Academic journal article South Carolina Historical Magazine

South Carolina and Irish Famine Relief, 1846-47

Academic journal article South Carolina Historical Magazine

South Carolina and Irish Famine Relief, 1846-47

Article excerpt

"THE SYMPATHIES OF THE PEOPLE OF THIS COUNTRY ARE strongly excited in behalf of the destitute and starving condition of the poor people of Ireland," wrote the members of the Irish Relief Committee of Charleston in February 1847 as they sent funds raised in Charleston and other parts of South Carolina to the Central Committee of the Society of Friends (Quakers) in Dublin.1 In early 1847 the Hibernian Society of Charleston organized an Irish Relief Committee and solicited donations of money, food and clothing to help the victims of the Great Famine in Ireland. Under the leadership of the Hibernian Society, citizens of Charleston, Catholic, Protestant and Jew, Whig and Democrat, joined with citizens in other South Carolina communities, like Greenville, Columbia and Camden, in a voluntary national movement to aid the starving Irish and Scots.2

The Great Famine in Ireland led to philanthropic efforts by IrishAmericans and non-Irish to alleviate the suffering by raising money, food and clothing to ship to Ireland. South Carolinians joined with Americans in communities all across the country in an unprecedented national movement of voluntary aid. Americans ignored racial, religious, ethnic and political differences to support the cause of famine relief. Jewish congregations in New York City and Charleston, free African-Americans in Richmond, and even Cherokees and Choctaws on the frontier put aside their differences to contribute to this national philanthropic endeavor. In most communities local business, political, civic and religious leaders established non-partisan, non-sectarian citizens committees to collect contributions. While South Carolina followed this model in most cities or towns that created relief committees, Irish-Americans led the way in Charleston through the activities of the Hibernian Society.

Actually, efforts in the South by Irish-Americans and non-Irish to raise funds for famine relief have been given minor mention in historical works, even in studies of the Irish communities in New Orleans, Richmond, Savannah, Charleston or Memphis.3 Concern about multiculturalism and diversity produced a renewed interest in ethnic and immigration history. However, according to historian Mark Greenberg, few studies have focused on immigrants in southern cities, and even the most recent scholarship on the Irish-American communities has ignored the outpouring of relief in the South in 1846-47.4 Famine relief in southern cities is not surprising when you realize that immigrants made up thirty-nine percent of the white population in southern cities in 1860, and the Irish made up a high percentage of the foreign born. In Savannah, for example, more than half of the white adults in 1860 were immigrants and two-thirds of the foreign born, in 1850 and 1860, immigrated from Ireland.5 Immigrants and their children comprised about forty percent of Charleston's white population in 1860, and "the overwhelming majority of the new hands were Irish immigrants."6 The diversification of the Southern urban population prior to the Civil War meant that news of the famine in Ireland found a receptive audience among Irish immigrants willing to help their families and fellow countrymen, as the role of the Hibernian Society in Charleston suggests. While the Irish community acted as the catalyst for relief contributions in Charleston and in South Carolina as a whole, non-Irish quickly joined the cause as they did in other parts of the country. The famine in Ireland had two consequences for South Carolina-the creation of a famine relief movement and a further exodus of Irish to Charleston. Famine-induced flight led to the primary and secondary immigration of the Irish to southern cities like Richmond, Memphis, New Orleans, Savannah and Charleston between 1847 and 1860 as it did to northern cities, like Boston, New York, Brooklyn and Albany.

News of the potato blight reached the United States in the winter of 1845-46, and small-scale efforts to solicit contributions began in Boston, New York and a few other cities. …

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