Irish Immigrants in New Orleans

In the years leading up to the Civil War, the port of New Orleans was the second busiest port in the country. It was the fourth busiest port in the world. The influx of Irish immigrants into the Crescent City was second only to that of New York. 20,000 immigrants entered New Orleans in 1855 alone. A very large percentage of those immigrants were from Ireland. The two principal immigrants groups in the 1850’s was the Germans and the Irish.

The Germans would often pass through New Orleans onto greener pastures. But, the Irish tended to stay in New Orleans. One historian commented that by 1850, 20% of the New Orleans population was Irish. The next largest immigrant group was the Germans, who comprised 10% of the City.

In the 1840’s and 1850’s New Orleans was a booming city. It was said by one visitor that in 1842-1843, 2,000 rigged ships had called at the port that year. Another visitor noted that 1500 flat boats and keel boats would float down the Mississippi every year.

In a boomtown, the Irish found work digging canals. In a bayou and swamp area, there was always need for new canals. The Irish also came to dominate more lucrative areas. They became a large part of the screwmen work force. The screwmen were those workers who screwed down the cotton bales, making them tighter and tighter, so as to take up as little space as possible on the ships and boats. It was considered skilled labor in the 1850’s and it paid well. The screwmen formed the first labor union in 1847. Many officers of the Screwman’s Benevolent Organization had Irish names.

Another lucrative job was the drayman. The draymen hauled goods from the wharves to the city proper. It was a job formerly held by the Negroes. But, the Irish quickly came to dominate the drayman trade. In that time “Negroes” included freed men and hired out slaves. The Irish drayman with his flashing whip and cursing tongue soon became a mark of the City.

The Irish also supplanted the Negro hack driver. With the need for sharp dress and polite manners, one would think the Irish started with a disadvantage. But, again by the 1850’s, the Irish dominated the hack business, as well. Visitors to the city would comment on the reckless driving and the outrageous Irish rogues of the cabmen.

The Irish even replaced the native Negroes as waiters. The manager of the prestigious St. Charles Hotel told one English visitor that the Irish excelled partly because they were so gallant with ladies. The Irish displayed great imagination at in praising feminine visitors.

Laura D. Kelley, Erin’s Enterprise, Ph.d Dissertation 2004 (on file at Tulane Univ.), p. 50

Earl Niehaus, The Irish in New Orleans (Baton Rouge: LSU Press 1965), pp. 46, 48-50.

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