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 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 the Great Hunger — 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 late 1840s and much of the 1850s.
The "Great Hunger" Famine certainly affected Wexford, but less than other Irish counties. Important producers of malting barley, the baronies (regions) of south Wexford called Forth and Bargy suffered relatively little.
Until recently, the Wexford-Savannah story was hidden in plain sight. However, new research from Georgia Southern University, Savannah, is restoring to us the significance of how, by 1860, 14% of Savannah’s population (a quarter of its white population) was Irish-born — and, furthermore, was disproportionately of Wexford origin.
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. "It is rarely we see," the piece averred, "a more respectable body of new comers than those brought by the Brothers."
In the telling of Famine-era Irish migration, another commonplace is the coffin ship. However, the Wexford vessels gained an "arrive alive" reputation. The 1850 sailing of the Brothers referred to above resulted in a presentation by the passengers to the captain, Laurence English. The gift was a silver cup, a token of their esteem for his kind-hearted caring.
We Remember '98!
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 critical foci were 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 June 5, 1798, Battle of New Ross 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 Georgia's 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. Originally known as The Strand, that area had gained the moniker Irish Green because Irish-born residents of the city's northeastern Old Fort neighborhood chose it for recreation.
The development of Emmet Park sparked controversy, with local merchants bringing a legal case against the city over loss of public access to their premises. The solution was to build a roadway around the park. In 1983, that "necklace" was given the name Rossiter Place in tribute to longtime Savannah Mayor Pro Tem (Deputy Mayor) Frank Rossiter, Sr., one of the most popular and respected politicians in the city's history — and grandson of a Wexford immigrant.
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).