Saturday, March 17, 2012

Everybody's Irish this weekend

Some 1,400 club members from Lakeview, Algiers, St. Bernard, Terrytown, Houma and other parts – all with strong ties to the Irish Channel neighborhood – attended Mass at St. Mary’s Assumption Church on Constance Street, then marched for the 65th time through the traditionally Irish neighborhood.
Irish exchanging beads for kisses
“It’s more than beer and flowers and kissing,” said John Fitzmorris, a history professor at Our Lady of Holy Cross College, whose family arrived in New Orleans in 1867 to build the railroads.
“It’s a way of honoring our ancestors who came here for a variety of reasons. It’s also an expression of our Irish Catholic faith,” Fitzmorris said.
In the early 19th century, Irish immigrants settled in the riverfront area between Jackson and Louisiana Avenues. They established their own stores, clubs, schools and churches and held their first St. Patrick’s Day Parade in 1809.
“St. Patrick brought the Catholic faith to the Irish people,” said Fitzmorris, adding that, in his opinion, the celebratory Mass is far more important than the parade.
By 1840, New Orleans was the largest city in the South and third largest in the nation, largely due to a massive influx of Irish – more than 200,000 arrived in the 1830s and ‘40s. Many came because they were promised a dollar a day to dig the New Basin Canal. Thousands of newcomers, lacking any immunity to tropical diseases, perished from yellow fever and cholera and were buried in local cemeteries.

“Everybody started out in the Irish Channel,” McKay said. The poorest stayed in New Orleans, but others ventured north or west. “Wherever the river went, the Irish went,” said McKay, a loyal member of the Ancient Order of Hibernians.
The Irish enjoyed forming their own supportive communities. “I remember growing up in the Irish Channel and everyone was united together,” Roubion said. “People sat on the front porch and played cards and watched the kids play.”
“Back then, you were poor, but you didn’t know you were poor,” he said. The Roubion family moved to St. Bernard Parish in the 1950s to experience the American dream of owning a home in the suburbs. After World War II, many left the Channel to buy homes in Chalmette or on the West Bank.
Irishman advancing for a kiss.
“The Irish Channel was like a melting pot of Italians, Germans and French,” said Dick Burke, the club’s current president. Burke grew up at the corner of Washington Avenue and Chippewa Street. He studied at Redemptorist High School and attended the Irish Roman Catholic Church, St. Alphonsus, built in 1857.
Burke’s father and uncle founded the Irish Channel St. Patrick’s Day Club in 1947 to maintain the close bonds as families scattered. The parade is one way to bring everybody back who left the neighborhood, Burke said.
The Irish were teachers and filled positions in the police and fire departments as well as politics. They always had a desire to serve, McKay said. “There was a lot of giving and still is wherever you go – not that we’re saints!”
The Irish Channel St. Patrick’s Day Club supports Special Olympics, the Golf Tournament for Crones Research, The Chef’s Charity for Children fundraiser for St. Michael’s Special School and the Friends of St. Alphonsus. At every club meeting, members collect canned goods for the food pantry at St. Joseph Catholic Church on Canal Street.
Established in 1844, St. Joseph parish traditionally embraced Irish, Italians and Germans.
“They were all immigrants, looking for the same jobs and looking for work,” said Sister Vera Butler, director of Lantern Light at St. Joseph, which serves free lunches and provides emergency groceries to more than 100 neighborhood families. At Thanksgiving, the Irish Channel St. Patrick’s Day Club holds a special food drive and donates 60 turkeys and trimmings.
“Now, they have made it and they’re looking out to help other people who may be struggling,” said Sr. Vera.
“St. Patrick’s Day is a celebration of what the Irish have done and how we have contributed to being American,” Fitzmorris said. As many Irish might say, “We’re Americans by birth and Irish by the grace of God,” he added.
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