Echoes of Ireland in the deep South
Denis Bergin reports on an uprising 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.
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