Irish Ashore - a Legacy of Grit
Savannah is the site of one of the nation’s largest and most festive St. Patrick’s Day Celebrations in the nation. But not many people know the story of how the Irish culture came to such a foothold in Savannah’s history - or how the impacts of her people shaped the Historic District from the ground up.
“Most people have heard of Savannah’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade celebrations, but not many Savannah locals know how the Irish came to be in Savannah in the first place.
It was a shipwreck that landed the first Irish settlers on Savannah’s shores. Although the colony at first prohibited Catholicism (due to the ongoing war with the Spanish to the south), Oglethorpe was not the kind of governor who could turn away a huddled mass of terrified survivors.
The ship had been filled with indentured servants on their way to New England when a storm turned them off course and toward the coast of Georgia. Of the well over one hundred passengers, there were only forty survivors: six women and thirty-four men. The survivors were starving, injured, sick and desperate not to return to the ocean.
Oglethorpe bought their contracts for £5 per servant from their previously assigned families to the north, totaling a personal cost of £200, a sum that would equal $51,800 dollars in today’s values. He reissued them as indentured servants to plantation owners in Savannah, recouping his costs and circumventing his own antislavery law in a unique way.
It was a boon for the Irish, as the northern cities were often a death sentence due to working conditions. Oglethorpe had just handed them an opportunity and hope for the future. This was a place where freedom could actually come true, where they would be able to work and establish lands and homes for themselves. A fresh start. A new beginning. And all in line with the governor’s original intent for the city. 029
Despite the opportunities, the Irish were still indentured servants (and Catholic to boot) and were treated like second-class citizens for years to come. It was the potato famine between 1830 and 1860 that saw 2,200 Irish immigrate to Savannah’s shores as relatives established lives and wrote to family members across the ocean to come and join them in the land of opportunity.
Famous for manning Factor’s Walk along the Savannah River, the Irish loaded cotton bales onto ships and barges, while others were widely responsible for contributing to the infrastructure of the growing city. Savannah’s Irish heritage is a proud and vibrant one that still inspires recognition and celebration today.”