Friday, March 17, 2006

If I Should Fall from Grace with God

Where no doctor can relieve me
If I'm buried 'neath the sod
And the angels won't receive me
Let me go down
Let me go down
Let me go down in the mud
Where the rivers all run dry

- Shane McGowan of the Pogues

On a day when many New Orleanian's thoughts turn to Parasol's and the pubs scattered across town, my mind wanders over to the great monument to the Irish in New Orleans, the New Basin Canal, which ran from about where Union Station stands today to Lake Pontchartrain.

Most of it's gone. All that remains are the right of way of the Pontchartrain Expressway, the great neutral ground between West End and Pontchartrain Boulevards, and the small basin that runs the last half mile or so to the lake.

If you say Irish cemetery to someone from New Orleans, they'll think of St. Patrick's on City Park. The great burial ground of the Irish is the New Basin Canal route itself, where the remains of somewhere between 8,000 and 20,000 Irish laborers lie buried in the spoil banks, near where they fell. Stand anywhere along the route of the expressway, and you stand on the bones of the Irish, people hired at a dollar a day to dig the canal so that the wealthy of New Orleans need not risk their slaves in the dangerous work.

Today, all that stands in remembrance of the Irish who built the canal is a Celtic cross in Lakeview near West End Boulevard and Downs Street. I didn't even think to check on it when I drove around Lakeview when I was home Mardi Gras week. It's fitting there should be some remembrance, in a city famous for its cemeteries, for the jazz funerals, for the way we have come to very public terms with death.

That the cross stands in Lakeview is a fitting reminder that The Flood was not the city's first experience with mass death or with disaster. Our entire city is a monument to death and disater overcome. The area of cemeteries where St. Patrick's and all the other cities of the dead stand was once the back of town, where the remains of the yellow fever victims were kept away from the living.

The great fire of 1788 that ravaged the old French city left the French Quarter a monument to Spanish architecture. In Christopher Hallowel's book Holding Back the Sea is a plate of a lithograph of nineteenth century flooding in the downtown area reminiscent of recent news photos.

New Orleans sprang back from these previous disasters, just as Chicago rebounded from its great fire, and San Francisco from the famous earthquake. Still, some commentators wonder if New Orleans can recover once again. They point out that in other citywide and famous disasters of the past, the damaged cities were on the rise, not yet at the peak of their potential.

New Orleans before the levees failed, they argue, was a city past its prime--shrinking in population, losing company headquarters, mired in poverty and crime. They suggest that New Orleans is a city that has been passed by history, and that this will make a difference in with city's ability to rebound.

Perhaps we have been bypassed by history. But history is written in mud by the marching boots of armies, scrawled in slag left by the great engines of industry that tear nations apart, remake them in ways their people do not understand.

Perhaps it is a good thing to be left behind by history, a place at the margins, inconsequential to those who measure the world in divisions of troops and the splitting of stocks. If we are of no consequence to the legions of fanatical Christian and Islamic warriors who would destroy the world lest if fall into the wrong hands then maybe, just maybe we have a chance to save ourselves.

The Irish are no longer at the center of history. The great moment of the Irish people is chronicled in the book How the Irish Saved Civilization, which argues the Irish preserved learning and culture through the Dark Ages, then sent out legions of monks to restore that heritage to Europe. That golden moment was a millennium ago.

Today's Ireland, while not a nation at the center of events, is a thriving place sometime referred to as the Celtic Tiger. It's economy is one of the fastest growing in Europe, with a robust high tech and medical sector, as well as strong legal, accountancy, finance and call center industries.

This Celtic Tiger is not like it's Asian or American counterparts. It is not a place of glass skyscrapers and souless modernism. People live in the old houses, and follow the old ways. They did not have to give up the leisurely lifestyle perfected over generations to achieve prosperity, or remake their landscape in the image of Dallas.

Most Louisianians would feel immediately at home in Ireland, as I did when I visited over a decade ago. The joie de vivre of music, food and drink are so like those of Louisiana, it's as if you discovered a new parish, a lost part of Acadiana. Fiona Ritchie, host of the Celtic music show Thistle & Shamrock, once endorsed my own personal view--the Acadians are the lost tribe of the Celtic race. After a day in Ireland, you would understand why.

I think we can learn a lesson from the Irish, should study their ways as we are studying the dikes of the Dutch.

To prosper, we don't need to give up the life that makes New Orleans and Louisiana the place we all love, the place we all insist we will come home to, the place that must live again. Prosperity is possible in a town where most of the buildings are generations if not centuries old, where a pint at lunch is as common as coffee in Kansas, where people live for the craic, a Gaelic word best understood as what happens in a Irish pub when the good times roll.

I think it's possible to be bypassed by history, and to prosper in spite of that. I think success--which for us is not just rebuilding, but rebuilding better--are possible without giving up what we love about this place. We have only to look to the Irish for an example.

So, as we celebrate the unique American holiday of St. Patrick's Day, let me lift a glass to the forgotten thousands of the New Basin Canal, and to their cousins who never left the old country. You made this city what is is, and can teach us what it can become. You show us that we can embrace and celebrate our past and ourselves while we make a new future. And that there's no need for the music or the drink to stop to make it happen.

"This land was always ours
Was the proud land of our fathers
It belongs to us and them
Not to any of the others
Let them go, boys
Let them go, boys
Let them go down in the mud
Where the rivers all run dry"




Comments:
Another great post!
 
Great post. About the acadians/Celts, the Acadians in Nova Scotia were mostly farmers from western France, I believe. I have no idea whether some parts of France retained more Celtic culture than others when it was Latinized and then overrun by Germanic tribes, it's possible. Don't know if Brittany was the part of western France they came from either.

Like the Irish Tiger thought. First became aware of the phenom when I was curious to hear Irish accents among the people installing new software at NOPL a few years ago, it did make me wonder. But even when it was impoverished, Ireland did have more of a tradition of literacy and education than La. If we can change that and keep the rest...
 
Wow. I had no idea, nor would I have drawn the cultural comparison. You make a great point. What a wonderful post, Markus.

I spent St. Patty's day last year, in New Orleans, visiting my son.
 
SSJD is absolutely right: the difference is education and literacy. If we don't lick that issue, we can build levees to heaven and weild the power to command the waters to be still and it won't make a bit of difference for NOLA.

I am encouraged that my new neighborhood school, Dibert, is going charter. The general secession from the school board is a good first step.
 
Thanks for this -- totally interesting. Just a note that there's a typo in your wikipedia link -- it does to "widipedia.org."
 
After reading this post and the e-mail thread, there is little for me to say, Mark, except that you're one heck of a writer, and you've got a great group of commentators here.

What a fascinating story for St. Patrick's Day. As the city slowly rebuilds, to recall of the loss of life that it took to build this city in the first place.
 
OH YES NEW ORLEANS WILL RISE- IT WILL RISE TO THE POVERTY, DECAY, CRIME, ETC.......THAT IT WAS BEFORE THE HURRICANE. ALL THE PEOPPLE THAT LEFT NEW ORLEANS THAT NEEDED HELP TO SURVIVE ARE ALL WAITING FOR AN OPEN PLACE TO COME BACK TO. THEY COULDN'T TAKE CARE OF THEMSELVES BEFORE THE HURRICANE AND ARE WAITING FOR HELP WHEN THEY COME BACK. IF YOU ARE NOT CAPABLE OF FINANCIALLY CARING FOR YOURSELF AND FAMILY PLEASE NO NOT COME BACK. YOU HAVE AN OPPORTUNITY OF A LIFETIME TO START ANEW AND LEARN HOW TO TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF. WHEN WILL A PORTION OF THE CITY OF NEW ORLEANS TAKE RESPONSIBILITY FOR ITSELF. GET A NEW LIFE STARTED AND WHEN NEW ORLEANS IS REBUILT THEN COME HOME AND ADD TO THE COMMUNITY NOT TAKE FROM THECITY AND THE STATE. WE ONLY NEED HARD WORKING PEOPLE, THAT WORKD AND RAISE FAMILIES NOT THE ONES WHO HAVE BABIES, DO DRUGS AND DO NOT WORK. TURN OVER A NEW LEAF AND DO RIGHT BY YOURSELF AND YOUR RACE. ALL THE TAX PAYING PEOPLE OF THE COUNTRY ARE SOOOOO TIRED OF PAYING FOR EVERYONE ELSE AND NOT THEMSELVES. ALL THE PEOPLE WHO WANT TO RETURN TO NEW ORLEANS AND LIVE OFF OF WELFARE AND PUBLIC HOUSING, PLEASE DO NOT RETURN TO A DEAD, TIRED CITY. THE CITY HAS BEEN IN THIS DEAD TIRED DYING CONDITION FOR A LONG TIME. LETS NOT BRING BACK NEW ORLEANS TO THE WAY IT WAS BEFORE THE HURRICANE. IT NEEDS TO BE AS IT WAS 40-50 YEARS AGO WHEN IT WAS A PROSPEROUS CITY.
 
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"And when we speak we are afraid our words will not be heard nor welcome, but when we are silent we are still afraid. So it is better to speak remembering we were never meant to survive." -- Audie Lorde

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