Saturday, March 17, 2007
The Celtic Way
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 Avenue, but 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"
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