Not Just a party, Irish Fest celebrates a forgotten history

Alexandria Whitten

Between Irish Dance Competitions, bagpipers, and the availability of Irish Channel Stout at Irish Fest New Orleans, overlooking the deep history of Irish immigrants in New Orleans can be easy.

“People from New Orleans aren’t aware of the history,” said Vincent Avila, secretary and co-founder of the non-profit New Orleans Irish Famine Orphans Society. “This was the second largest port for Irish immigrants.”

Irish Festival-goers gathered at Kingsley House on Sept. 15 to celebrate Irish culture with traditional food, dance and music for the fifth annual Irish Fest New Orleans.

The goal of the New Orleans Irish Famine Orphans Society is to “give voice to least of our ancestors, the Irish orphans,” according to the non-profit’s website.

Dressed in authentic reproductions of the outfits Irish immigrants wore when they arrived in New Orleans, members of the New Orleans Irish Famine Orphans Society set up an “Orphans Alley” near the entrance of the festival. The “Orphans” challenged attendees with games of chance like “Three Card Monte” and a “Shell Game” with all the money wagered going to charity.

“Orphans Alley” referenced the struggles Irish immigrants faced upon arrival to New Orleans and the creative ways they supported themselves.

“[Irish Orphans] came to America already orphaned by the famine of Black ’47, others were left fatherless when 8,000 Irishmen died digging New Orleans’ Basin Canal,” described the organization’s website about the early challenges of the Irish community.

Another mission of the New Orleans Irish Famine Orphans Society is to preserve the works of their patron Margaret Haughery, an Irish immigrant and philanthropist who served the poor and hungry of New Orleans in the late 1800s.

“We want to keep on with Margaret Haughery’s vision of feeding the hungry,” said Avila.

Taking inspiration from “the Bread Lady of New Orleans,” organization members run service projects and fundraisers to benefit hunger and poverty issues in New Orleans.

Groups like New Orleans Irish Famine Orphans Society and events like Irish Fest New Orleans bring to light the history of the Irish and how they have impacted modern New Orleans through cuisine, politics, dialect and culture.