Nearly Lost, but Not Forgotten

Published: Irish America Magazine
December 2006

When a major city experiences near death, one of the countless losses are the historical artifacts that summon up and honor the people and families who over time called that city home.

That’s how it stands today in New Orleans. Lost in the ineffectual largesse of governmental bureaucracy and the dreadful minutiae of insurance contracts are quite literally thousands of monuments, many of which were carefully and lovingly maintained by heritage societies before the storm. However today, they remain abandoned and sometimes in a ruinous state.

A mere stone’s throw from one of the major levee failures in the Lakeview neighborhood of New Orleans rests a monument erected by the Irish Cultural Society of New Orleans. Dedicated on November 4, 1990, it was built to honor the estimated 8,000 to 20,000 Irish immigrants who died while constructing the New Basin Canal through the snake and alligator infested swamps north of the city between 1832 and 1836.

Carolyn Scanlon, the wife of the now deceased, Henry Scanlon, one of the past Presidents of the Society, explains that they erected the monument to honor these thousands of Irishmen who died of Yellow Fever and the harsh work conditions over the course of the six years of its construction. At the time, Irish labor was considerably less expensive than slave labor, and with the constant influx of these immigrants coming through the port, they had a neverending source of bodies. She states, “These men who were working for an incredibly low wage and maybe a shot of whiskey, would die and then were simply and unceremoniously buried in the levees along the banks of the canal they were building.”

According to Margaret Ramsone, the Program Coordinator for the Society, the original planning for the monument took two years where they raised over $20,000 through local fundraisers and were then able to have the large Irish Cross, which stands in the center of the monument, built of Kilkenny Marble from Ireland. She adds, “We were honored to have the Irish Ambassador to the United States on hand for the dedication in 1990.”

The canal eventually lost its economic viability as a waterway between downtown New Orleans and Lake Pontchartrain and was completely filled in by 1950 with much of it converted to a large linear park, where the monument now rests. After Hurricane Katrina and the over nine feet of floodwaters were finally pumped out from the surrounding neighborhood, the New Basin Canal Park became a monstrous holding area for flood debris. Unknown thousands of tons of personal belongings, televisions, appliances, wreckage and refuse were marshaled into small mountains on top of the park as thousands of Lakeview residents began the long road back to restoring their historic neighborhood. The US Army Corps of Engineers also took over a large tract of the park for holding and drying the bottom soil dredged up from the repair and construction at the nearby 17th Street Canal.

“By some miracle someone actually went out and roped off the monument site.” States Kevin Gilheany, the current President of the Irish Cultural Society. “It’s now completely surrounded by hills of canal mud and completely overgrown. But with so many of our members flooded out and still scattered to the four winds, unable to return to their homes even today, we’ve lost a lot of the volunteers that we would call on to help maintain the monument. Many of the ones who have returned are living in their FEMA trailers and are getting up there in age.”

The Irish Cultural Society of New Orleans was founded almost 30 years ago, with the exact date difficult to track down with the group’s historical documents having been lost in the flood. It was originally formed to promote Irish heritage events in New Orleans through an affiliation with the Irish American Cultural Institute. Gilheany further describes how the group was “funneling Irish musicians, poets and professors through the city before the storm. We were constantly putting on Irish plays and dances.”

As a major port city, New Orleans has always been home to an ethnically diverse or ‘gumbo’ population. As such, the Irish immigrants of the 19th century have contributed a large presence and influence, evidenced today by the many Irish Churches, pubs and a St. Patrick’s Celebration, which consistently grades in national top ten lists.

One of the cultural centers for Irish heritage was O’Flaherty’s Pub located in the New Orleans French Quarter, which was the performance and gathering space for the touring groups and performers brought through by the Irish Cultural Society, but this was also lost to Katrina. Although the pub did not experience any flooding, the incredible dearth of tourists coming through New Orleans quickly brought about its demise.

As much of the city struggles to rebuild, one of the bright spots has been the reopening of many of the city’s other historic pubs and on St. Patrick’s Day of this year, the traditional parading went on through the Irish Channel neighborhood of New Orleans, but much more still has yet to be saved. On the upcoming 16th anniversary of the dedication of the monument to those thousands of Irishmen who perished digging the canal, Carolyn Scanlon and Margaret Ramsone plan on visiting the site to lay a wreath at the base of the cross, even if it’s only the two of them.