Green Savannah – Norman Freeman on St Patrick’s Day in Georgia

The first St Patrick’s Day parade in the city was held in 1824

The St Patrick’s Day parade in Savannah, Georgia, was at one time second in size and scope in the US only to that of New York.

I was told this many years ago in a bookshop in that busy port city on the east coast of the United States. I was looking for a collection of the sea plays of Eugene O’Neill when a young woman serving there came over and helped me find a copy. When she heard my accent she said that she herself had Irish ancestors and that the Irish were a very significant ethnic group there.

She told me that the first St Patrick’s Day parade was held there in 1824. Since then the celebration had grown and was now a major event in the city. It was a public holiday there, she said.

Later, as I strolled about the many parks of the old quarter, taken by the old oak trees draped in hanging lengths of Spanish moss, I came across some information on the Irish presence in that city.

The first Irish arrived in Savannah in 1734 when it was a new British colony founded the previous year. Small sailing ships carrying settlers crossed the Atlantic and then went some 20 miles up the Savannah river to the new town. It had a planned grid street network layout of wide streets and over 20 parks.

The Irish were largely Presbyterians from Ulster. At least nine were granted land. Some began farming while others became part of the business enterprises related to trade at the growing port.

Decades later some formed the Hibernian Society, one of the oldest of its kind in the US. Its main purpose was to give aid and encouragement to newly arrived emigrants from Ireland. It is still in existence today in the city.

In 1813 a handful of members took part in a St Patrick’s day procession to the Independent Presbyterian church. Eleven years later the Society invited all Irishmen to parade through the streets. It continued in subsequent years. The first recognisably modern parade, with bands and a grand marshall, took place in 1870.

By that year the composition of the Irish community in the city had become predominantly Catholic. Even before the huge influx of Irish emigrants into the US to escape the Great Famine there were tens of thousands already seeking a better life in America. Many were impoverished, poorly educated, unqualified except for the men as labourers, the women as domestics.

In the 1830s they began to arrive into Savannah because there was work there for men in the construction of the Central of Georgia Railway. This was a very large enterprise requiring thousands of labourers. It was back-breaking work. Like all the other labourers preparing the ground and then laying down the track, the unskilled Irish were badly paid and brutally overworked. They clustered together in crowded living areas; some near the historic Old Fort.

Then, some years later, came the flood of Irish fleeing the starvation in their homeland. Many were almost destitute, malnourished, having survived the often horrendous trans-Atlantic crossing. For the most part, both women and men found work only at the most menial level.

These newcomers aroused some unease. It was felt that their cramped living conditions could lead to the spread of diseases such as yellow fever and cholera. In addition, there was some prejudice against them because they were Catholics in a city and county where Protestantism had significantly shaped the religious and cultural ethos.

However, like their kind all over North America they were driven by aspirations to better themselves. They placed great store on education and on “getting on”.

In Savannah they gained a reputation for hard work, for applying themselves whatever they undertook. Each generation sought to better itself over than the previous one in terms of terms of work-related achievement and their recognition as solid citizens.

As in other US cities, they became prominent working in government services and utilities, including the police and fire brigades. As their influence grew, they began to make a mark on the political scene. They retained a deep attachment to their land of origin and to its freedom from British rule.

One of its parks was named after Robert Emmet and has a Celtic cross honouring all Savannah citizens of Irish descent.

As elsewhere in the US, the St Patrick’s Day parade took on a distinctly Catholic hue. It became a celebration of the way Irish Catholics had overcome obstacles to be accepted as a people making a notable contribution to the well-being of the US.

In recent years, the parade in Savannah is less Catholic and more inclusive, more multicultural, more colourful. Many more women participate. It follows much the same pattern each year. Heritage groups and societies from the city and state take part. Contingents from the police, fire brigade, local military units are led by bands. Bagpipers wearing the traditional Irish dress of saffron and green are invariably part of the scene. There are floats sponsored by Irish families.

Over the decades other US cities have mounted bigger St Patrick’s Day parades in terms of participants and spectators. However, the parade in sub-tropical Savannah retains a special historic aura about it.

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