Ireland in Georgia

Savannah’s Irish heart is built into the foundation and beauty of the city

Many Savannahians, Irish and non-Irish alike, were disheartened at the news of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade’s cancelation for the second year in a row due to the ongoing pandemic. Savannah locals love decking out in every shade of green and playing host to more than 400,000 visitors from all over the world, joining together to celebrate the city’s Irish heritage and have a drink or 10.

The biggest party of the year may have been cancelled but the Irish heart and history of Savannah can be found everywhere you look.

Irish men and women were among the first settlers of Savannah in 1733 when it became the first city of Georgia, the 13th and final colony. But their major influence began in the 1830s and 40s after a large influx of Irish immigrants arrived looking for work and later escaping the potato famine in Ireland, according to the Georgia Historical Society. Contributions of the Irish in Savannah go far beyond a single day with much of the city’s foundation and captivating architecture built at the hands of hardworking Irishmen.

Factor’s Walk

Desperate to escape starvation and willing to take on any job, Irishmen became a hot commodity for cheap labor. Factor’s Walk, a now thriving strip of charming shops, hotels and cafes consistently brimming with tourists, was once filled with Irish workers spending their days loading cotton bales onto ships waiting in the harbor.

Located on a bluff just before River Street, Factor’s Walk was named for the men who worked in the warehouses along the strip, baling, factoring and selling cotton.

The now famous walk of buildings, connected by bridges and walkways, was the original site of the Savannah Cotton Exchange which, according to the Georgia Historical Society, was completed in 1887. Irish workers were at the helm of the city’s economic growth at a time when Savannah was the top-ranked cotton seaport on the Atlantic, moving over two million bales a year through the city.

Georgia State Railroad Museum

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Photo by Alan Skolweck
The Georgia State Railroad Museum.
The Georgia State Railroad Museum is more than just smoke and train tracks; it is another example of how Irish history is deeply woven into Savannah’s. On top of hauling cotton and building roads, the Irish made up much of the workforce behind building the Central of Georgia Railway.

“The Central of Georgia Railway was one of the most significant railroads in the American South and a vital part of Georgia’s transportation infrastructure for more than 100 years,” said Mark R. Finlay, a former history professor at Armstrong.

According to his New Georgia Encyclopedia article, the railroad, which was a leader in the region’s economic growth, was officially started in 1833 and later renamed the Central Railroad and Banking Company.

“Through state charters, a steady increase in local investments, and the labor of Irish immigrants and African American slaves, the line reached from Savannah to the outskirts of Macon by 1843.”

A National Historic Landmark, the museum is located at the original site of the railway in Savannah and includes parts of the Central of Georgia Railway Savannah Shops and Terminal Facilities. It has the most complete antebellum railroad in the world and is a stunning example of Victorian railroad architecture.

Guests can take a tour by train showcasing the museum’s fully operational turntable. Controlling lines that passed through some of the most productive cotton lands in the state, the railway was a crucial element in Georgia’s economy.

“We know from census and other types of official records that Frogtown, the neighborhood surrounding the Central’s repair facility here in Savannah, now the Georgia State Railroad Museum, housed a significant number of Irish immigrants working for Savannah railroads in the mid-to-late 19th century,” said Emily Beck, Director of Interpretation for the Coastal Heritage Society. “Many were single Irish men, fresh off the boat and ready to begin work in industries in port cities like Savannah. Railroads were a great option since it could mean good pay, steady work, and opportunity for advancement.”

Irish workers were utilized due to their willingness to work for next to nothing and in turn became an indispensable part of the city’s successful economy.

The Cathedral Basilica of St. John the Baptist

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Photo by Alan Skolweck
The Cathedral Basilica of St. John the Baptist.
The iconic twin spires of The Cathedral Basilica of St. John the Baptist has become a staple of Savannah’s architectural beauty.

Originally named the Congrégation de Saint Jean-Baptiste, the church was established near the end of the 18th century by French Catholics fleeing the uprising in Haiti, but truly began to flourish with the support and influence of many Irish immigrants.

“Catholics were forbidden from settling here in the beginning,” said Peter Paolucci, a Cathedral tour guide for over 20 years. “It wasn’t until after the revolutionary war when the U.S. constitution granted religious freedom to all in the Bill of Rights.”

The original small wood-framed church on Montgomery street was a far cry from the now majestic, French Gothic style Cathedral known today. The parish drew more and more Irish Catholics to Savannah, quickly outgrowing the building.

“They built one on Drayton St., right next door to Parker’s. It was a church until 1850 when Savannah was elevated to diocesan status and a bishop was appointed. Then, that church became designated as the first Cathedral of St. John the Baptist,” Paolucci said. The appointed bishop, Ignatius Persico, acquired the land the Cathedral stands on today from the Sisters of Mercy, founders of St. Vincent’s Academy, in exchange for a lot at E. Taylor and Lincoln streets. Construction took place from 1873-1876.

Paolucci said in order to understand the influence the Irish have had on the Cathedral all you need to do is simply walk inside. “Walk up and down the side aisles and look at the dedications on the windows,” he said. “They’re all Irishmen. The Irish helped build it and make it happen.”

Amongst the many beautiful stained-glass windows is a depiction of St. Patrick holding a shamrock, trying to convert the king in Ireland.

St. Vincent’s Academy

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Photo by Alan Skolweck
St. Vincent’s Academy, an all-girls Catholic school.
Right next door, on the corner of Abercorn and Liberty streets, is St. Vincent’s Academy, an all-girls Catholic school. Rev. Jeremiah Francis O’Neill, a native of Ireland, set out to open an orphanage and school in Savannah, appointing four Sisters of Mercy from Ireland to establish and run it.

Founded in 1845, the Convent and Academy of St. Vincent de Paul was designed by architect Charles B. Clusky, another Ireland native, and later added to in 1855.

Centered around a courtyard, the school’s design is truly unique with open-air walkways, staircases and locker rooms. Arriving by carriage, the Sisters of Mercy truly hit the ground running, caring for orphans and the sick, especially women and girls.

“They were called the walking sisters … because they went out and they sought people who needed help,” said Loretto Lominack, the Director of Alumnae Affairs at St. Vincent’s. “So, they went around collecting children who didn’t have anybody, any place.

Where the Cathedral is today, that was their farmland: they had cows, they raised crops. I mean, this little group of women going around collecting children, teaching children, and housing and clothing them, cooking for them, and they also had a farm. It’s just amazing.”

The Sisters of Mercy, originally the House of Mercy, was founded by Catherine McAuley in Dublin, Ireland in 1831. Orphaned herself, McAuley had a mission to take care of and educate women in need. A prolific writer, she once wrote, “No work of charity can be more productive to the good of society than the careful instruction of women.”

The school at one time housed up to 32 sisters, arrived from Ireland, who also founded St. Mary’s Home, St. Joseph’s Hospital and several other schools in Savannah. The sisters even risked their own lives by running underground school houses teaching the children of slaves to read and write. When they first approached O’Neill with this idea, they were met with strong opposition and warned that they could be flogged or killed if caught.

“I was taught by [Sisters of Mercy] all my life and you don’t tell them they can’t do something,” said Lominack, who is a St. Vincent’s graduate from the class of 1964.

“They have always kind of taken up the cause of the underdog,” said Mary Anne Hogan, President of St. Vincent’s. “To this day, girls that graduated in the 60s, will always call and say, ‘the sisters always told us if we needed anything ever, to ring the convent and somebody would help us.’ And to this day we get people ringing the doorbell, and we always find a way to help them.”

Many Irish families and immigrants have been educated by the Sisters of Mercy over the years and they continue to have an enduring impact on Savannah.

On Feb. 6, 1898, the Cathedral caught fire and was almost completely destroyed with only one original window surviving. “And the guy that headed [reconstruction] up was an Irishman,” Paolucci said. Reconstruction was finished in 1899 but the interior was not fully refurbished until 1912. Now a central part of Savannah and a main stop on the parade route, the historic Cathedral was recently designated a Minor Basilica.

The Celtic Cross at Emmet Park

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Photo by Alan Skolweck
The Celtic Cross at Emmet Park.
St. Patrick’s Day festivities kick off every year on Sunday with the Celtic Cross Ceremony. This year, the ceremony will be held virtually.

Traditionally, following a mass at the Cathedral, Irish Savannahians process from the church to Emmet Park on Bay St. and gather around the limestone Celtic cross, place a wreath at its feet and listen to a special guest speaker, often the Grand Marshal of the St. Patrick’s Day Parade Committee. According to the Cathedral, the cross was hand-carved in County Roscommon, Ireland, and combines a cross with a ring surrounding the intersection. It was placed in the park, which is located on the bluff and full of beautiful moss-covered trees, in 1983 to honor Savannah citizens of Irish ancestry. The cross has historically been a symbol of both Christianity and Irish heritage and pride.

Emmet Park is named for Robert Emmet, known for being an Irish orator and patriot. Emmet was born in Dublin, Ireland, in 1778 and famously led a rebellion against British rule in Ireland in 1803. The effort proved to be a failure due to much confusion and an overall lack of planning.

Soon after, Emmet was captured and executed for high treason but has remained a hero to the Irish community. Many Irish workers lived in the Old Fort neighborhood that surrounds the park. The Georgia Historical Society said “the park, known during the mid to late 1800s as the ‘Irish Green,’ served as a recreation space and meeting ground within Savannah’s Irish community.” Emmet Park continues to be a center of activity and gatherings, specifically within the Irish community in Savannah.

The Kehoe House

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The Kehoe House, an award-winning historic bed and breakfast on Columbia square.
Supported with Irish roots, The Kehoe House is an award-winning historic bed and breakfast that sits on Columbia square. The red brick mansion, now a popular spot for weddings and romantic getaways, was originally built by William Kehoe in 1892. The Kehoe House says that William Kehoe immigrated with his family to America from County Wexford, Ireland in 1842 when he was 10-years old and settled in the Old Fort District, along with many other Irish immigrants.

Kehoe started work as an apprentice in an iron foundry, working his way up to foreman and eventually purchasing the foundry.

After World War I, Kehoe built a new foundry on the river and soon became a prominent businessman. After marrying Anne Flood in 1868, Kehoe desired to build a home that would fit his growing family. Designed by DeWitt Bruyn in the Queen Anne Revival style, the Kehoe house cost $25,000 to build and “it’s exterior stairways, window treatments, columns, fences and gates are all cast iron, a tribute to the iron foundry’s excellence in pattern making and casting.” William and Anne Kehoe moved in with their 10 children in 1892 when the house was completed.

The house was sold out of the family in 1930 according to the Kehoe House and over time it lived many different lives as a boarding house, a funeral parlor and even the home of Jets football star Joe Namath for a time. In 1990, Namath sold the property and the building was once again started down a new path, undergoing two years of renovations and eventually reopening its doors as the William Kehoe House, a historic bed and breakfast.

The BnB turned hands once more in 2003 and is currently owned by HLC Hotels. Featuring 13 guest rooms, the Kehoe House is ranked Savannah’s number one hotel on TripAdvisor and considered the city’s most photographed mansion.

Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home

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Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home.
Savannah’s Irish history gives its citizens much to be proud of. Flannery O’Connor, a famous short-story writer and author of acclaimed novels The Violent Bear It Away and Wise Blood, grew up in Savannah. Her childhood home was converted into a museum now known as the Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home and is one of the few museum houses in the country that has been restored to the Depression-era. Guests can take a tour through the home of the three-time O. Henry Award winner and posthumous winner of the National Book Award for fiction for The Complete Series.

“Literary critics unequivocally agree that Flannery O’Connor’s legacy of short stories and novels made her one of the greatest writers of the 20th century,” said Beveryly Willett, author and former President of the Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home Foundation. “She not only grew up in the shadow of the Cathedral Basilica of St. John the Baptist, her bedroom looked directly out onto it.”

O’Connor, who was of Irish descent, attended St. Vincent’s while living in Savannah and later attended Georgia State College for Women, now Georgia College and State University. She went on to earn her Master of Fine Arts from the University of Iowa in 1947. O’Connor was known for her short stories and wrote in a Southern Gothic style. She often reflected her Catholic faith in her writing and explored issues of morality. “Through her work, she became one of the most important defenders of the Catholic Church and faith in America,” Willett said. “Her courage has influenced me and so many other Savannah writers, having died of lupus at a young age, and yet having accomplished so much. She left us her personal example of how to harness strength and endure with good humor in the midst of our own present-day trials.”

O’Connor died in 1964 at the age of 39 but left behind a legacy that continues to live on and inspire. In 2010, The Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home hosted Pat Conroy’s announcement of the 20 Finalists for National Book Awards. While visiting, Conroy, an acclaimed author, referred to the museum as, “one of the temples of world literature,” and said that he considers O’Connor, “the greatest short story writer in the history of our republic.”

Sgt. William Jasper monument

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Sgt.William Jasper monument in Madison Square.
Every year on the eve of the parade, Savannahians gather in Madison Square at the monument of Sgt. William Jasper, an Irishman and Revolutionary war hero.

“The St. Patrick’s Day Committee hosts a tribute to Sgt. Jasper and our military annually,” said Chief Master Sgt. Mike Bolton, who serves as chairman of the ceremony. “The Jasper Ceremony has been done since 1978. The elements it touches include heritage, faith, heroism, service-to-country and is the parade committee’s way to pay tribute to our military; past, present and future.”

Unveiled in 1888, the bronze statue stands at 15.5-feet tall overlooking the Savannah River. The ceremony’s program states that Jasper distinguished himself with valor as a member of the elite grenadier company of the 2nd South Carolina Regiment.

Sculptor Alexander Dolye told the story of Jasper’s heroic military accomplishments through panels on the north, west and east sides of the monument. His first claim to fame was in 1776 during the battle of Sullivan’s Island where Jasper restored Fort Moultrie’s flag while under heavy fire from the Royal Navy. The second panel represents when Jasper, along with Sgt. John Newton, rescued Patriot prisoners from British soldiers. And, the last shows his final moments during the Siege of Savannah, where American and French forces attempted to recapture the city from British soldiers occupying it.

Holding the sabre he was presented for his courage in battle and clutching his bullet wounds, the statue of Jasper sits just a few hundred feet from where he died in 1779. In his final moments, Jasper recovered his unit’s colors from a wounded soldier and led a brave attack on enemy positions. In 1842, Irish immigrants formed a military unit called the Irish Jasper Greens after the sergeant. They would pay tribute to him with a three volley gun salute, a tradition that is carried on at the ceremony today by the 3rd Infantry Division of the U.S. Army to honor the sacrifices of Savannah’s military men and women.

The impact of the Irish goes far beyond just one day, one building or even one person. Irish men and women helped establish Savannah and their unique contributions are what have helped make it remarkable and unmatched. Savannah has an Irish heart that can be found right under our feet.

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