. And I’ve been busy ever since!
What are common misperceptions about Irish immigration to Louisiana, and what surprised you the most about your research?
Let me quote something from that one book about the Irish down here—it claims that these immigrants were “undetermined and afraid to act.” Wrong! What I found is the opposite—a confident, action-prone nascent community that, if need be, fought for the rights of its members individually and collectively. Another misconception is that the Irish were only laborers when in fact they engaged in every type of occupation from cabinet-maker to doctor, blacksmith to school teacher.
What surprised me the most was the strong prevalent sense of community in the face of difficult times, and the ability to not only persevere, but also cohere and grow as a community. What the Irish immigrants who arrived here during the Great Famine were able to accomplish in such a short period of time is incredible! Another aspect that surprised me was the agency of Irish women. They came to New Orleans, worked as domestics or something similar, and yet they were able to exert a tremendous amount of influence over the direction of their lives and achieve their own goals. People think that they were powerless when in fact the very opposite was true.
Why has New Orleans been chosen as a site to commemorate the Irish potato famine, and how did the famine affect immigration to the city?
For one, several of us on the Irish Famine Commemoration Committee wrote rather persuasive letters to the Irish government. We argued on a very solid foundation.
Fact: At the mid-19th century, every fourth person in New Orleans was Irish born or directly descended from an Irish immigrant.
Fact: New Orleans had a larger per capita Irish population than Boston, Philadelphia, or Baltimore, and was second only to New York.
Fact: New Orleans was the second largest port in the U.S. and a direct port of call for immigrant ships sailing from Liverpool, England, the main port of embarkation for Irish Famine emigrants. During the years of the “Great Hunger,” wave after wave of thousands of Irish arrived and made New Orleans their home. In fact, there already existed an Irish population in the city that these new arrivals encountered. The Famine immigrants significantly enlarged, strengthened and consolidated this base. Within less than 10 years, by the mid-1850s, the Irish had gained control of the port-related transportation industry. The story of the Irish in New Orleans is a story of a successful, smart, and educated immigrant group. What better city than ours? There simply was no way the Irish Government could say no to our proposal that New Orleans be chosen as the 2014 International Famine Commemoration City.
What can visitors expect at the International Irish Famine Commemoration?
There are so many different activities, and many are free or at nominal cost. A symposium with world renowned scholars is scheduled on Friday, November 7, at St. Alphonsus is free and open to the public, and we will have a beautiful exhibit of photographs from mid-19th century Ireland on display there. A gala on Saturday night at Gallier Hall will be catered by the famous Brennan families. It will include adult beverages and great music by Black 47 and Tara O’Grady. It is the event in town for that weekend. I encourage everyone to go to our website to get full details of all the events and how to purchase tickets.
In what ways have Irish immigrants left a lasting impact upon New Orleans?
You might as well ask in what ways have they not? There is food, music, architecture, religion, politics, city government, education, trade and industry, finance, sports, language and more. My recently published book discusses many of these themes. Not all, however. While working on this book, I realized that the topic of Irish impact upon New Orleans requires more than one volume. The second volume is already in preparation.
Click here for Louisiana Cultural Vistas’ feature story The Irish in New Orleans by Laura Kelley.