SAVANNAH, Ga. (WSAV) – With St. Patrick’s Day coming up, you might be wondering about Irish history and culture in Savannah.
Were there a lot of Irish people in the city in the past? Can the impact of Irish immigration be seen in Savannah even today? Howard Keeley, the director for the Center of Irish Research and Teaching at Georgia Southern University, has some answers.
“The history of the Irish in Savannah is something that is only partially told,” Keeley said in an interview Wednesday.
He explained that many people are already aware of the fact that James Oglethorpe, who founded Savannah and Georgia in 1733, was of Irish descent on his mother’s side. But many people are not aware of the ways the Irish people have been involved in Savannah’s history beyond that.
In the 1760s and early 1770s between Savannah and Augusta, there were roughly 15,000 acres of land made into an Irish settlement called Queensborough. This settlement brought many people from the northern part of Ireland from the province of Ulster.
“There were six shiploads of people who came,” Keeley said. “They didn’t all come directly into Savannah, but many did.”
A community developed between Queensborough and the city of Savannah, but this community wasn’t the typical Irish-Catholic community many would think of. They were Presbyterian and in America, they were best remembered by the title of “Scotts-Irish.”
Keeley said Irish people began to really move into Savannah in the 19th century or the 1800s. Being a port city, Savannah was easy to enter by those wishing to make the move to America. So before 1820, there were Irish coming into the area to work at the docks and in the timber industry.
Evidence of an Irish community in Savannah exists by way of the founding of the Hibernian Society of Savannah in 1812. They were created to offer assistance and aid to Irish immigrants. They also founded the first St. Patrick’s Day Parade in Savannah in 1824. (You can learn more about them by checking out their website here.)
Around 1812, Irish residents of Savannah became aware of the fact that the people moving to the area who were Irish were Irish Catholics. While this could have been a time for discourse and tension, the Scotts-Irish residents of Savannah welcomed the new immigrants with open arms.
“They don’t see religion at all,” Keeley explained. “They just see these people are Irish.”
Then came the end of the Napoleonic Wars, which left a surplus of unemployed veterans in Ireland, and around the same time, there were some famine events. A volcano also erupted in Southeast Asia that created a global climate catastrophe for about a year.
Meanwhile, in Savannah in 1820, there was a fire that burned down about a quarter of the city. Keeley said this led to a need for construction workers in the area. Because of the situation in Ireland and the sudden need for construction workers, there was an influx of Irish immigrants to Savannah from around 1815 to 1820.
This created a strong Irish community in Savannah.
“They are thinking of themselves as Irish,” Keeley said. “They’re founding Irish organizations.”
Irish residents of Savannah were active politically and kept their eyes on what was happening in Ireland. They were also active in their communities, forming a fire station and even a militia that aided in the Mexican-American war.
Keeley said this all helped Irish people in Savannah maintain a sense of community.
By the 1840s, there were around 1,500 Irish-born people living in the Savannah area. Then, between 1848 and 1855, the Irish-born population in Savannah doubled. Keeley said at this time, Savannah was still a relatively small city and that having this sudden surge of Irish-born people was significant.
“We need to look at that as a very important moment in the story of why Ireland is so represented in Savannah,” Keeley said.
Why did so many people move at once?
One of the biggest push factors was the Irish Potato Famine, which began in 1845. People were fleeing famine and famine-related diseases like typhus fever. Almost 57% of those who came to Savannah from Ireland at this time came from the county of Wexford, where Georgia Southern now has a campus.
The Civil War brought the story of significant migration to Savannah from Ireland to an end.
“It’s just all dried up because of the impending war and then the war itself,” Keeley said.
The story of Savannah’s Irish history and culture lives on today in the Hibernian Society, the Saint Patrick’s Day parade, and the many Irish cultural events that are celebrated this time each year. It lives on through the Queensborough bank, which was named after the settlement from hundreds of years ago, and the squares that were named to honor people of Irish descent like the militia that fought in the Mexican-American war and Henry Ellis, the second royal governor of Georgia.