A beautiful morning on January 17, saw the dedication by the Hibernian Celtic Cross Committee of a series of sculptures at the Hibernian Memorial Park in the West End of New Orleans. These sculptures were added to the already existing Celtic Cross Memorial. For more than 30 years the Celtic Cross has stood on the site of the New Basin Canal, between West End and Pontchartrain Boulevards, as a memorial to the Irish Laborers who dug the canal in the 1830s. Beginning at the lake, the New Basin Canal wound its way into the New Orleans, stopping at a turning basin near where the Mercedes-Benz Superdome now stands.
The Irish Laborers and the New Basin Canal
In 1830, American businessmen in New Orleans decided to build a shipping channel from Lake Pontchartrain to the American sector of the city to compete with the established Carondelet Canal in the French section. Construction of the New Basin Canal began in 1832 with a work force consisting almost entirely of Irish immigrants. Newly arrived and desperate for jobs, these were the men who would work for the least amount of pay.
The work was back-breaking, the hours long, the pay ($1 per day) was minimal, and — because of the canal’s path through the swamp — yellow fever, cholera, malaria, and other diseases ran rampant among the laborers. The men worked when they were sick, fearing the loss of the job if they missed a day, which led to many deaths at the work site. By the time the canal was completed in 1838, it is believed that between 8,000 and 20,000 Irish immigrants died in the effort, perhaps as high as 30,000.
The canal was a success for the business interests who invested in it, and it remained open to traffic until the 1940s when shipping methods had changed, and it was no longer needed. The city then filled in the canal, and the space now serves as the median (“neutral ground” in New Orleans) between Pontchartrain and West End Boulevards.
The Hibernian Memorial Park’s roots begin with the Celtic Cross Memorial, laid down in 1990 by the Irish American Cultural Society in a ceremony at which the Irish Ambassador to the United States attended. The Cross’ inscription reads: “In memory of the Irish immigrants who dug the New Basin Canal, 1832-1838, this Celtic Cross carved in Ireland has been erected by the Irish Cultural Society of New Orleans.” In addition, the Cross also commemorates the Irish who perished during An Gorta Mor or “The Great Hunger.” As the Cultural Society faded and care for the Cross lagged, the Ancient Order of Hibernians took over trusteeship of the memorial, kept the grounds around it, and began the process of developing a park to compliment it.
Now, with the foundations of the park laid and the sculptures placed in it, the Hibernian Memorial Park has taken the next step in becoming the one of the many lovely green spaces throughout the city and a place for the public to relax and reflect on those Irish who helped build the city.
The AOH in Louisiana are especially grateful to the members of the Louisiana Hibernian Charity Committee: President R. James “Jim” Moriarty, Vice-President Richard F. “Dick” Burke Jr., Treasurer Bernard J. Eckholdt Jr., AOH National President and Interim Secretary James F. McKay III, Judge Dennis Waldron, Former State Senator Edwin Murray, and Hibernians Mike Kerrigan, Joseph Casler, Daniel Foley, Patrick Sens and Dennis Roubion.
— Submitted by Don Jennings and Dennis A. Roubion