Much of Georgia’s story written by Irish

From the day laborers who dug Savannah’s canals to retired Coca-Cola Company CEO Donald Keough, the Irish and Irish Americans have played important roles in Georgia.

They settled the raw countryside, started businesses, ministered to religious flocks, bought land and slaves and built and burned Georgia towns and cities.

Irish Catholics were early arrivers in Savannah, and Irish diggers were brought in — because they were incredibly cheap — to build canals in the early 1830s. Several hundred of them marched on the town in 1833 because their bosses failed to pay even their poor wages, said James M. Woods, a professor of history at Georgia Southern University.

One of their own, Irish Catholic priest Jeremiah Frances O’Neill, went out to meet the men and persuaded them to not burn down what was then Georgia’s largest city.

“(Gen. William T.) Sherman didn’t burn the city down, and the Irish didn’t either,” Woods quipped.

It was another Irish priest who saved Atlanta’s downtown churches during the Civil War.

Father Thomas O’Reilly, an Irish transplant, warned an officer of Sherman’s army as it occupied Atlanta that if the Union army burned down the Catholic Church near the present day Capitol, Catholics in the Federal ranks would rebel. And if they didn’t rebel, they would be excommunicated. Some Union soldiers helped to protect the church by preventing the setting of fires too near it, and O’Reilly’s intercession also apparently saved the courthouse, city hall, and St. Philip’s Episcopal Church, Trinity Methodist, Second Baptist, and Central Presbyterian churches. For this, the five churches erected a monument to the good father in Atlanta City Hall that you can still visit. Each year, at the end of the Atlanta St. Patrick’s Day parade, the Hibernian Benevolent Society of Atlanta (which sponsored the city’s first St. Patrick’s Day parade in 1858) places a wreath at O’Reilly’s monument.

Oh, and Sherman, the guy O’Reilly faced down? He was a second-generation Irish American.

That 138-mile rail line from Atlanta to Chattanooga that Sherman marched down on his way to Atlanta was built on the backs of many Irish laborers starting in 1836. That may account for the many Irish and Scots-Irish names that still populate the towns of northwest Georgia and central Georgia, where the Irish helped build the Central Railroad out of Savannah.

And armies on both side had Irish immigrant regiments, including the Georgia 24th Infantry Regiment, which recruited in White, Banks, Towns, Rabun, Gwinnett, Elbert, Hall, Franklin and Habersham counties. On the opposing side, Chicago’s 90th Illinois Volunteers fought their way through Georgia.

Another Irish priest played a mitigating role in one of the worst chapters of the war. Father Peter Whelen went to Andersonville to minister to the thousands of captured Union soldiers kept in the prison camp. More than 13,000 died from disease and starvation. After the war, the commandant of the camp was hanged for war crimes, and Whelen administered last rites.

When the war was over, Irish Americans and Scots-Irish Americans such as Henry Grady, the Atlanta Constitution editor, built businesses and helped try to stitch up some of the country’s wounds, and though the flood of Irish immigrants has slowed from those early years, their descendants continue making marks.

Paul Gleeson, the Consul General at the Irish Consulate in Atlanta, opened in 2011, said “This is a part of the world that Irish people have been coming to for a long time.”

“Today we have people like Don Keough (former CEO of Coca-Cola), and Don Panoz with Chateau Elan lived in Ireland for a lot of years,” Gleeson said.

Emory has a strong Irish studies program and holds the papers of Irish poet Seamus Heaney, who won a Nobel Prize in Literature. And Georgia, from Atlanta to points south and north, loves its St. Patrick’s Day events, he said.

“One of things I’ve enjoyed is getting to Dublin. It has something like 48 St. Patrick’s Day events going on.

“We are lucky to have a national day that is celebrated around the world.”

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