Every prominent Irish national movement had a South Carolina branch, and future Irish president Eamon De Valera recognized this tradition when he visited Charleston and Columbia in 1920 to speak to supporters of the Irish War of Independence.
The Irish connection with South Carolina began with the foundation of the Carolina colony. The first surveyor of the colony, Florence O’Sullivan, was an Irishman. As the colony grew in prosperity in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, Irish families such as the Rutledges, Lynches, and Barnwells gained prominence and formed the first Irish societies in the colony. In the backcountry an increasing presence of Scots-Irish began to dominate that area from the mid–eighteenth century onward. Among these migrants were the parents of Andrew Jackson and the father of John C. Calhoun. In 1841 Calhoun, in his subscription to the Irish Emigrant Society, unequivocally stated, “I have ever taken pride in my Irish descent.” These Scots-Irish were major participants in the Regulator movement and were in the vanguard of the patriotic cause in the Revolutionary War. Prominent lowcountry Irish on the patriot side included the first-generation Carolinian brothers Edward and John Rutledge, signers of the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution respectively, and the Irish-born Pierce Butler, who also signed the Constitution and became the first United States senator from South Carolina.
After independence, Irish migration to Carolina continued, and increasingly Catholics were among the numbers. The majority of the petitioners seeking to incorporate St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Charleston in 1791 were Irish. An influx of political refugees from Ireland during the late 1790s led to the formation of the Charleston Hibernian Society on St. Patrick’s Day 1799. Although predominantly Protestant in membership, the society acknowledged its transatlantic antecedents in the Society of United Irishmen, which had attempted to unite all Irish (Catholics and Protestants) by electing Father Simon Felix Gallagher as its first president.
In the nineteenth century, Catholics dominated the Irish migration into South Carolina, especially between 1845 and 1855 when more than one million left Ireland for North America fleeing the Great Famine. Most of the Irish who came to South Carolina during this period came not directly from Ireland but from other states, and they usually settled in Charleston. The 1860 census counted 4,996 native-born Irish in South Carolina, the high point of the nineteenth century. Nearly two-thirds of them (3,263) lived in Charleston, primarily as poor unskilled and semiskilled workers. Living predominantly along the Cooper River and on the Neck, the Irish lived in rough housing and were susceptible to epidemics. Alcohol abuse, crime, and premature mortality were constant realities. Nevertheless the Irish made a major impact on the city. Along with laboring, they were dominant in the police force and operated all kinds of merchandising ventures. The Catholic diocese, erected in 1820, created two new parishes in the city to cater to the growing Irish flock. The Irish were also active in local politics. Although they often challenged the racial mores of the city by conducting illicit trade with slaves, they did not challenge slavery itself. As strong Democrats, they supported the institution, and the more prosperous Irish showed no hesitation in purchasing human chattel.
There was also a sizable Irish presence in Columbia. The other Irish settlements in the antebellum state were centered around major public works projects. For example, a large Irish community grew at Tunnel Hill near Walhalla in the 1850s to construct a railroad tunnel through Stumphouse Mountain. Other Irish were scattered throughout the state, although they were more likely to be found in the towns.
The Irish in South Carolina continued to keep an interest in Irish affairs throughout the nineteenth and into the twentieth centuries. Every prominent Irish national movement had a South Carolina branch, and future Irish president Eamon De Valera recognized this tradition when he visited Charleston and Columbia in 1920 to speak to supporters of the Irish War of Independence. Along with their nationalist organizations the Irish also retained their ethnicity by supporting the Catholic Church. The first bishop, John England of county Cork, who presided over Catholicism in the Carolinas and Georgia from 1820 until 1842, played the major role in making Catholicism more acceptable in the state. Protégé successors such as the county Monaghan-born Bishop Patrick N. Lynch of Cheraw continued his work of making Catholicism compatible with Carolina values. Among those assisting Lynch in this task were the mostly Irish Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy, founded by England in 1829, whose works of charity gained even more respect for the new Irish and their faith.
By 1861 the new Irish migrants had become an integrated if not yet an assimilated part of South Carolina society. In secession and civil war, the majority of the Irish supported their adopted state. Irish units from Charleston and Columbia served with distinction. Bishop Lynch became Confederate commissioner to the Vatican. The southern defeat, particularly the destruction in Charleston and Columbia, had a harsh impact on Irish Carolinians. New migrants stopped coming to the state and the Irish-born population never again reached its 1860 level. After 1865 the Irish story in South Carolina became an increasingly Irish-American one. Opponents of Radical Reconstruction, the Irish felt rewarded when Michael Patrick O’Connor of Charleston was elected to Congress in 1878. In that city they remained a vital force in local politics, helping elect one of their own, John Patrick Grace, mayor in 1911 and again in 1919. One of South Carolina’s most important politicians, James F. Byrnes, was an altar boy at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in the heart of Irish Charleston before becoming an Episcopalian, United States senator, secretary of state, and governor. The Irish-American tradition in South Carolina politics has been ably continued by leaders such as Governor Richard Riley of Greenville and Mayor Joseph P. Riley, Jr., of Charleston.
By the turn of the twentieth century, the “Irish” had indeed become assimilated into South Carolina, but they continued to show an interest in their ethnic roots. Buoyed in some part by an influx of Irish Americans from other states, there has been a renaissance of interest in Irish heritage among South Carolinians. In 1979 Irish Charlestonians founded the South Carolina Irish Historical Society. In 2003 the Ancient Order of Hibernians had divisions in Myrtle Beach, Charleston, Columbia, and Greenville. The Hibernian Society of Charleston’s celebration of St. Patrick’s Day remains in the twenty-first century an important city event and, reflecting its ecumenical heritage, the society alternates Catholic and Protestant presidents.
Gleeson, David. The Irish in the South, 1815–1877. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.
Haughey, Jim. “Tunnel Hill: An Irish Mining Community in the Western Carolinas.” Proceedings of the South Carolina Historical Association (2004): 51–62.
Joyce, Dee Dee. “White, Worker, Irish, and Confederate: Irish Workers’ Constructed Identity in Late Antebellum Charleston, South Carolina.” Ph.D. diss., State University of New York at Binghamton, 2002.
Leyburn, James G. The Scotch-Irish: A Social History. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1962.
Madden, Richard. Catholics in South Carolina: A Record. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1985.
Mitchell, Arthur. The History of the Hibernian Society of Charleston, South Carolina, 1799–1981. N.p., 1981.
Silver, Christopher. “A New Look at Old South Urbanization: The Irish Worker in Charleston, South Carolina, 1840–1860.” In South Atlantic Urban Studies, Vol. 3, edited by Samuel M. Hines, et al. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1979.