SAVANNAH, Ga. (WTOC) -When it comes to Irish immigration to America and Savannah, many people point to the potato famine of 1845.
“If it seems there are a lot of folks in Savannah with connections to the Emerald Isle, you are not mistaken,” said Dr. Howard Keeley, the Director of Irish Studies at Georgia Southern.
The Irish native says that an 1860 Federal census of Savannah shows a quarter of the free population was born in Ireland. When you count those with Irish roots, that number grew to 35 percent, putting it on par with New York and Boston.
“That is one of the most remarkable things about Savannah’s Irish population, is that there hasn’t been a big refresh of the population, since the end of the Civil War," Keeley says. "It’s remarkable that the city has retained it’s Irish tradition in such a strong way, it’s such a legacy tradition.”
The Irish crossed the Atlantic to move to port towns, like Savannah, Charleston, and New Orleans. The Hostess City was very accessible. In the 1840s and 1850s, vessels belonging to three different companies in County Wexford in Southeastern Ireland opened a regular trading route to Savannah. This led to the success of Andrew Low. Newspapers of the time in Ireland go back to the promise of a better life.
“On the left-hand side are the local news stories, and yes there is mention of the famine stress, the main thing that you see in the news, is tenants rights, campaigning to have a better deal on the land you’re occupying, and those ads that are pushing Savannah are saying, come to Savannah, land is cheap and plentiful, the soil is fertile,” said Dr. Keeley.
The reality when they arrived was that Savannah was more metropolitan. The Irish became city-dwellers and there was much work to be done with canal digging, and with the railroads, expanding west, and a big part of the labor pool for the Central of Georgia railroad was Irish. They settled in places like Frogtown where I-16 now begins, Yamacraw, and the Old Fort Area.
They came to Savannah for many reasons. In 1820, a massive fire broke out in the city that destroyed more than 400 buildings, and newspaper ads in the northeast talked of work in the southeast coastal city.