I don’t think it’s any secret that I love Savannah, Ga. Even when it’s 100 degrees with 99 percent humidity or when the yellow pollen covers everything, I love the Hostess City.
As you read this today (Saturday, March 16), Savannah is celebrating St. Patrick’s Day with the second biggest parade in the U.S., plenty of liquid refreshment and food in what has become not only a Savannah tradition but an attraction for people from all over the world.
I get it. I didn’t understand why Savannah made such a big deal about St. Patrick’s Day until we moved there.
A quick aside to my readers here. Savannah’s Irish leadership does know how to read a calendar. Savannah traditionally celebrates St. Patrick’s Day on March 17 — except when it falls on a Sunday as it does this year.
The truth is Irish roots run deep in Savannah as well as the rest of Georgia. The Irish were among some of the first settlers to arrive in the new colony in 1734. Along with being some of the first people granted land, the Irish had their hand in shaping the colony and boosting the economy in the South.
Howard Keely, the director of the Center for Irish Research and Teaching at Georgia Southern University in Statesboro, Ga., explained while James Oglethorpe is the founder of Georgia, an important Irishman named Henry Ellis is responsible for keeping the colony afloat.
Ellis was the second royal governor of the colony and created its county system. He also strengthened relationships with Native Americans, which helped settlers get access to more of the state.
By the early 1800s, a large population of working-class Irish people were living in Savannah, and a large population had settled across 15,000 acres of land between Augusta and Savannah, the area that is now the city of Louisville. “At this point, [the population of] Savannah [began] to turn into a blend of the Presbyterian Scots-Irish and the often lower class native Irish Catholics,” explained writer Casey Rohlen in an article for Reflector Magazine.
The Irish continued seeking work around Savannah, and they found it easily, as there was a great demand for help to build the canals, ports and, later on, the railroad system. The last and largest migration came during The Great Famine — also known as the Irish Potato Famine. Research suggests that as many as one in three white households in Savannah in 1860 were from Ireland — not just Irish, but Irish-born.
St. Patrick’s Day in Savannah is one big party — winding along the parade route from 10:15 a.m. to mid-afternoon. It’s mostly a family atmosphere although certain areas can get rowdy. The City Market and on River Street isshoulder-to-shoulder with adults raising a glass to celebrate the day.
St. Patrick’s Day is more than a big party. Before the parade begins, Savannah’s Irish Catholic community gathers at the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist for morning Mass. The religious service, open to everyone, revolves around keeping the spirit of St. Patrick alive and traditionally kicks off the highly-anticipated parade and ensuing festivities.
I was introduced to the community tradition by Savannah native Kim Hunsinger, who served as our radioand television show’s marketing director. Kim and a few friends, who were young mothers at the time, wanted to claim a good vantage point to watch the parade. Kim now has a high schooler and a college student, but kids still spend St. Patrick’s Day with their mother.
I can’t think of St. Patrick’s Day without remembering the year Don and I celebrated with our next-door neighbors, Tiffany and Barry Garber. Their daughter Olivia was a toddler. We set up just across from the DAR Cemetery and arrived plenty early — not 6 a.m. early like Kim but in plenty of time to get a plum spot right by a local firehouse. It was a glorious day. Although chilly in the morning, by mid-morning it was a typical Savannah spring day with temperatures hovering around 80 degrees.
Was there drinking? Oh yeah. But there were families all around us that were in the same parade viewing stop their families had claimed for generations. As the parade goes by filled with generations of families walking, riding in cars or being pulled in wagons, girls actually plant big kisses on the cheeks of boys and the marching Scots men in uniform. When the New York City Fire Department or the U.S. Army marched by, their cheeks and foreheads were soon covered by bright red or pink lipstick. We always joked the entire city must be sold out of lipstick.
Every family has food and drink that is traditionally part of their St. Patrick’s Day celebration. For my friend Kim and her group, it includes mimosas and corned beef sliders. I’m sharing recipes for both although I don’t claim these are the exact recipes Kim and friends use.
I’ll be watching WTOC’s live coverage of the parade on my iPad this morning and lifting a mimosa. Éire go Brách.