The Irish influence extends far beyond St. Patrick’s Day.
Ever since William Mullins and Christopher Martin, America’s first Irish pilgrims, sailed to the New World on the Mayflower in 1620, America has been enriched by the Irish people.
Fleeing a life of persecution and famine on the Emerald Isle, the Irish came to America, like most immigrants, to build a better life. The collective impact they have had on our nation has been profound, not only culturally but materially, and has been particularly influential in shaping the modern American South.
In his essay The Irish Influence in Early Atlanta, historian John Harrison explains that “at least one-third, perhaps more, of our Southern people are of Irish lineage.” With the exception of New Orleans, which was the primary Southern port through which the Irish emigrated, perhaps no region of the American South has been impacted as greatly by the Irish as the Lowcountry.
When British General James Oglethorpe first colonized Savannah in 1733, the Irish were among the first group of permanent settlers in Georgia.
The first major wave of Irish immigration to the Lowcountry occurred in the late 18th and early 19th century.
“During that period, the Irish that came to the South were more prosperous,” explains Jim Buttimer, the former historian for the Savannah chapter of the Ancient Order of Hibernians and a local expert of Irish history. “They were basically wealthy Protestant landholders in Ireland.”
Many of the Lowcountry’s residents of Irish descent trace their roots to County Wexford. Wexford had a direct shipping line to Savannah, or from neighboring Cork, Mayo or Kerry Counties. The Potato Famine of 1845 hit these rural areas in southern Ireland the hardest. Millions of Ireland’s population starved. Countless Irish exiles subsequently emigrated to North America in the mid-19th century, seeking work.
Irish immigrants gravitated to urban environments, where work was more plentiful and community more tightly woven.
In his book The Irish Diaspora in America, Lawrence J. McCaffrey observes that “American cities were rough, tough, corrupt, dirty, violent and unhealthy places to live. But the extroverted Irish found such urban areas congenial. They could live close to ethnic friends and neighbors.”
The Irish settled in Savannah and, further north, in Charleston. Charleston was a “more aristocratic” city than Savannah, by some standards. Savannah was more fluid and tolerant of foreigners. Charleston was relatively less so and most of the city’s Irish community eventually moved on to other places.
Until 1800, immigrants from Belfast and Larne, Ireland, regularly sailed into Charleston’s harbor.
“Scarcely a ship sailed from any of Ireland’s ports for Charleston,” observed Charlestonian David Ramsey in his historic 18th century journal, “that was not crowded with men, women and children.”
In his essay A New Look at Old South Urbanization, Christopher Silver examined the influence of the Irish workforce in Charleston from 1840 to 1860. “As free laborers in a slave society,” he observes, “Irish immigrants possessed more than a symbolic importance. The emergence of the immigrant working-class in Charleston was perceived by some as an assault against Southern institutions.”
The Irish competed with freed slaves for artisan and semi-skilled labor in Charleston. But many Irish found the city offered far less social and economic mobility than they had hoped.
In Savannah, Irish immigrants resided largely in poorer sections to the east and west of the historic district.
They lived side-by-side with the city’s free blacks after the Civil War. Malnutrition and diseases like yellow fever were rampant. However, and the Irish had the highest mortality rate of any immigrant group.
At that time, the majority of the Irish workforce in Charleston and Savannah were laborers. They worked in construction, unloading cargo along the riverfront. They took jobs considered too dangerous or hazardous for slaves.
“Within a generation,” says Buttimer, “you had them moving up the ladder to perform semi-skilled, artisan work.”
In the years since, the Irish have become a vital part of the Lowcountry’s political, cultural and social landscape. They have made innumerable contributions not only to the region’s infrastructure but to its unique cultural blend.
When you celebrate St. Patrick’s Day on March 17, take a moment to celebrate the impact of Irish immigration in the Lowcountry.
By Allison Hersh