The rolling hills of Ireland are far away from Augusta, but the green island is close in the hearts of many here.
Irish identity is something families hold tight, even for those who aren’t native.
There aren’t many brogues in Augusta or first generation Irish, but the community whose ancestors immigrated to the Southeast after the potato famine is strong today. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates 7.7 percent of Richmond County to have Irish ancestry, and the community has two organizations that help people stay connected.
“We try to keep the Irish heritage here going,” said Brian Mulherin, a member of the Irish American Heritage Society of Augusta and the Ancient Order of Hibernians. “I think what it is, is so many of the Irish came over to this country destitute and they pulled themselves up by the boot straps, if you will. The Irish in this part of the country became quite proud.”
Augusta had an influx of Irish immigrants in the mid-1850s when people tried to escape the famine, Mulherin said. Many funneled through the port in Charleston, S.C., and moved to Augusta for work on the canal and railroads.
Beth Sheehan’s great grandfather Edward Sheehan was one of those immigrants who came to Augusta for a better life. He was born in County Cork and arrived in Augusta at age 15.
As he grew older, Sheehan started the Sheehan Excelsior Bottling Works on Broad Street, where he bottled beer, soft drinks and orange juice.
Beth Sheehan said it’s survival stories like her family’s that make people feel so connected to their roots.
“When you think about it, 160 years ago is not that far removed,” she said.
A part of the women’s chapter of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, she said the 40 members give to local charities and say prayers with rosary beads to keep the spirit of their ancestors alive.
The more than 300 members of the Irish American Heritage Society hold meetings and host speakers, while preparing for the culminating event of the annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade.
Earlier this month, the men’s chapter of AOH laid a wreath on the memorial stone of Dennis Cahill, an Irish-born city worker who drowned while trying to save a young girl who fell in the Augusta canal in 1902.
Immediate past president Jeff Ryan said it’s those gestures that help keep the Irish spirit in the Garden City.
“The Irish have gone through a lot of persecution and personal hardship over the years but they managed to sustain themselves,” Ryan said. “That has to do with the strong family background, religious beliefs but an awful lot is that we’ve endured so much and there’s pride that we’re still here. There’s still a lot of ethnic pride.”