Dr. Meaghan Dwyer-Ryan is an Irish-American through and through.
“I was raised knowing I was Irish. I was 100% Irish, as they used to say. My dad’s parents were from Ireland. My grandmother, we saw her very frequently. So I was always raised with that awareness,” Dwyer-Ryan explained.
Her father taught social studies, which instilled within her a passion for history and culture. While pursuing her undergraduate at Colby College in Maine, she embarked on a study abroad program, which took her to Ireland.
“I got to see a lot of my family members who I had never met, and it just stuck with me,” she said.
Dwyer-Ryan attended New York University for her graduate studies, enrolling in the Irish studies program before rounding out her education with a Ph. D at Boston College, where she focused on diaspora studies. Today, she studies and teaches Irish history and culture and enjoys sharing this information with students and the public.
“It was just something I’ve always really loved, and I’ve always very strongly identified with,” she expressed.
A native of Boston, her career in academia is what led her down South. She taught at the University of South Carolina’s Aiken campus before accepting a position as the associate director of the Center for Irish Studies and Teaching at Georgia Southern University’s Armstrong campus in 2019.
Founded on St. Patrick’s Day in 1995, CIRT is committed to researching and teaching the diverse identities, experiences and achievements that constitute the ever-evolving concept of Irishness. The center’s director is Dr. Howard Keeley, who is originally from Dublin, Ireland. CIRT staff and students work to advance Irish America, in part by researching the longstanding links between Ireland and the local community.
“Another thing that . . . we’ve continued to do as an essential feature of our research and our teaching is to identify the connections between Savannah’s Irish community and the county of Wexford, Ireland,” Dwyer-Ryan stated.
She shared that Irish immigration to Savannah boomed during the mid-nineteenth century.
“According to census records, one out of every four white people in Savannah during that time was born in Ireland, and of that number about half . . . of those people born in Ireland in Savannah had been born in Wexford. So that started the big question. . . How is Savannah Irish? Why do we have this major St. Patrick’s Day parade every year? And then, why Wexford?” she posed.
She explained that trade relationships that existed at the time between Liverpool, England, Savannah and Wexford are what catalyzed immigration via what is now called the Wexford-Savannah axis.
“When you look at the community in Savannah today, the Wexford connection in particular is still really strong, and you see this in a lot of the names that are big Savannah. Particularly folks like the Rossiter family. That’s a very Wexford name,” said Dwyer-Ryan.
As Georgia Southern students continued to study the ties between Savannah and Wexford, CIRT faculty members initiated a study abroad program there. Through the program, faculty and students established a relationship with the Wexford County Council. Eventually, it led to the development of a Georgia Southern campus in Wexford.
“We are the only public university in the United States to have a campus in Ireland,” she declared.
Through the Wexford campus, students are able to engage in experiential and immersive learning. About 150 students are expected to go to Wexford this year.
Georgia Southern’s CIRT staff and students are doing exciting things abroad and locally as well. Here in Savannah, the center is working to launch their Savannah Irish Neighborhoods project, which aims to uncover the history of Irish Savannah at the neighborhood level.
“The Irish in Savannah traditionally settled in three different neighborhoods. Old Fort on the east side and Frogtown and Yamacraw on the west side. . . These were neighborhoods that were, for the most part, working class. As time goes on, you see gentrification and economic mobility. But really, the memories of these neighborhoods were very strong among the Irish community,” Dwyer-Ryan explained.
The project is in the early stages, but the goal is to develop an app that enables locals and tourists alike to take walking tours of these historic Irish neighborhoods. The CIRT team also wants to include an oral history aspect, sharing lesser known stories about immigrant entrepreneurs and other notable Irish Savannah residents like property mogul Rosanna McGuire and Daniel O’Connor, a relative of novelist Flannery O’Connor.
“We want to do that research and get those stories out to the public. We want to make the Irishness of Savannah much more visible beyond St. Patrick’s Day, beyond that green season,” she added.
Dwyer-Ryan is excited about the work that CIRT is doing to preserve and promote Irish heritage and culture locally and abroad. Her favorite thing about the Irish community is the craic.
She said, “basically it means the fun. So Irish culture, I’m particularly a fan of not only the history, but the music, the dance, all that. . . Everything is connected whether it be history, music, dance, culture, literature, it’s all a piece And that has made its way into Irish American culture too. . . The Irish community and the Irish spirit is alive and well in Savannah. And it’s very apparent this time of year.”
To learn more about CIRT, visit irishgeorgia.com