Boasting the second-largest St. Patrick's Day parade on the North American continent, Savannah, Georgia, is the most Irish city in the American South. The Wexford-Savannah Axis research project is helping the people of Savannah—plus the city's 14 million annual visitors—to better understand not just that Savannah is Irish, but also how it's Irish. Welcome to a journey into the past, with huge promise for the future.
In 2015, the United Nations classified 244 million people as transnational migrants. The phenomenon is the human epic of our age. As citizens of planet earth, we have ve a moral obligation to comprehend this major, often daunting challenge. A key tool for doing so is examining — objectively and thoroughly — past episodes of migration and its necessary complement: integration.
Due to a catastrophic potato famine (1845-1849) and other factors, Ireland produced the largest global migration event of the nineteenth century. Within that exodus, a compelling, important story is the displacement of people from Wexford — Ireland’s most southeastern county — to Savannah, Georgia, during the 1850s.
Until recently, the Wexford-Savannah story was hidden in plain sight. However, new research is restoring to us the significance of how, by 1861, 14% of Savannah’s population (a quarter of its white population) was Irish-born — and, furthermore, was disproportionately of Wexford origin.
Although complex, this story pushes against certain received notions of Irish migration, such as "No Irish Need Apply." In its issue of Friday 6 December 1850, the Savannah Morning News printed a favorable editorial comment in response to the arrival in Savannah of 125 steerage passengers. They had sailed directly from Wexford town on the barque Brothers, owned by R. M. & R. Allen of that port.
On August 6, 1906, around 30,000 people gathered in the Bullring, Wexford Town, to celebrate the unveiling of Oliver Sheppard's statue, The Pikeman: "an insurgent peasant ... with pike in hand and in a defiant attitude" (to quote the commissioning committee). The event was one of multiple efforts, both in Ireland and among the worldwide Irish diaspora, to commemorate a season of centenaries: the United Irish Rebellion of 1798 and a follow-on, one-day uprising, led by Robert Emmet in Dublin in July 1803.
During '98, as the United Irish Rebellion became known, patriots equipped themselves with pikes to advance what combatant and ideologue Arthur O'Connor's political pamphlet, The State of Ireland (1798) summarized as "the United People of Ireland ... resolved to create a Republic." The historian Roy Foster, writing in 2001, characterized '98 as "the most concentrated outbreak of violence in recorded Irish history." Co. Wexford became ground zero, with the Battle of New Ross (June 5, 1798) alone precipitating 3,000 fatalities. Some estimate that the fighting of '98 led to the demise of one-fifth of Wexford's population: a traumatic outcome.
Inherited memories of that trauma — a narrative of martyrs — entered Savannah during the 1850s, when hundreds of Wexfordians emigrated non-stop to the Hostess City from the ports of New Ross and Wexford Town. In 1902 — four years before Sheppard's Pikeman would overlook the Wexford Town Bullring — they made common cause with Savannah's greater Irish community to convince the municipal authorities to rename a major green space near the river as Emmet Park.
Arthur O'Connor: "create a Republic" ••• Page 95 of the (118-page) second edition of his pamphlet The State of Ireland, published in London in 1798 by an unidentified publishing house.
Roy Foster: "outbreak of violence" ••• Page 70 of his essay "Remembering 1798," which appears on pages 67-94 of History and Memory in Modern Ireland, edited by Ian McBride (Cambridge University Press, 2001)