Some New England families trace their roots to the Pilgrims while Virginians might go further to the original settlers of Jamestown.
In Savannah, you know you have deep family roots when your heritage traces back to the emerald shores of Ireland and one of her many well-known counties.
Just like the Hennessy Mathews family.
“My grandmother was born in Savannah in 1895, but her father, James Hennessy, was a dairy farmer from County Tipperary, Ireland,” said Pat Mathews, lifelong Savannahian and owner of Mathews Seafood on Tybee. “James’s sister, Maggie, was already here in Savannah married to a man named George Byrnes.”
Mathews explains how Maggie’s husband had a grocery store, a railway, and was a policeman, as well, so he needed assistance running everything, so her brother was called.
“On the boat on the way over here from Ireland, James Hennessy met a lady from County Cork, Ireland, named Lucy Downing,” Mathews said. “That’s what started everything here in Savannah. The original Hennessys included their three children. my grandmother, Alice, and her brothers, John and James.”
Then, he casually added an interesting and fun family fact.
“James and Lucy once lived in the lighthouse on Prince Edward Island where Marconi had his telegraph station.”
And, that is one of the best things about delving into family history, heritage, and how and where those ancestors settled. At the time of the Hennessy’s arrival in Savannah, Mathews indicated how it wasn’t just a haven for Irish immigrants.
“My grandmother, Alice, married my grandfather, Frank Mathews, Sr.,” he said. “She was from Ireland and he was from Sicily, which wasn’t always a good mix. Irish and Italians competed for the same jobs often and encountered family disapproval.”
Pat’s wife, Garlana Mathews, owner and CEO of SelectOne Media, chimes in happily. “They ran off to New York and got married in St. Patrick’s Cathedral. How romantic is that?”
As with many families in Savannah, the upcoming St. Patrick’s Day parade and festivities is a chance to keep family traditions going.
“It’s a tradition I’ve done every year since I was born,” Pat said. “Even though my grandparents aren’t with us anymore, there will be—” he paused to count ‘—four generations on the float this year.” This includes Mathews and his wife, two sons, and daughter, and her new baby boy.
“It’s amazing to know we’ll have four generations like that,” Garlana said. “Pat’s dad is 92 years old and he’ll be with us again on the float this year.”
Mr. Frank Mathews, Jr., is well-known around town for his service on the Parade Committee, as well as over 50 years in The Hibernian Society of Savannah.
Pat said St. Patrick’s Day and everything surrounding the parade is all about celebrating family and our Irish heritage. “It all started with my Uncle Jim Hennessy.
Back in the day, Uncle Jim had everyone bring a fancy car and the call to the family clan went out. ‘Meet up around 9 a.m. under the big old oak tree by Forsyth.’”
“While we waited for the parade to officially start, we’d walk around the car, decorate it, see the other families and people gathered around the park,” Mathews explained.
“It’s been like that ever since,” Garlana said.
Garlana and Pat created their float and had it built, a simple design to hold about 15 Hennessy Mathews family members through the parade route where everyone in town is Irish for the day.
However, Garlana actually learned more about her own heritage quite accidentally.
“When our son, Hunter, was in seventh grade at St. Peter’s, he had to do a family tree. We did all of this research on Ancestry.com and I never knew I was Irish,” she said with a laugh.
“My great-great-grandfather, James Halligan, is buried in the Savannah Catholic Cemetery and his grave is about ten steps away from Pat’s grandfather’s.”
This year, in particular, is special to Savannahians due to the pandemic preventing the celebration for the past two years. The Mathews are excited about the festivities.
“It’s a day for family,” Pat said. “It’s a great tradition and we’ll always do it.”
Garlana said, “It’s so much fun to bebop around and visit everyone before the parade gets going. All the families in the parade seem to gather in Forsyth, so it’s nice to see all the different Irish families and catch up… not just with your own.”
“It’s a wonderful feeling to do this again with our family and to be with them again,” Pat said.
“It’s an awesome family reunion for us. Some of our fondest memories of the family together revolve around the parade and riding the float,” Garlana agreed.
“We just carry on that heritage and tradition,” Pat concluded.
It’s all because of Uncle Jim saying, “Meet up under the big old oak tree by Forsyth.”