Total Pageviews

Thursday, October 1, 2009



The town can best be described as 'The Way A City Oughta Be', a visually delicious city in the process of downtown preservation and restoration, where history is a living presence. Brick-lined pathways are bordered with azaleas while her streets are widely divided with rows of Cypress and Elm trees sweeping above the sidewalks, lending them an elegant shading. Her architecture abounds with wrought-iron balconies, fences and ornamental work that lend her buildings a reflection of Southern grace, gentility and craftmanship, the latter being a missing ingredient in functional city and government structures, North and South. In the Historic District one cannot drive two blocks without encountering a park square through which motorists must slowly negotiate. But Georgia's best-kept secret is her large Irish community in Savannah, a town with long links to Wexford.

Beginning in the mid-1830's a mass of Irish came in direct response to work opportunities. Ill-fated canal projects and the 1830 Central of Georgia Railroad project, completed in 1843, contributed to a fifteen year expansion of the regional economy. The majority of Savannah's Irish came from only six of Ireland's thirty-two counties, Wexford, Cork, Mayo, Tipperary, Cavan and Kerry. The strong link to Wexford provided "acquaintance, kinship and remittances."

By 1850 nearly half of the foreign-born and 55% of the Irish born were living in the middle Atlantic states; 13% of the foreign-born and 10% of the Irish-born were living in the South. Settling in Savannah, the Irish found two communities to make an adjustment to - the black community and the white, the former being quite a complicated relationship. While living in the same parts of the city, they had a limited socialization; it is reported they were extremely complicated. They lived in the same parts of the city where they engaged in a underground economy (black market) in which alcohol was reportedly the most important commodity. Tobacco, linens, foodstuffs and the like were undoubtedly bartered as well.

The upper class Irish, most of whom arrived much earlier than the working-class Irish, apparently shared the racial outlook of their social/economic peers among native-born Southerners. The Irish working-class were a bit closer to the earth. They departed from the their church's pro-slavery teachings and seemed to willingly "punch holes in the restrictions of the law and custom that separated white from black." Because the Irish 'knew their place' as they moved in this social structure, they suffered no successful, extensive nativist backlash. However, they were condemned for "trading with slaves and for fighting with freed blacks."

Savannah grew in the quarter century before the Civil War. "The relative shortage of free black or slave labor in the city created employment opportunities in which the Irish immigrants eagerly took up. Thus in some respects they did not have to fully compete with slave labor. By 1860 the southern share of foreign-born actually declined to 12% while the proportion of Irish-born in the South increased to 11%. 1840 to 1852 were peak years of immigrant arrivals. By 1850 Irish-born were 10% of Savannah's population and 19% of it's white population. By 1861 the Irish were 'neither masters nor slaves in most cases but no longer strangers either.

A Hibernian Society had been established and on March 17, 1813 they marched in a procession to the Independent Presbyterian Church. Speaking of their St. Patrick's Day Parade, Don Fallin said, "In Georgia we've never had enough Pipe Bands to make it a happy a parade as we wish it to be; we could use a few more," he said. "In the local area we don't have participation of units in the area like there are in the North and the Northeast." Fallin knows that many available pipe bands want to go to New York City or other large cities on St. Patrick's Day but feels that "if we can entice people to come down and go to another Southern parade, there are three; one within 35 or 40 miles, one within 125 and another within 250 miles; if we can get 'em to come down and participate in two parades, maybe that would be an enticement." Any other enticements for pipe bands to come to Savannah for St. Patrick's Day? Fallin smiled and said, "It's sportcoat weather here on St. Patrick's Day."

History is alive in Savannah. The city played an important role in the Revolutionary War and the "War of Northern Aggression" is never far from the conscious. Those with family members who fought with the Confederacy's Army of Northern Virginia or the Western Army are fully aware of their family's contribution and loss during this momentous event. The 'Jasper Greens' were named after Irish-American Sgt. William Jasper, mortally wounded during the 1778 siege of Savannah. When the Civil War began they went off to fight. The 'Montgomery Guards' became a part of the First Volunteer Regiment of Georgia. One third of this unit were Irish.

John Mahoney, originally from Shelby, NC, has resided in Savannah for twenty years. "My dad, a lawyer and a judge, was a 'Southie' from Boston. We were the only Mahoneys in North Carolina." From 1962 to 1971 he actually ran a St. Patrick's Day Parade in Savannah that consisted of only the Mahoney family." Working as a volunteer at a recent Savannah Irish Festival, Mahoney said, "It's brought together the eleven Irish groups in Savannah. We're doing this to bring the Irish culture to the community." Like many other areas of the country, everybody drank green beer and wore plastic green hats. "That's not the case here," said Mahoney. "Traditional Irish music is brought in regularly at Kevin Barry's Irish Pub on River Street and the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH) sponsors 'The Thistle and Shamrock' radio show. That takes a good deal of our effort to do it but we think it's really important to bring the culture to the community." The show is heard in Savannah every Saturday at 8pm, 9l.1. "Anybody reading the Irish Echo Newspaper is invited to next year's Festival.

Southern hospitality and a friendly Irish community here will make anyone feel comfortable." As Part of the Savannah Festival the Ladies Ancient Order of Hibernians sponsors a poster contest for schoolchildren, awarding prizes and honorable mention in several categories. It involves youngsters in their Irishness as well as current events in the Irish community, and provides festival-goers with an art exhibit, all of which is colorful and impressive. It's the first time this writer has seen anyone do this and I certainly encourage other festivals to do likewise.

Robert Buttimer (Bobby) is past-Chairman of the Festival committee. He is quoted in Savannah's 'Scene' magazine: "The Savannah Irish Savannah Festival focuses more on the arts, on educating people in Irish culture. The parade committee has made great efforts in years to stop the commercialization of the parade. What we would like to be is a complement to the parade, never to compete. We open the St. Patrick's Day season the third weekend in February. Every weekend from then on is filled with local Irish events." Kevin Barry's is definitely the center of the trad music scene in Savannah.

Owned and operated by Queens, N.Y. native Vic Powers, we were treated to his rendition of 'Kelly, the boy from Killane.' After each evening's Festival performance the crowd gathered at Barry's for impromptu performances by musicians that have included the Makem Brothers. A new act (for this writer) was the Dady Brothers, John and Joe, from Rochester, NY Their musical talent is spread between fiddle, guitar, tin whistle and bodhran but it's their on-stage antics that freshen a stage and bring smiles to young and not-so-young alike. We'd love to see them at an Ohio Irish festival. While there were many talented performers, honorable mention goes to the Buddy O'Reilly Band, who put in a fine performance of traditional Irish music. And, of course, it's always fun to meet one's namesake.

We met John and Mary Ellen Sullivan, who reside in Savannah. And then there was the lively and talkative Jack Sullivan, proprietor of an Irish shop in Lafayette, NJ. Introducing myself he said, "I knew you were a Sullivan. You can tell a Sullivan by the eyebrows." I guess he was referring to those new, black Savannah curly strands growing from mine. Hmmm, they say when I reach puberty that'll stop. As our Irish luck would have it, we didn't see sunshine from Friday through Monday. When we left on Tuesday the sun peeked through the clouds. However, it certainly didn't dampen the Irish spirit in the least. The Irish community, as well as the vast crowd of visitors,  is large, active and spirited. And John Mahoney is right. Between Southern hospitality and Irish friendliness, we felt right at home in Savannah.


Throughout our lives we meet 'Irish' people. Some are native-born, some are Irish-Americans. Some we soon forget, some we can never forget. Savannah's Irish poet laureate, Jimmy Buttimer, falls into this latter category. At this writing he was enrolled in a Masters Program (History), a subject he's always been interested in.

During the last few years of his life, the entire family took care of their grandfather, Patrick Joseph Buttimer. They talked a great deal about his childhood in Savannah. "He knew his grandfather, the original emigrant from Cork, and his name was also Patrick Joseph. So I started to research a lot to do with the family and a lot of the records I found intact on his life were his service records in the Confederate Army."

Jimmy followed the history of his regiment and found a diary of one of the members that had some really remarkable passages in there about the Irish in the unit. They made up about a third of it. "I went ahead from there and added imagination to the facts that I found but my poetry is all based on primary sources and materials. He was in a unit called the First Georgia Regulars. They were a unique regiment, probably the crackerjack regiment. They were sent from Georgia to Virginia early in the war," Buttimer said. He continued. "They had professional discipline; the officers were from the best, well-known families in the State. They were very strict in their discipline and training and so they were much more professional than many other units in existence at the beginning of the war. They were recruited, a large number of them, from Irish dockworkers here in Savannah. Instead of a regional pool they were created statewide and sent up to Virginia in service of the Army of Northern Virginia (Confederate)."

One evening during Savannah's recent Irish Festival Buttimer took the stage at Kevin Barry's Pub on River Street. A hush fell over the crowd and a shh went out from them in an attempt to deaden the chatter from the next door bar. "To Have A History," is a tribute to his great-great grandfather. Speaking with a brogue that an American would be hard pressed to discern as not being native to Ireland, he begins.

"Now I have heard the different camps proclaim their honor and these same men would seek to find the first wrong on a field of carnage. So as to say that one was Cain, the other Abel. But I was there to live the hate, to smell the fear and heed the slaughter and here's the Hell of it.

We murdered them and they murdered us and that was our war in the Deep South when we were fighting the Negroes.On John's Island we were pressed by a vast host of Negroes. They carried the works on our right flank and murdered the wounded Stono Scouts before our eyes.But their victory was short as we counterattacked and the men went red-eyed mad with rage.

We shot the captives where they stood or hunted them down in the tall grass to finish them off with clubbed rifles and bayonets.And we would have killed them all but for our officers who beat us with their swords."
Midway through his poem Buttimer pauses to catch his breath and compose himself, temporarily overwhelmed by the deep emotions he feels. Flashing eyes reveal the inner passion of his deeply-felt West Cork Irish roots. After a few moments he continues.

"In quiet moments long removed that hellish day is with me. 'Twas there I heard the sound of blood lapping from throat to earth and saw the bodies arch and heave with each fresh gout of blood.And now I'm back in the Old Fort with the Negroes and the Irish as before the war.

And my neighbor comes from Africa with ritual scars upon his face as a sign of his people.And now his son runs with my son as two-legged pups through the dusty lanes.

And I often stop and the quareness of it all. At times like these my heart is troubled and I walk the few blocks to the river. And I watch its currents moil.'Tis a great, muddy beast of a river...'Tis the lifeblood of God, and it carries the sins of the world.

What was it drove my hand to murder?Was it truly the love of one thing and the hatred of another? Or did the priest say more than he knew? We are made in His image. We are made in His image.So ye that would seek the first wrong on a field of carnage content yourself with what ye find.

But I would tell ye as ye do not know, that murder is murder and a history is a hard thing to have."

Buttimer has begun a series of poems that will be melded to other prints he has in mind that will relate to Irish service in the Army of Northern Virginia. "I've taken the life of my great-great grandfather more as a template and added my own imagination as to how the Irish might have felt in a particular situation and I chronicled their mingling with the black population that they lived with in Savannah, as well as the native white population, the 'crackers.' (From the Irish world Craic - meaning fun). "They fought in every state from Maryland to Florida and they're the only unit I know that had done that. They served two years in Virginia and came back just prior to the Gettysburg Campaign. Out of the 660 men that left, 150 came back. They regrouped with conscripts."

When asked why they fought, Buttimer doesn't provide you with a simple answer. "They deemed they were a uncommonly hard lot. When they came here during the years of the 'Great Hunger' and dispersal, exile and mass starvation, they were the survivors of that very horrible and brutal holocaust. When they got to Savannah there was a very caring priest here, Fr. Jeremiah O'Neil. He helped establish a fund for the support of Daniel O'Connell and his campaign to repeal the union with Great Britain."

Buttimer reported that the local Irish raised a large sum of money, which he thinks was particularly noteworthy since their community was living in poverty. "At this stage what the Irish saw of the situation of the slaves was they were better fed, in better health, better clothed, better cared for, possessing a rich cultural life. The Irish didn't see themselves being in any better position and, in fact, many of them were in much worse shape, and so when Fr. O'Neil met the 'Great Emancipator' in Ireland, O'Connell upbraided him on his silence on the issue of slavery. Fr. O'Neill told him he needed to concentrate on raising the living standards of the Irish peasantry to the level of the black slaves in Savannah. So, it's a very complex issue. They saw this not as an issue of slavery. They were more or less viewed suspiciously by the native population, wondering where their sympathies were. It was basically a 'are you for us or agin us?' They signed up in record numbers and supported the efforts of their new found communities."

The Buttimer family hails from West Cork. "They took care of me when I visited them and made me feel very welcome. I did meet the Buttimers around Kilmichael and Dunmanway in West Cork." He's attempted to pick up the traces of when the great dispersal occurred but it was so massive and so many records have been destroyed or lost it's difficult to find out exactly where in West Cork the family is from. Buttimer says the first mention of the name in Irish records is 1601. "There was a group of 'Whiteboys', who were pardoned by Queen Elizabeth. "One of 'em was a Buttimer from Cork" It is interesting to note that one of the nationalist groups in Ireland the A.O.H. is descended from is the "Whiteboys".

The name (Bottymer) is also familiar around the Lake country in England. "I think the Buttimers might have originally been part of a failed plantation in Cork in the mid 16th century and became 'more Irish than the Irish themselves.' They're very staunch Republicans, the very salt of the earth. Very strong religious vocations.And we love sports. What I've seen in Ireland they're very active in sports and in the community," he said. Sounding like he's family, I commented that I didn't know if the Sullivans had Buttimer blood or the Buttimers had Sullivan blood. Not surprisingly, Buttimer said, "Let me tell you, my great-great grandmother, the wife of Patrick Joseph, was Mary Sullivan from Kerry. She was born in transit in the ship in the ocean. This has survived in the oral history of our family so there's no records of it."

Being a full-time student didn't provide Buttimer with a lot of time nor funds to promote his work. However, interested readers can obtain a print of 'Irish Rebels in the First Georgia Regulars, the Evacuation of Savannah, December 20, 1864', by Stephen Schildbach. On this print is another of Buttimer's poems, 'The Partings.' Interested readers can obtain a copy by contacting him in Savannah.

Sources for Savannah-Irish History:

History of the Hibernian Society of Savannah, 1812-1912, Savannah, Braid & Hutton, 1912.
Hibernia America, Dennis Clark, The Irish and Regional Cultures, Contributions in Ethnic Studies, Westport, CN, Greenwood Press, 1986.
"The South's Irish Catholics, A case of cultural confinement", Catholics in the Old South, Editor Randall N. Miller & Jon L. Wakelyn. Macon Mercer University Press, 1983.
'Strangers & Citizens, Irish Community in Savannah, 1837-1861', UMI Disseration Information Service, a Bell & Howell; Howell Information Company, 300 North Zeeb, Ann Arbor, MI 48106 313 761 4700,

No comments:

Post a Comment