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The pub team that refused to die

But I had no idea about any of that when I immigrated to Louisiana from Belfast six years ago, or that during Hurricane Katrina it would be the strength of the canal walls which was more important than the fact my fellow countrymen had built them.

Tens of books, hundreds of articles and millions of words have been written about Hurricane Katrina. But my book, "Finn McCool's Football Club: The Birth, Death and Resurrection of a Pub Soccer Team in the City of the Dead" (Pelican Press) looks at the deadly storm from a different angle and tells the story from a unique perspective: the effect it had on the Irish population of New Orleans.

The incredibly violent 2005 hurricane season set all kinds of records. Katrina was the third-most powerful storm ever to hit the U.S. F and five names were retired that year, the most ever. For the record they were Dennis, Katrina, Rita, Stan and Wilma.

There were 28 named hurricanes, so many that scientists ran out of letters and were forced to use the Greek alphabet.

Katrina did an unparalleled amount of damage to the Gulf Coast, killing more than 1,800 people, impacting Louisiana and Mississippi to the tune of an estimated $150 billion and leaving debris strewn over roughly 87,000 square miles in six different states, an area the size of Britain.

The book begins in 2004 when, aged 34, I arrive in the Deep South to start a new life with my North Carolinian wife. At first, it was a struggle to adapt to a place which is both geographically and culturally thousands of miles away from home, but things improve when I discover Finn McCool's, a pub owned by three exiles from the North.

Stephen and Pauline Patterson had come to New Orleans in the early nineties and looked up a family friend called Stevie Collins who had immigrated there via Florida.

All three ended up working in O'Flaherty's, an Irish bar and store in the French Quarter. Then, in early 2002, they bought their own bar on Banks Street in an area called Mid-City.

They gutted the structure, tearing down the walls, installing more windows, demolishing the low-hanging ceiling and stripping the frame back to the studs. Renaming it Finn McCool's, they opened on Friday, July 26 2002. Once I discovered it, the Irish community in the Crescent City begin to play a big part in my life.

Compared to larger places like New York or Boston, the Irish ex-pat scene in the Big Easy is small but tight-knit. Everyone knows everyone else, and I soon became a regular at the bar to watch English and Scottish soccer games at the weekends. Six months after I started going there we formed a pub team.

A dozen of us were gathered there on the morning of Saturday, August 27 2005. Less than 48 hours later one of us was clinging to a roof battling for his life, some were swimming out of the flooded city, while another was forced to loot an ATM machine for cash to bribe a teenager driving a stolen school bus to take him to safety.

Even after escaping a latter day Atlantis many of the Irish immigrants had to live as internal refugees for months while New Orleans was pumped dry. My wife and I relocated to Houston for three months while our team was scattered around the country, with some members even ending up back in Ireland.

When many of the pub regulars finally got back they had lost their jobs, their homes, everything else they had ever owned. Some lost all three.

I weave my story with that of my teammates as we float back to Louisiana and try to rebuild after our lives had been literally washed away. I describe what it was like to live in New Orleans after the hurricane, how it was more like the Wild West in the 19th century than the 21st century in the richest, most-powerful country in the world.

Even simple day-to-day living was hard in the surreal post-Katrina apocalyptic landscape as we struggled to cope in a city devoid of hospitals, schools, traffic lights and trash collection.

But I hope that the book is much more than a depressing hurricane lament or a story about a soccer squad. I examine in depth what it is like to be Irish in America, and investigate the similarities and differences I find moving from Belfast, a place often divided by religion, to New Orleans, a city frequently split along racial lines.

I also look at why it is that the Irish in America feel the need to stick together, and wonder if our yearning to recreate what we left behind at home stops us integrating fully into American society.

The book is also about the importance of friendship. Members of the Irish community go to great lengths in order to help each other out, with those who came through the storm relatively unscathed opening their doors to the less fortunate.

For instance, Galway couple Sean and Carmel Kennedy took in Mike and Marian McInerney, originally from Limerick, and their four young boys after Mike's home was flooded. Mike said at the time: "men never talk about feelings and ask each other how we are doing with things, but one night Sean and I sat down and put our cards on the table. I told him we couldn't be living with him too long and he said that he understood that but we could stay as long as we wanted. I felt so much better after that talk, without getting too mushy about it."

Similarly, Dave Ashton from Manchester, England and his pregnant girlfriend (whose mother had died in the evacuation) moved in with us after their home was flooded, and I show that although disaster may wreck property and buildings, for this resolute, eclectic bunch of ex-pat friends, adversity actually forged and strengthened relationships.

This coming August is the five-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. The city is rebounding but there is still a lot of work to be done. A recent report said there were still more than 70,000 abandoned home in the city, and many areas are even now blighted with flooded and decaying structures.

Finn McCool's took six feet of water but the three owners practically rebuilt it themselves and it reopened on St. Patrick's Day, 2006. Since then it has gone from strength to strength and is busier now than before the storm.

By coming back so quickly to a devastated area the bar acted as an anchor to the people in the neighborhood, and the locals have continued to support a business which put down such an early marker that they would rebuild.

The pub soccer club has continued to grow as well and we now have two teams which play in different leagues. Both have won their divisions twice, and some of the originals like me still drag their creaking limbs out of bed every Sunday to play.

Thankfully, the book has received great reviews both here and in the UK and Ireland and already has more than 70 five-star customer reviews on online retailer Amazon.

I met with a Hollywood movie producer who is interested in buying the film rights, and a documentary crew came to Finn's and produced a six-minute trailer to use to try to get funding to shoot a full-length documentary. The book is available at stores across the nation or from online booksellers. Check out my website, www.stephen-rea.com for more details.

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