Tracing the links between southeast Ireland and a southeastern US city
America Letter: Irish connections with Savannah long predate the Famine
Frank Rossiter, an Irish-American living in Savannah, Georgia, next to the grave of his great-grandfather Patrick Buttimer, from Cork, in the city’s Catholic cemetery. Buttimer was a Confederate veteran in the American civil war, and a veteran’s cross marks his grave. Photograph: Simon Carswell
Spanish moss hangs from the cedar tree like ghostly fingers protecting her resting place. It’s a scene that captures the beauty of Savannah, Georgia.
Here lie the remains of Catharine Finney. Her gravestone says she was from Co Galway. She drowned on September 22nd, 1853, at the age of 32. Her body was found at Cockspur Island at the mouth of the Savannah river, a place that she and thousands of other Irish emigrants passed as they arrived in this seaport in the southeastern US.
Finney was the first person to be buried in what is now the Catholic Cemetery, about two miles east of the postcard-perfect squares and azalea-lined boulevards of Savannah’s historic district.
Thousands of gravestones carry the names of Irish emigrants who made Savannah their home in the 19th century. The surnames would not be out of place on the shopfronts, bars and professional firms of Co Wexford: Kehoe, Rossiter, Corish and Furlong.
Kevin Boland, the Cork-born Catholic bishop of Savannah from 1995 to 2011, has described the cemetery as “the ultimate archive”, with the detailed gravestones serving as records for the Irish dead and their home parishes.
Many Irish emigrants arrived in Georgia on schooners that ran a busy shipping route ferrying goods and people between the ports of New Ross and Wexford, and Savannah.
“They got timber and cotton out of Savannah,” says Frank Rossiter, a prominent Irish-American in Savannah, in his soft, southern drawl.
“As far as what Wexford was bringing in – it was people.”
Wexford priest Msgr Lory Kehoe, in a history of the ties between his home county and Savannah, wrote that most Irish emigrants arrived between 1848 and the end of the civil war in 1865.
He noted that the Irish connections with Savannah long predated the Famine. The mother of British general James Oglethorpe, who founded Savannah in 1733, was a Wall from Co Tipperary.
A research project was established recently involving Waterford Institute of Technology, Georgia Southern University, the Georgia Historical Society in Savannah and the John F Kennedy Trust in New Ross to find out how so many people from southeast Ireland ended up in the southeastern US.
Around 1860 the Irish were one of the largest ethnic groups in Savannah’s white population. Tipperary man David Gleeson, a history professor who taught for five years in Savannah, estimates that the Irish made up 22 per cent of the white population in 1860 and about 14 per cent of the overall population.
Religious diversity made Savannah ecumenical in outlook. The 202-year-old Hibernian Society of Ireland had Protestant Irish founders. It also had members from Savannah’s minority Jewish community from the time the Minis family helped the Irish in the city in the first half of the 19th century. (Society members Abraham and Benjamin Minis are jokingly remembered today as A Minis and B Minis.)
“The Irish were used to being discriminated against,” says local man Jack Jaugstetter, whose great-grandfather married a Kehoe from Wexford. “Maybe they had some empathy for smaller groups.”
When the cornerstone for the cathedral was laid on November 19th, 1873, it contained items including stone from St Saviour’s Church in Dublin and turf from the bogs of Co Mayo.
St Patrick’s Day
Savannah’s Irish heritage is celebrated today with one of the biggest (and most raucous) St Patrick’s Day celebrations in the US. Less than a fortnight later, green shamrocks and Irish-themed T-shirts still festoon the windows of Savannah’s tourist shops and Irish bars.
Savannah is equally proud of its southern heritage. Dotted around the Catholic Cemetery are metal crosses with the letters “CSA” – “Confederate States of America” – on the graves of about 800 veterans who fought for the South against the North in the civil war.
“It is known as the war between the states or the war of northern aggression down here,” says Rossiter with a smile.
Gleeson, now a professor of American history at Northumbria University in England, estimates in his newly published book, The Green and the Gray: The Irish in the Confederate States of America , that 20,000 Irish fought on the Confederate side compared with 180,000 in the Union ranks.
When people consider the Irish in America they think of the cities of New York, Boston and Chicago. But here, much further south in Savannah, there is a rich and unique Irish-American culture.