Irish workers helped build city, bring faith to South Carolina

COLUMBIA — Irish Catholics who helped build one of Columbia’s early landmarks were honored at the dedication of a special monument along the Congaree River recently.
The monument is for indentured Irish workers who arrived between 1810 and 1820 to build the Columbia Canal.
A Mass for the Irish workers held at St. Peter Church was celebrated by Father Jerry Ragan, state chaplain of the Ancient Order of Hibernians in Georgia, and Oratorian Father Joe Pearce, state chaplain for the Hibernians in North Carolina. Also, members of the Hibernians from the Southeast and visitors from as far away as Pennsylvania and New York, attended.
According to a history of St. Peter Church which appears on its Web site, the Irish laborers, known by the feudal term “leetmen,” were the first group of Catholics to settle in the capitol city. Many of them died from heat or yellow fever within a year of arrival and were buried in a potter’s field because the city had no Catholic cemetery. Other workers were buried along the shores of the canal.
The laborers who survived formed the city’s first permanent Catholic congregation and prompted Bishop John England to establish St. Peter in 1821. The first building was completed in 1824. Many of the early canal workers, and the priests who served them, are buried in the historic cemetery behind the church.
The Sept. 6 Mass featured Irish music, including the hymn “Our Lady of Knock.” During his homily, Father Ragan talked about the significance of St. Peter as the first true church home for Irish Catholics in the Midlands. It was the first Catholic Church built in South Carolina outside of Charleston.  Father Ragan said that prior to the church’s founding, Mass for the laborers was held at the home of a Jesuit priest, Father James Wallace, who is buried in the church cemetery.
“All of these early laborers were poor and thought by many to be expendable,” he said. “We know precious little about these men we honor … they died a physical death, but as a people of faith, they gained resurrection in Jesus Christ.”
After the Mass, members of the Hibernians laid a memorial wreath for the workers in the cemetery. The dedication of the monument was held in Columbia’s Riverfront Park. The Ceol na Gael Pipe Band from Charlotte led the crowd in procession down a walking path framed by flags of Ireland’s counties to the monument site on the riverbank.
The I-shaped monument is made from granite blocks that came from the site of the former Columbia Correctional Institution. It stood for more than 100 years near the current park.
Niall Burgess, consul general of Ireland, was the special guest for the ceremony and the keynote speaker.
He told the crowd that Irish American history is often associated only with large cities in the Northeast and Midwest such as Chicago, Boston and New York City. Huge numbers of Irish immigrants started settling in those areas during the potato famine of the 1840s.
“There is another story that started 200 years earlier, with slavery and indenture first on the sugar plantations of the Caribbean, and then in the Carolinas,” Burgess said.
“For many who built this canal, it was a story of exile, indenture and, in many cases, death. Now, we’re at risk of no longer remembering these early generations. For many of the countless Irish who built this canal, it’s not only their legacy … it’s also their tomb,” he said.
Burgess would like to work on strengthening both personal and economic links between Ireland and South Carolina, and praised the active membership of the Ancient Order of Hibernians in the state.
“Initiatives like this are important because they bring attention to parts of Irish and American history that many people don’t know about,” Burgess said in an interview after the ceremony. “It’s an important story for us in Ireland to learn about, and it helps to cement the link between Ireland and South Carolina, which is an important one.”
Jim Lawracy, chairman of the S.C. Irish Memorial Committee and a member of St. John Neumann Church, spoke just before the official dedication. He worked for over a year to have the memorial built.
“We owe the Irish laborers a debt of gratitude, not only for helping to build our city, but for bringing our Catholic faith community to this part of South Carolina,” he said.