The Irish influence extends far beyond St. Patrick’s Day.
Ever since America’s first Irish pilgrims sailed to the New World on the Mayflower, 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, they came to build a better life. The collective impact they have had on our nation has been profound. This is not only culturally but materially. Particularly, they influenced the shape of 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 Trustees of Savannah awarded lots and farms to at least 10 Ireland-born colonists.
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. The counties within this area provided a shipping line to Savannah. The Potato Famine of 1845 hit rural areas in southern Ireland the hardest. This led to the starvation of millions of Ireland’s population. Countless exiles subsequently emigrated to North America in the mid-19th century, seeking work.
They generally 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 these extroverted people found such urban areas congenial. They enjoyed living close to ethnic friends and neighbors.”
The Irish settled in Savannah and, further north, in Charleston, where immigrants tipped the racial balance of the city in the 1840s to a white majority for the first time in its history. Charleston was a “more aristocratic” city than Savannah, by some standards. Savannah was more fluid and tolerant of foreigners. Charleston was relatively less so. Therefore, most of the city’s Irish community eventually moved on to other places.
Until 1800, direct immigration from Belfast and Larne, Ireland, flowed regularly 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 their 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 sudden emergence of an immigrant working-class element in Charleston was perceived by some as the first front in an assault against sacred Southern institutions.”
The Irish competed with freed slaves for artisan and semi-skilled labor in Charleston, but many found the city to offer far less social and economic mobility than they had hoped. “Crowded into the lowest rung of Charleston’s occupational hierarchy, and confronted on all sides with competition for the city’s limited employment opportunities,” Silver summarizes, “Irish immigrants faced a precarious existence in this Southern port.”
In Savannah, these immigrants resided largely in Savannah’s poor sections.
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 their workforce in Charleston and Savannah were laborers. They worked in construction and unloaded 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 be grocers or bar owners or 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.
By Allison Hersh