At a March 18, 2019, ceremony on its Armstrong Campus, on the Southside of the City of Savannah, Georgia Southern University formally announced the establishment of the University’s first overseas Learning Hub. GEORGIA SOUTHERN UNIVERSITY - IRELAND is located in a landmark historic building in Wexford Town, the county seat of County Wexford (the “Model County”) in Southeastern Ireland.
During the mid-nineteenth century, thousands of emigrants sailed to forge new lives in Savannah, Georgia, departing from the ocean port of Wexford Town and the river port of New Ross, also in County Wexford. The Wexford-to-Savannah passage was non-stop across the North Atlantic Ocean, with three-masted vessels, known as barques, taking between six and eight weeks to complete the route, which skirted the Azores and Bermuda.
Each of Ireland’s 32 traditional counties is represented among Savannah’s Irish diaspora; however, during “prime time” for Irish emigration to the “Hostess City,” — 1849 to the mid-1850s — 56% of new arrivals had departed from County Wexford. To this day, family names associated with County Wexford abound in Savannah: Corish, Doyle, Kehoe, Redmond, Rossiter, Sinnott, Stafford, and more.
Since 2014, student-led research under the guidance of Georgia Southern University’s Center for Irish Research and Teaching (CIRT) has been revealing and disseminating the emigration-and-integration story that is the Wexford-Savannah Axis. As an academic endeavor, the work is helping to alter received narratives about nineteenth-century Irish migration to the United States, especially two ideas: the “Coffin Ship”; and “No Irish Need Apply.”
The Wexford vessels afforded healthy passage to Savannah, with captains regularly receiving kudos from passengers. Once in Savannah, the welcome was notable. In its issue of December 6, 1850, the Savannah Morning News offered the editorial comment that “rarely … [do] we see a more respectable body of new comers from any portion of Europe, than those [from Wexford] …. May they realize their brightest anticipations, of prosperity and happiness in their new home.” According to federal census data, by 1860 almost a quarter of Savannah’s non-slave population was Irish-born.
Life in Savannah was not without challenges for immigrants from Wexford and other parts of Ireland. A yellow-fever epidemic in August and September of 1854 claimed hundreds of Irish lives, including that of Daniel Kehoe, aged 47, from Mounthoward, near Gorey, County Wexford. One of Daniel’s sons, William, would go on to develop Kehoe’s Iron Works in Savannah’s Old Fort neighborhood. By 1916, it was the largest such facility in the United States, south of the shipbuilding city of Newport News, Virginia.
Two Wexford immigrants, the Catholic priest, Peter Whelan (from Loughnageer, near Clongeen), and the Protestant physician, Richard Joseph Nunn (from Wexford Town), gained immense popular respect in Savannah as selfless humanitarians. Their respective funerals remain among the largest in Savannah’s history.
Today, Savannah, Georgia, stages the second-largest (and the best) St. Patrick’s Day Parade in the United States, with the flag of County Wexford gracing the joyous celebration.
Several superb outcomes have resulted from the Wexford-Savannah Axis research project, which has successfully reconnected two communities after 170 years. Coming to know each other once again affords both regions exciting, future-directed opportunities as regards education, culture, the arts, tourism, and — crucially — economic development.
Conscious that investment follows trade, in March 2018 business and government leaders in both communities followed up on several transatlantic visits by establishing Wexford-Savannah TradeBridge as a platform to help businesses in Southeast Ireland and Coastal Georgia gain access to each other’s markets. Ireland is a world-leading economy in such areas as informational technology, biopharmaceuticals, and medical devices; and soon it will be the only English-speaking member of the European Union. Savannah boasts the fourth-largest (and the fastest-growing) container port in the United States, as well as being a major center for distribution logistics, aircraft manufacture, and film production.
During its first year, TradeBridge delivered impressive results, such as a major Southeastern US distribution deal for Survipod, a Wexford manufacturer of innovative surveying tools. In addition, the Savannah Bee Company contracted broad-based entry into Ireland and the EU. Recently, Raceix, an Irish company in the motor-boat tech sector, credited TradeBridge when announcing Savannah as its choice for its North American headquarters. Other achievements could be detailed, too.
Due to visionary strategic leadership from Wexford County Council in response to the Wexford-Savannah Axis research project and the TradeBridge initiative, one of the Council’s properties has been made available to Georgia Southern University. Founded in 1906 and maintaining campuses in the Georgia cities of Savannah, Statesboro, and Hinesville, Georgia Southern is an R-2 (high research productivity) institution with a student population in excess of 26,500. With degree programs through the doctoral level, Georgia Southern constitutes the largest comprehensive university in the State of Georgia south of the Metropolitan Atlanta region. Georgia Southern is a unit of the University System of Georgia, whose total enrollment exceeds 328,700 students.
Georgia Southern University - Ireland occupies customized space in a landmark edifice that formerly served as Wexford County Hall. Dating to 1812, the principal building is a fine example of the Georgian style of architecture, executed in red sandstone with granite dressings. Sensitively reconfigured to incorporate twenty-first-century instructional assets, the building’s interior provides a variety of highly effective learning environments. From this base, students from Georgia Southern and the greater University System of Georgia benefit from the superior networks present in County Wexford and Southeast Ireland — from Ireland’s National Opera House, just blocks from campus, to the United Nations-endorsed Center of Excellence in nZEB (nearly zero energy building), located in the nearby town of Enniscorthy.
A ribbon-cutting event is anticipated at the facility in Wexford Town, probably in September 2019, but on the day after St. Patrick’s Day 2019, senior representatives from Wexford were present at Georgia Southern University’s Armstrong Campus in Savannah for the Announcement Event concerning Georgia Southern University - Ireland. The University’s President, Shelley Clark Nickel, welcomed over 200 guests, including:
• Keith Doyle, Cathaoirleach (Chair), Wexford County Council;
• Tony Dempsey, Mayor, Wexford Town, and First Lady Gemma Dempsey;
• Tony Larkin, Deputy Chief Executive and Director of Services, Wexford County Council;
• Éamonn Murphy, Chair, Wexford Enterprise Center, and his wife, Clare Murphy.
On the podium for the Announcement Event were President Nickel and Councilor Doyle and, in addition:
• Shane Stephens, Consul General of Ireland for the Southeastern United States;
• Don Waters, Chair of the Board of Regents of the University System of Georgia and Regent for the First District;
• John Coleman, Vice-Chair of the Board of Directors, Savannah Economic Development Authority;
• Howard Keeley, PhD, Director, Center for Irish Research and Teaching, Georgia Southern University.
Multiple Savannah political, business, educational, and religious leaders attended the Announcement Event, and a pictorial sampling of those present concludes this webpage. First, though, we offer links to media coverage of the occasion, plus other related material.
Click HERE or on the image above to read Georgia Southern University’s official press release.
Click HERE or on the image above to read the online version of coverage by the Savannah Morning News. The reporter was DeAnn Komanecky. A similar article appeared in the print edition of the newspaper on Tuesday, March 19, 2019.
Click HERE or on the image above to watch the TV report from WTOC Savannah (CBS affiliate).
Click HERE or on the image above to watch the TV report from WSAV Savannah (NBC affiliate).
Click HERE or on the image above to watch the TV report from Fox 28 Savannah.
Click HERE or on the image above to watch the TV report from WJCL Savannah (ABC affiliate).
Friday, March 15, 2019
In addition to being guests of honor at the Georgia Southern University - Ireland Announcement Event on Monday, March 18, 2019, the core government representatives from County Wexford enjoyed other high-value opportunities during their visit to Savannah. On Friday, March 15, 2019 — their first full day in the Hostess City — Council Chair Keith Doyle, Wexford Town Mayor Tony Dempsey, and Council Deputy Chief Executive Tony Larkin were hosted to a working lunch by the senior leadership of the Savannah Economic Development Authority.
The Wexford delegates then progressed to City Hall, where Savannah’s Mayor, Eddie DeLoach, presented a Key of the City to Doyle, as the representative of County Wexford, and another Key to Dempsey, as the representative of Wexford Town. The City Hall event concluded with a tour of historic artifacts related to Wexford in the collection of the City of Savannah’s Municipal Archives. The Director of Archives, Luciana Spracher, explained the items’ significance. Click HERE or on the image above to experience how WTOC, a Savannah television station, reported the City Hall visit.
Doyle, Dempsey, and Larkin next participated in the William Jasper Ceremony, the annual tribute by the Savannah Irish to the United States armed forces. A particular focus is Irish-American service across all branches: Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Marines, and Navy. At the event, the Wexford party interacted with Representative Buddy Carter, the Member of the United States House of Representatives for the First District of Georgia, which includes Savannah.
The Wexford representatives concluded their official Friday engagements in Savannah by attending a reception co-hosted by David Stanton, TD, Ireland’s Minister of State for Equality, Immigration, and Integration; Shane Stephens, Ireland’s Consul General for the Southeastern US; and Andrew Staunton, the UK’s Consul General for the Southeastern US. The reception’s theme was America’s role in the peace process on the island of Ireland. The event also highlighted Scots-Irish contributions to the City of Savannah and the State of Georgia.
Minister Stanton contributed an op-ed to the March 15, 2019, issue of the Savannah Morning News. The piece recognizes the Wexford-Savannah Axis research project and the Trade Bridge initiative, and it also states that “an exciting new chapter in the relationship between Ireland and Georgia Southern University will soon be unveiled.” You can read the op-ed HERE.
Saturday, March 16, 2019
As St. Patrick’s Day 2019 fell on a Sunday, Savannah held its Parade the day before. The Savannah St. Patrick’s Day Parade Committee accorded VIP status to the Chair of Wexford County Council, Keith Doyle, and the Mayor and First Lady of Wexford Town, Tony and Gemma Dempsey. At 8:00 am on Saturday, March 16, 2019, the Wexford guests attended Mass for the Feast of St. Patrick at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist, along with Brian Kemp, Governor of the State of Georgia, and Buddy Carter, US Representative for the First District of Georgia. Then, the Parade Committee provided them with an open-top Mercedes, displaying “Co. Wexford, Ireland” signage, in which they participated in the Parade, moving through several of Savannah’s historic squares and along such thoroughfares as Abercorn Street and Bay Street.
Sunday, March 17, 2019
During the afternoon of St. Patrick’s Day, Keith Doyle, Tony and Gemma Dempsey, and Tony Larkin were joined by Éamonn Murphy, Chair of the Wexford Enterprise Center, and his wife, Clare Murphy. The Wexford visitors enjoyed a tour of selected grave sites in Savannah’s Catholic Cemetery associated with County Wexford. One of their guides was Monsignor William Oliver O’Neill, Vicar General Emeritus of the Diocese of Savannah, who attended St. Peter’s Seminary in Wexford Town.
Monday, March 18, 2019
Prior to the Georgia Southern University - Ireland Announcement Event (read the invitation HERE), the Wexford visitors attended a Savannah lunch in honor of County Wexford, hosted by Shane Stephens, Consul General of Ireland for the Southeastern United States. Beginning at 3:00 pm, the Announcement Event attracted over 200 people. To conclude their Savannah trip, the Wexfordians were the honored dinner guests of of Shelley C. Nickel in her capacity as President of Georgia Southern University.
In remarks at the meal, Nickel underscored that student research has been central to the revitalization of links between Wexford-Southeast Ireland and Savannah-Coastal Georgia. In reporting on the Announcement Event, the Georgia Historical Society (founded in 1839) also invoked student participation (read the piece HERE).
A current phase in the research is the development of Savannah material for inclusion in the visitor experience at the Dunbrody Center in New Ross, County Wexford. This project featured in both the print and online March 14, 2019, editions of the Savannah Morning News. You can read the online content HERE. It is based on an official press release from Georgia Southern University, which you can read HERE.
The large turnout at the Announcement Event demonstrated the Savannah community’s enthusiastic support of Georgia Southern University - Ireland. The Director of the University’s Center for Irish Research and Teaching (CIRT), Howard Keeley, PhD, stated, “The strategic leadership demonstrated by President Shelley Nickel, Wexford County Chief Executive Tom Enright, Board of Regents Chair Don Waters, and our economic-development partners has delivered this signal achievement. Our enhanced relationship with Ireland, through County Wexford, provides an exceptional international platform for our students and stakeholders. We are grateful, inspired, and committed.”
Brynn Grant, Chief Operating Officer, Savannah Economic Development Authority, said, “Georgia Southern University steps onto the world stage with a campus in Wexford, Ireland! It’s no coincidence. It’s the result of a lot of people working together to advance big goals for the arts, education, and business!”