One of my Cajun father’s favorite meals was Irish stew. My mom cobbled her version together with the typical beef, carrots, onions and potatoes, and thickened it with roux.
Aside from a dynamite stew, the Irish made rich contributions to Louisiana culture. But, as with African slaves, their beginnings here were extremely trying.
Fleeing British tyranny, the Irish began arriving in Catholic-friendly New Orleans at the end of the 18th century, and came in droves beginning in 1820, when they were forced out of their home country by famine. Although many were successful and bought property and businesses, the majority of Irish immigrants were uneducated and ended up doing menial labor.
In 1830, the city’s American leaders decided to compete with rival French merchants and dig a shipping canal from Lake Pontchartrain to the American sector. Since slaves were considered too valuable to do such treacherous, and possibly fatal work, digging jobs for what was to be called the New Basin Canal went to Irish immigrants.
Desperate for money, workers dug on the canal even when deathly sick. So by the time the canal was completed, an estimated 8,000-30,000 Irish had perished on the job. Many bodies were buried, or just left, right where they’d fallen.
In 1990, the Irish Cultural Society of New Orleans erected a Celtic cross at the end of New Orleans’s West End Boulevard in honor of the fallen workers. So here’s to the Irish of New Orleans, not only for their delicious stew, but also for their unimaginable sacrifices.