One of the things that most surprised me when I moved to Coastal Georgia was the enthusiastic celebration of St Patrick’s Day – which comes around once again next week.
When I heard that the St Patrick’s Day celebration in Savannah is the second largest March 17 gathering in the United States after the New York parade – with an estimated 400,000 people attending during recent years and the famous greening of Savannah’s fountains for the festivities – I wanted to find out more.
St Patrick’s Day was first celebrated in Savannah in 1813 when the local Hibernian Society held a private gathering. But the Irish presence in Savannah goes back to 40 starving Irish immigrants who arrived in 1734 in a storm battered ship.
Georgia’s founder, James Oglethorpe, broke the state’s charter by allowing these Irish Catholics to settle and worship in Savannah. More Irish people settled here, as they did throughout the U.S., helping build the canals and railroads and other infrastructure projects that really kicked off the industrial development of America.
A journalist at the time commented, “There are several kinds of power working at the fabric of the republic – water-power, steam-power and Irish-power. The last works hardest of all.”
The “Irish Diaspora” – the term referring to the scattering of people and culture that were formerly concentrated in one place – really took off in the mid-1800s when more people fled Ireland during its great potato famine. It has been calculated that around 5 million people have immigrated to America from Ireland since 1820 – which is a stunning figure when you consider there are only about 6 million people living in Ireland today.
I have spent a lot of time in Ireland during my life and career – after all, the Irish coast is less than 50 miles across the sea from Great Britain. And my great-grandfather came from Belfast in Northern Ireland, which are the six counties in the north of the island that are still part of the United Kingdom.
During my childhood and early adulthood there was a great deal of tension around the issue of a fully independent all-Ireland republic as the Irish Republican Army (known as the IRA in the U.K.) fought to reclaim the six counties in the north from British control.
More than 3,500 people, including many civilians, were killed as a result of “The Troubles” between 1969 and 2001. Most of these were in Belfast, but some were killed by bombs in shopping centers and office buildings in London and the middle of England. The fear of bombing was always a factor to be taken into account as I was growing up and during much of my career.
However, while some tensions still exist, a peace accord signed in 1998 has dramatically improved the situation, and today St Patrick’s Day is celebrated by both the Irish and many Brits in the U.K. – albeit not with the same enthusiasm as my friends and neighbors in Coastal Georgia.
So, happily, I shall once again enjoy the celebrations in Savannah next week without dwelling too much on Ireland’s turbulent history. As an English immigrant, I know how welcome Georgians have made me feel here, and it reminded me of this quote from the great Irish poet William Butler Yeats: “There are no strangers here; only friends you haven’t yet met.”
Happy St. Patrick’s Day and God bless America!
Francis grew up in London, England, and moved to Richmond Hill in 2009 with her American husband, Carl, and English dogs. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or www.lesleyfrancispr.com.