Echoes of Ireland in the Deep South

Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist (Charleston, SC)

By Denis Bergin, Contributor
April / May 2010

Denis Bergin reports on an upsurge of Irish cultural activity in Charleston, where the relics of old Southern decency are still much in evidence.

Charleston, South Carolina is everyone’s idea of the captivating U.S. South. The city draws more than four million visitors a year to sample its atmospheric evocations of everything from slave-based plantation lifestyles to stirrings of the revolution still referred to as ‘the recent unpleasantness’ (some hold that the first military action of the Civil War took place here in January 1861, when Citadel college cadets fired on a Union warship).

Repeatedly pummeled by natural disasters (fire, earthquake, hurricane), the city has survived to tell the tales of families such as the Alstons, Russells, Heywards, Manigaults, Aikens and Rutledges through their well-preserved mansions that dot the compact street layout north and south of Broad.

The Rutledges and the Aikens were among a group of founding Irish in these parts that also included some influential ‘friends of George’ – people like Carlow-born Sir Pierce Butler, Galway native Aedanus Burke and plantation heir O’Brien Smith. They were all in attendance when President George Washington visited Charleston on a triumphal progress in 1791.

The church-rich ‘Holy City’ also owes some of its iconic imagery to the Irish: Dublin-born Samuel Cardy built St. Michael’s Episcopal Church at the corner of Broad and Meeting in the 1750s, and at about the same time was also responsible for the colonial statehouse opposite, now restored to its 1792 re-ordering as a courthouse (a project supervised by James Hoban, the Kilkennyman who went on to design and build the White House).

Heritage preservation and cultural tourism promotion has long been a priority of the city’s mayor Joseph P. Riley Jr. Though still only in his sixties, Mayor Riley is himself in danger of becoming part of the historic fabric of the city he is committed to preserving – he has been re-elected continuously to the high-profile position since 1975.

Riley’s visibility (he is a former chairman of the U.S. National Conference of Mayors) may lead people to believe that Charleston is the only urban settlement on this hospitable stretch of Atlantic coastline.

In fact, the greater Charleston area is an agglomeration of ten separate municipalities, including the burgeoning industrial area of North Charleston (about to rival Seattle as a Boeing manufacturing location), the up-market golf-course community of Kiawah Island, and the elegant beachside enclave of Sullivan’s Island.

Sullivan’s Island takes its name from 17th-century Cork-born adventurer Florence who came to the area on a colonizing mission – he had joined the ship Carolina when it put in at Kinsale on its way to the West Indies and then to the unsettled Indian territories north of St. Augustine.

O’Sullivan’s controversial activities as land agent, surveyor and settler have long been eclipsed by his island’s role in everything from slavery – it was a reception center for human cargoes from Africa – to the more exotic episodes of the Civil War – it was a launching point for the doomed Confederate submarine experiment the CSS H. L. Hunley, recently rescued from the offshore waters to be preserved and exhibited as a major tourism attraction.

But the Corkman’s unsavory reputation has been somewhat balanced by the contribution of his fellow county native John England. The former parish priest of Bandon was appointed at the age of thirty-four as the first Catholic bishop of the Carolinas and Georgia in 1820.

Bishop John England’s contribution to the establishment of the church in what was essentially frontier territory is still evident in the institutions and foundations that honor his memory.

On one side of the city of Charleston, Bishop England High School commands an extensive footprint in the new community of Daniel Island, having moved from its downtown location in 1998. On the other side, the May Forest convent on James Island, founded by England in 1829, is motherhouse of the Sisters of Charity of our Lady of Mercy and home to the last native Irish member of the order – 102-year-old Laois-born Sr. Brendan Lacey.

The significant Irish contribution to Charleston’s society and history has been mediated down through the years by organizations such as the Hibernian Society, a benevolent movement formed about 1800 to dispense aid to immigrant Irish arriving at the extensive Charleston docks.

The Society’s Hibernian Hall, completed in the early 1840s and designed by Thomas Ustick Walter, an architect of the U.S. Capitol, is a dominating presence on Meeting Street. The society’s tradition of alternating Catholic and Protestant presidents continues to the present day.

But the more modern Irish presence in the Charleston area is based on the skills and enterprise of people like Karl Byrne, a Rathangan (Co. Kildare) native who is Professor of General and Gastrointestinal Surgery at the Medical University of South Carolina. Dubliner Jim Kirwan, a former banker, now heads up a chain of retail outlets specializing in equipment for triathlon participants. Simon Andrews, a member of the south Dublin political dynasty, is Executive Chef at the Francis Marion Hotel. Mary Margaret McLernon, an Irish-American entrepreneur, operates an art gallery, retail counter and tearoom just north of Charleston’s central Broad Street.

Mary Margaret’s simple suggestion of an event at her store to boost Irish cultural connections led to a neat five-day program in March for what it is hoped will become a regular Irish arts festival in Charleston. Her record in this area is impressive – as a resident of Dublin, Ohio, she was part of an effort that took a small Irish festival in that city from an attendance of 5,000 to more than 50,000 before it was taken over by the civic authorities and further boosted to its present mark of almost 100,000.

Much of the programming for the forthcoming ‘Festival of Ballycahill’ revolves around small-scale events using local talent. The name was chosen to suggest the Irish village atmosphere in which it is hoped to operate (the name is an anglicization of Baile Chathail, ‘Town of Charles’).

Incidentally, Charleston’s main international cultural event is Spoleto USA, named for a town in Italy where Italian-American composer Giancarlo Menotti established the Festival of the Two Worlds in the 1950s. His 1970s American replication of the Spoleto Festival in Charleston resulted in that most Irish of outcomes, ‘the split,’ in part precipitated by the involvement of Menotti’s adopted son and heir ‘Chip,’ born Frank Phelan in Philadelphia.

This year’s Spoleto USA features performers from more than a dozen countries (including members of Ireland’s Gate Theatre company), but its Ballycahill competitor has only one international headline act this year.

Pioneering Irish craftsperson Helen Conneely will present and demonstrate a wide range of the craft activity promoted by her CORE Crafted Design initiative based in Ballinahown, Co. Westmeath. The rest of the program brings together Irish-connected academics and amateurs in informal music and chat at Mary Margaret’s gallery and other nearby venues.

The College of Charleston’s Center for the Documentary is hosting showings of three Irish films: Saviours, by Ross Whitaker and Liam Nolan; Lance Daly’s award-winning Kisses; and A Film with Me in It, starring Dylan Moran.

Four city bistro/restaurants are offering Irish-themed menus, from the traditional Irish breakfast being promoted by Killarney-born Denis O’Doherty at his Blue Rose Cafe in West Ashley to some elegant options being planned by Chef Sean Wren at his new North Charleston location. Originally dubbed Cork Bistro for the natural material of the same name, Sean subtly changed the emphasis when he discovered that the Wrens probably came from the southern Irish region in the first place.

The old Irish saying ‘Bíonn gach tosnú lag’ (every beginning is weak) gives comfort to the festival organizers. But an invitation to the official launch prompted Charleston City Director of Cultural Affairs Ellen Dressler-Moryl to re-read How the Irish Saved Civilization and to declare enthusiastically, “This is how Spoleto started!”
To which she added, in paraphrase if not in the original Gaelic, ‘Tús maith leath na hoibre,’ (a good start is half the work).

A more extensive history of Charleston’s Irish connections can be found at the new website www.charlestonirish.net

Denis Bergin previously contributed to Irish America on James Hoban and the early Washington Irish. He lives in the Charleston area of South Carolina and in Co. Offaly.

One Response to “Echoes of Ireland in the Deep South”

  1. HELLO DENIS… you still write well… great piece… hoban was born in desart… cuffe lived in desart house or demesne… my mothers house is two fields from desart house… about 1/2 mile away… my uncle still lives there… of course the demesne is gone now… this link you may have already seen shows desart house (bottom of page link)… i see he built the courthouse in charleston… how is carol and your house in offaly… God Bless denis… JOHN FUNCHION.

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