Editor’s Note: This is the first of two articles on the history of Irish immigrants in South Carolina.
Often, when people think of Ireland, they automatically think of Irish saints and the Catholic faith.
There is perhaps no country except Italy whose history and identity is so enmeshed with the Church in the imagination and memory of many Americans.
The Irish are by far one of the largest immigrant populations to come to the United States, with an estimated 4.5 million arriving here between 1820 and 1930. In those years, one third of all immigrants coming here were Irish.
Their impact on the nation is evident in today’s population. In the 2010 U.S. census, 33.3 million Americans (10.5 percent of the population) reported some Irish ancestry.
South Carolina is no different. Thousands of Irish immigrants moved across the state over the generations, many of them relying on deep faith in God that helped them bear great hardships and brought them across the ocean to a strange land to begin again.
While a large number of Irish who came to the Carolinas were Scots-Irish and Protestant, a significant number were Catholic. In many ways, their story is the story of the faith throughout the state, rising from harsh beginnings and overcoming poverty, prejudice and war to eventually grow and flourish.
The first documented Irish immigrants came to South Carolina when it was still a colony in 1670. Many more came during the colonial and Revolutionary periods. The largest influx of Irish Catholics began in the early 19th century as oppression, poverty and the potato famine forced them to look westward for a new beginning, and continued through the early 1900s.
Among those 19th-century immigrants was Bishop John England, a native of Cork, Ireland, who arrived in Charleston in 1820 as the first bishop of the newly-formed Diocese of Charleston. In those days the diocese included both Carolinas, Georgia, and eventually eastern Florida.
Bishop England, during his 22 years as prelate, made huge progress in advancing the faith in South Carolina. He built the state’s first cathedral, which was named after St. Finbar, born in Connaught, Ireland. He established a seminary, founded the Sisters of Charity of Our Lady of Mercy, formed Catholic schools, and increased the number of parishes in the state. He also started the country’s first Catholic newspaper, the United States Catholic Miscellany.
Without the influence of the Irish immigrant bishop, it is unlikely the Church in South Carolina would have grown so fast and so effectively in those years before the Civil War. A canal and a church.
While the bulk of Catholics in antebellum South Carolina lived in Charleston, those in other parts of the state had few churches to serve them. The first Catholic church in the Midlands, St. Peter on what is now Assembly Street in downtown Columbia, was established in 1821 to serve Irish laborers who came to work on the Columbia Canal along the Congaree River.
The church offered a rare place for rest and spiritual solace to the first group of Catholics to settle in Columbia. From the time they first started arriving in 1810, the Irish, many of whom were indentured laborers, worked in harsh and dangerous conditions. According to a published church history, they were called “leetmen,” a feudal term not inappropriate considering their circumstances.
The canal workers braved the city’s brutal heat, doing dangerous and exhausting work, and suffering epidemics of disease such as yellow fever. Often they died within a year of arrival, and many were buried in a potter’s field because the city had no Catholic cemetery.
Before St. Peter was founded, the Irish attended Mass in the home of a Jesuit priest named Father James Wallace, who is now buried in St. Peter’s historic cemetery. The growing population of laborers prompted Bishop England to establish the new parish in 1821. It was the first permanent Catholic congregation in the Midlands and, when the first church building was completed in 1824, the first Catholic church built in South Carolina outside Charleston.
Today, many of those early canal workers and the Irish priests who served them are buried beside the current church.
Top image, Diocesan Archives: The Diocese of Charleston’s first bishop, Most Rev. John England, was an Irishman who arrived in 1820. Irish immigrants were documented back to 1670.