The Irish Diaspora is one of the seminal moments in the story of American immigration, with the great potato famine in Ireland forcing millions to seek a new life in the land of opportunity. They settled in New York, in Boston, and in…Savannah, Georgia?
This is the Forgotten History of the Dublin of the South.
A sleepy coastal town on the banks of a river that divides South Carolina and Georgia, Savannah was a popular port first settled by the survivors of a shipwreck. The sloop was carrying Irish indentured servants—effectively slaves—and was bound for New England when it ran aground on the banks of Savannah on January, 10th 1734. Just 34 men and six women survived. They were injured, poor, and what little they had brought with them was gone.
But the Colony of Georgia, led then by British General James Oglethorpe took them in and gave them shelter, gave them food, gave them a home.
“I thought in an act of charity to buy them, which I did, giving five pounds a head,” the General wrote in his diary. “I gave one of them to each of the widows which will render them able to cultivate their lands and maintain their families. I let each of the magistrates have one at a prime cost that they might not be behind hand in their gardens and plantations by reason of their spending much of their time in the public service.”
The refugees thrived, and so did Savannah, which became such a bustling and important trade port that it became the first Capital of Georgia. And as it grew, so too did its Irish population. The original settlers sent word back home of this amazing place in the New World, and hundreds of immigrants arrived.
When the potato blight in Ireland caused widespread famine, millions of Irish were forced from their homeland. America, forever the land of opportunity, welcomed them all—and Savannah was one of the more popular destinations. Nearly 2,300 people moved to the city in the mid-1800s and helped build it into the lively metropolis it is today.
And throughout its history, Savannah celebrated its Irish heritage. In 1813, a small group of Irish Savannahns marched through the city’s streets playing traditional Celtic music to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. The following year, a few more joined in. As more and more Irish immigrants moved to Savannah, the parade—and parties that followed it—got bigger and bigger.
Today, Savannah’s St. Patrick’s Day parade is the second largest in America, behind only New York City’s. But Savannah’s celebration of the holiday is by far the biggest. For two weeks, the city celebrates its Irish heritage with cultural exhibits, religious ceremonies, and of course, plenty of parties.
It’s a celebration of Irish culture, sure, but also of American culture—the seamless fusion and integration of people from around the world, especially those for whom America represents their last, best hope for a better life. No matter who, no matter where, America provides that.
And Savannah, the Dublin of the South, has proven it for nearly three centuries.