In the mid- to late-nineteenth century the port city of Savannah in the southern United States became a destination for thousands of Irish emigrants, particularly emigrants from the South East. Shipping companies like the Graves company of New Ross facilitated what amounts to a mass emigration from Wexford and parts of south Kilkenny to Georgia.
Records show the emigrants being warmly received in cosmopolitan Savannah where many went on to make a telling mark: in time, the Irish became Savannah’s business, trade union and political leaders, so much so that the city now hosts the second largest St Patrick’s Day festival in the world. The Savannah Irish have maintained not just their sense of national identity but also a strong feeling for their roots in the south eastern corner of Ireland.
The School of Humanities at WIT has entered into a unique collaboration with the JFK Trust, the Centre for Irish Studies at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro, Georgia, and the Georgia Historical Society to investigate the Wexford-Savannah emigration.
The research will have historical dimensions and archives have been identified on both sides of the Atlantic that are revealing of the individual stories associated with the migration, like that of the William Kehoe who arrived in the 1840s and eventually became one of Savannah’s most prominent and successful businessmen running an important iron foundry in the port. These stories will be told as part of the history and will form an important contribution to Irish-American historical studies.
Importantly, the research will also have social dimensions and will align with ongoing research into emigrant experience within Humanities at WIT: historical dimensions of the research will inform research into contemporary patterns of migration, identity amongst emigrant and other marginalized communities, and larger questions about emigrant experience.
The research will also enhance our understanding of the industrial landscape of nineteenth-century Ireland and its trade links with the US, and will in turn enhance our understanding of the economic relationship between the two countries.
It is clear that the shipment of migrants to Savannah was only one part of a complex web of trade relations—and, of course, much like today, people were as much an integral part of that web as any other “product”.
This unexpectedly complex trade relationships that existed between Savannah and the South-east of Ireland prefigure modern-day globalised trade and helps us understand the social, economic and political dimensions of our contemporary experience.
The research will bring closer together the communities of the south-eastern corner of Ireland and the south-eastern corner of the United States based on our shared ancestry and history. Savannah is one of the most visited US cities and is a city in which Irish tourists could feel very much at home.
The very deep attraction the south-east of Ireland holds for the Georgia Irish can also inform the development of tourist attractions in Wexford and throughout the region—the strong links to Savannah to date have not featured in the profile of tourist attractions visible to the diaspora. WIT is determined to assist in realising this potential with its partners in this unique and multi-dimensional research project.