“Port of New Orleans” by Enda M. Brennan

irish immigrants
Irish Immigrants Leaving Queenstown Harbor (Detail), New York Public Library

New Orleans was a cheaper port — four pounds and change for the Transatlantic voyage; half price for children.

Many Irish who elected to come through this harbor were swindled into the voyage by cheapskate shipping agents in Ireland who told them New Orleans was just a short two- or three- day walk from New York and the longer sail-time well worth it.

God bless the dear hearts of these ancestors with their provincial optimism and inexplicable trust in others–one-and-a-half Irelands can fit inside Louisiana with room to spare.

These same shipping agents conveniently forgot to mention the heat. The humidity. Ireland is one of the windiest, wettest places on Earth with a cool temperate climate similar to the Pacific Northwest. Just as they were crowded, sunburnt and ornery into desert penal colonies in the harsh Australian outback, when the Irish left bog and entered bayou, they were thus wrenched from their literal element.

In New Orleans the Irish were pushed to the outskirts of the city, into the lowland wards that still today are on the verge of being swept to sea. A tepid, tenuous, hellish place where  swamp water flooded their meager homes and exposed them to typhus and dysentery — the very diseases they left Ireland to escape.

In 1850 yellow fever hit New Orleans, as it tends to do in the summertime. The Irish were not acclimated to the climate and did not have the natural immunity that those native to the area tend to develop after exposure to the tropical disease. New Orleans was quarantined that summer and those who were able to left the city. The Irish were left to die in much the same way Black Americans attempting to escape the city limits after Katrina were held back from refuge in neighboring parishes at gunpoint.

In 1850-1851, 1 in 5 Irish people died of yellow fever in New Orleans.

The famine killed 1 in 7 that year.

Mhuise mo chara, never doubt the adaptability of your blood. We Irish flourish not so much where we are planted, but where we are discarded.

Fleeing starvation and unable to afford to relocate an entire family on a Workhouse salary of 8 pence a day, the Irish came to America in shifts. First the father would come, find work, save up to send for his wife, then the two of them would work to send the children one by one. In pairs if they were lucky.

If you read accounts of these waves of bedraggled people onto shore, it sounds no different than eye witness accounts of Rwanda, hollow-eyed child stalked by vulture.  You hear of their bare feet, emaciated bodies, babies with distended bellies, limbs folded up with rickets. The long, empty stares of the “oldest” among them–men and women of just 25, 30. People who had left nothing behind and had nothing here to start with . People suspended from measurable existence, from hope. Just wide eyes, picking through trash heaps to scavenge for food. They had nothing.

I struggle to wrap my head around what “nothing” means, and it means just that — nothing.  No money, no bundle on a stick, no shoes, no jewelry, no home there and none here. “Clothes” just rags patched together, caked with grime. Colorless, shapeless. Like the rationed corn gruel scraped from the broken bottoms of pots.

I can’t conceptualize the poverty. None of us can. How do you make something of yourself in a new country when you came here with nothing?? When you’ve been starving for years in your own country and come here to a land with so much food, so much sweet smelling, fattening, beautiful food … and you with no money to buy it. Literally without as much as two coins to press together.

What do you do? How do you begin to scratch out an existence?

You find a stick and pick through trash and pig troughs for food. You sift through coal heaps for good coals left over. You mix the coal with water and tear a piece of rag from the rest of the rags and start polishing shoes. You gang up with others like yourself and you all polish shoes. You fight other roving gangs of bootblacks for territory, for the French quarter – the wide avenues; the gentry and their good leather.

You live crowded in dank, makeshift homes with others like yourself because the people in this country think “your kind” bring crime and disease and therefore will not speak to you let alone rent property to you. You hire yourself out for the 8 cents a day the English paid you to build roads to nowhere on an empty stomach. But now you’re in a country where workers make a dollar or more a day, so you end up putting people out of work simply because you have next to no concept of wealth or even of money.

All you know is you can buy more than corn rations here in Ameri-cay and isn’t that grand?

Tá, cinnte

Tis indeed.

You sit outside the 1850s equivalent of Home Depot–the docks–and fight for work. And you get the work because you’ll work for pennies when slave owners won’t contract their men for hire for under the going rate . You work the jobs no one else will do because slaves are a lifelong investment that costs a portion of a free man’s life savings so why would you contract a slave to dig a levee ditch only to have your “investment” get mauled by alligators when there’s hundreds of these desperate, 8 cents Irish pouring into town every day?

And what’s a Kerryman to do with an alligator? Sure, there aren’t even snakes in Ireland.

The worst are the stories of unattended children.

Remember that lie I told you about the distance between Louisiana and the Atlantic coast? A lot of parents living in New York and Boston naively sent their children to New Orleans, planning on walking just a few days to greet them upon arrival.  Still more parents in New Orleans itself sending for their wains.

The Famine Irish, the vast majority of them illiterate, usually had no information about their children save a span of dates when they could have arrived. Often they wouldn’t even know the name of the ship. If they did, they would have to bring what little information they had to the shipping offices to menacing American bureaucrats whose language they often did not speak.

Can you please read me the name of this ship? My children are on it. Please. They are my children.

Ads in newspapers : “Mary Connelly, four years old, arrived in June, lost in the city of new Orleans”

And on the other end there is a little girl named Mary who doesn’t speak much and what words she says aren’t English.  Too young to know her own last name, she doesn’t even know she’s from Ireland – a country that did not exist by such a name prior to the 20th century. She knows Mammy’s house, in Kilnaclasha, in Abbeystrowry Parish in County Cork, that her priest is Father Michael with the short leg.

What happens to her?

And what of her mother, combing the streets in despair? What of those parents? What is it like to leave your children behind in a state of stark desperation, save money to send for them, only to have them swallowed up by this great, big country you never asked to come to in the first place?

This isn’t home. We made it thus.

My thoughts falter.

I suddenly understand why Irish men left their families at higher rates than any other ethnic group from 1845 well into the 20th century. Why wouldn’t you run after watching the little light fade from four, five, six freckled faces in the span of a few months? Yourself helpless, emasculated, beyond capacity for fully felt sorrow. How can you stay? What’s the point?

Do you understand why the drunk Irishman trope really isn’t funny? Do you understand what those rowdy men in bars were trying to forget? The reason so many Irish Americans know next to nothing about their family before emigration is because there was nothing to say. There wasn’t much left behind and the memories too painful — you measure your success in this country by the degree to which the pain has subsided. You work so you don’t think. Drink so you don’t have nightmares.

This is intergenerational. A parent giving up on their family and just walking out and never coming back casts a shadow that lasts for generations. But this wound was particularly deep for the Irish.

You see, the Irish family is large and close — raucous clans that serve as social strongholds against anything that should threaten them. Instead of bequeathing a whole estate to the eldest son posthumously according to British custom, the Irish traditionally divide land among all children and their families, new generations living on smaller and smaller divisions of property until eventually the 1 Gael out of 10 born with a gene to wander will take his family to the foreign land known as “up the road”. These living arrangements were perceived as chaotic, incestuous, tribal, and uncivilized by the English — but they also enabled Irish families to live interdependently and to sustain their Gaelic identity through the rich oral tradition that exists in every clan.

The colonial Irish deeply valued children, loved the life and pure perspective they bring to the world of adults. The Irish also value the elders, something not a part of white America at all. Irish mothers have a reputation of both pragmatic austerity and fierce animalistic loyalty — there are many accounts of mothers diving into the sea after the dead babies who would be thrown overboard like trash.

Do you know how many Irish babies were thrown without burial into ditches in Ireland and off starboard side on the three thousand mile journey from those shores to these? Do you have any idea the degree of trauma, especially in a culture that spends a week or more laying a loved one to rest? Just like Jews must sit Shiva, the Irish must lay out the corpse without shoes and with pennies for Chiron. We must lament and drink and dance to fever pitch, beat breasts in performed agony and sing wailing tribute. Without this ceremony our people cannot be laid truly to rest. The soul leaves a hole in the world. Residual hauntings. The North Atlantic is full of baby-sized holes.

In pre-famine Ireland you did everything with family members because why not? The more the merrier. In America, the tendency of Irish Americans to stick around their own even generations removed comes directly from this. The clan-like structure of the Kennedys was the only Irish thing about them — for when JFK went canvassing in South Boston he tried to use the front door like a landlord or excise man instead of coming up the back stairs like a friend.

Friends of Irish descent in new England, how often do you use your front door? Or is it only used for official business while you mainly use a side entrance? Do your friends knock or do they come to a side door and knock once while opening it? Does your family entertain in the kitchen rather than the parlor that sits unused?  There is a reason you do this. There is a subconscious reason you do all of these things. The hearth / kitchen is the heart of the Irish home, the place in which food is prepared and eaten and stories told. Only landlords use the front friggin stairs and only moneylenders and census men knock on doors. This is how your family screened calls before phones in a space of shared subjugation.

I think the gradual (and somewhat inevitable) breakdown of the Irish family as we expanded across America is a big reason for the weird sorrow and longing for community that I find true of so many of us. Because we had community, we had a tribe. We were the last of Europe to be “civilized.” I think in a way we all have a weird blood-memory of the life we were “supposed” to have. One that was simple, easy, sustained. A life where you were never lonely, where you were surrounded by family and friends and livestock always. It’s not codependency as intellectuals might call the non-desire to go places without your people — it’s because life is just better shared.

Gíorraíonn beirt bóthar.

Two people shorten the road.

We’re all lonely, aren’t we? Deeply so. I know at the bottom of my drinking there was a yearning for belonging. Of being with others like me and of never being apart. Is this trauma passed down? Do genes have memory?

Or maybe it’s the ghosts of all the little unattended children who came to American ports living in our rib cage and rattling it like the bars of the Long Kesh.

Bright little Mary from aul’ Skibbereen;

lost, oh lost in the belly of New Orleans.



Enda M. Brennan is an itinerant painter and writer with an academic background in formalist poetry and creative nonfiction. He has spent the past five years since getting sober unpacking post-colonial layers by exploring the Irish language and linguistic tradition. Originally from New England, he currently resides in Austin, Texas, with a lesser sulphur-crested cockatoo named Maverick. Tír gan teanga; tír gan anam.