Savannah’s ancestral ties to Ireland run strong and deep — something Paul Kehoe knows well.
As a member of the Irish Parliament representing Wexford County, Kehoe is especially aware of the large numbers of people from his community who left Ireland well over a century ago in search of a new life here.
Indeed, the names are as familiar to Savannahians as they are in Ireland — Kehoe, Rossiter, Corish, Stafford, Ryan, Fitzgerald, O’Keefe and O’Neill, to name a few.
Kehoe began to recognize the depth of the Savannah-Wexford connection when he visited Savannah for the first time on St. Patrick’s Day last year and learned more about the work of Georgia Southern University professor Howard Keeley and the Wexford-Savannah Axis, an innovative research and heritage-outreach project that chronicles the historic links between the two regions.
The project joins GSU and the Savannah-based Georgia Historical Society with Waterford Institute of Technology, the foremost university in southeastern Ireland and the John F. Kennedy Trust, a heritage foundation that operates in the historic County Wexford port of New Ross.
Although the young project is less than three years old, it already has uncovered a number of surprises, not the least of which are the business connections that go back centuries.
For example, in the archives of the long-defunct Irish shipping company, William Graves and Sons, Keeley and his students discovered a letter addressed to the company owner, detailing “the advantages of sailing into Savannah” from none other than Savannah’s leading 19th-century cotton factor, Andrew Lowe.
“Andrew Lowe wrote Mr. Graves regularly, updating him on everything from the price of rice and cotton to Savannah’s mild climate,” Keeley said.
Kehoe is determined to refresh and grow those business connections.
He was so impressed with what he learned on his first visit that Kehoe has returned this year with a delegation from the Wexford County Council in tow.
“I wanted them to experience the energy, beauty and potential opportunities of Savannah for themselves,” he said,
Savannah, too, has demonstrated its commitment to intensifying cooperation with Ireland and County Wexford. The World Trade Center Savannah recently added Ireland to its list of target countries for economic cooperation — just the sixth such country so designated.
There are already at least 78 Irish facilities operating in Georgia, employing more than 6,600 Georgians, according to Shane Stephens, Consul General of Ireland in Atlanta.
“Ireland has recovered well from the recent global financial crisis,” he said, adding that his country’s economy is growing at an enviable rate of 7.8 percent. Kehoe listed his country’s operation in Savannah as including an APAC-Southeast facility, part of Oldcastle’s 40,000 strong operation in North America, and a Kerry Group operation.
“And I will be recommending more Irish firms to consider locating here,” he said.
Kehoe also wants to encourage Savannah corporations to consider doing business in Ireland.
“We have a strong pool of highly skilled, multilingual workers in the only English-speaking country within the Eurozone, providing barrier-free access to an EU market of over 500 million consumers,” he said.
In 2015, Ireland maintained its three-year position as the best country in the Eurozone for doing business, according to Forbes magazine’s rankings, coming in an overall fourth in the world.
“This ranking is testament to Ireland’s favorable regulatory climate and our competitive 12.5 percent corporate tax rate,” he said.
The strength of Ireland’s economy, which is now on track to become the fastest growing in Europe for a third year in a row, also provides opportunities, Kehoe said.
“For Savannah companies looking to expand overseas, Ireland is an option worth considering seriously.”