Use the words Savannah and Ireland together in a sentence and you are most likely to be talking about St. Patrick’s Day, the city’s world famous celebration of all things Irish.
But if that’s all you associate with the two, you would be missing a vital part of the picture.
Savannah’s ancestral ties to Ireland – and County Wexford in particular — run strong and deep.
Indeed, the names of those who left famine-ravished Wexford County more than a century ago in search of a better life are as familiar in Savannah as they are in Ireland - Kehoe, Rossiter, Corish, Stafford, Ryan, Fitzgerald, O’Keefe and O’Neill, to name a few. Those connections have been brought into sharp focus in the last three years as Georgia Southern University professor Howard Keeley began 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. Already, the project 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 William Graves and Sons, a long-defunct Irish shipping company, 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 Low.
According to Keeley, “Andrew Low wrote Mr. Graves regularly, updating him on everything from the price of rice and cotton to Savannah’s mild climate.”
Irish Minister Paul Kehoe, a descendant of Savannah’s Kehoe Iron Works founder William Kehoe, is determined to re-establish and grow those business connections.
To that end, he arrived in Savannah last St. Patrick’s Day 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 at the time, adding that his goal is to grow the presence of Irish businesses in Southeast Georgia and encourage companies here to consider doing business in Ireland.
A two-way benefit
The feeling on this side of the Atlantic is mutual, as the World Trade Center Savannah earlier this year added Ireland to its short list of target countries for economic cooperation.
Last month, Savannah Economic Development Authority board chairman Steve Green and Savannah Mayor Eddie DeLoach led a Savannah delegation on a trade mission to County Wexford, where, according to Shane Stephens, Consul General of Ireland in Atlanta, they “were received at the highest levels.”
“The group met with no fewer than three ranking Irish ministers and a number of Ireland’s most respected businessmen,” Stephens added.
During the visit, the delegation identified interests in using Savannah as a gateway market and discovered new areas of mutual potential.
“Tourism has always been top-of-mind,” he said. “But we also uncovered areas of overlapping interest such as aviation and the development of video gaming, the latter due primarily to the Savannah College of Art and Design’s work in the industry.”
Calling it a great time for Savannah to be prioritizing its business relationship with Ireland, Stephens said the Irish economy has recovered strongly from the recent global financial crisis and has been among the fastest growing EU countries for the last few years. The Irish economy is expected to grow 4.2 percent this year and 3.5 percent in 2017.
Nearly 80 Irish companies are currently operating in the state, employing more than 6,600 Georgians. Among those are Savannah firms APAC-Southeast – a division of Oldcastle Materials, the No. 1 asphalt producer in the United States – and international food manufacturer Kerry Ingredients & Flavours.
On the flip side, nine of the 10 major U.S. tech companies now have a presence in Ireland, as do nine out of the 10 major U.S. pharmaceutical corporations.
On a global level, Forbes has ranked Ireland as the fourth-best country for business and the best in the Eurozone.
Also, Stephens said, while Ireland opposed Brexit, Britain’s impending break from the European Union will leave Ireland as the only English-speaking country in the EU.
“That may make us the ultimate business gateway into Europe for the U.S.,” he said.
“While the Irish market itself is small at 4.8 million consumers, we offer access to some 500 million consumers.”
Brynn Grant, vice president of World Trade Center Savannah and COO of the Savannah Economic Development Authority, agreed with Stephens’ assessment.
“Ireland is a major target country of WTC Savannah as well as SEDA, both for trade and foreign direct investment,” she said. “It has the fastest growing economy in the EU, a favorable tax structure and is culturally similar to our country.
Grant, Green and DeLoach joined Keeley, Visit Savannah President Joe Marinelli, Hilton Head-Bluffton Chamber president Bill Miles and others on the recent mission to Ireland.
With the mayor, SEDA called on business prospects and joined our tourism counterparts in Wexford for meetings with business and government leaders.
“Although we came in part to talk tourism, we were so busy, we didn’t have time to be tourists ourselves,” she said, laughing. “But it made for an incredibly productive week.”
Tourism leads way
Not surprisingly, tourism is most likely to see the most immediate benefits from the recent trip, with plans already underway to link Savannah and Wexford specifically for promotional purposes.
Visit Savannah’s Marinelli was most impressed with the similarity of the two cultures’ interests.
“Savannahians traveling to Ireland usually do so for its cultural heritage and genealogy, for the golf and fishing, the small-town charm and hospitality,” he said.
“The two overlaid perfectly.”
Taking advantage of those similarities, Visit Savannah and the Hilton Head Chamber will begin marketing Savannah and Hilton Head golf packages to upscale golf communities in Ireland. They are also partnering with Club Choice Ireland president Larry Byrne, who sells golf packages and cultural heritage tours to the Emerald Isle.
“Since our meeting in Ireland in early October, Larry has already been to Savannah to meet with tourism partners,” Marinelli said, adding that Visit Savannah’s representative in London will also be coordinating with the group.
The Dunbrody Experience, one of the premier tourist attractions in Southeast Ireland, recreates the experience of Irish emigration during the potato famine that forced more than a million Irish to flee the country in the mid-1800s.
“Savannah was a major destination port for the tall ship Dunbrody, especially after New York and Boston enacted a ‘no Irish’ policy,” he said.
Other travel-related projects Marinelli said the group hoped to pursue include a possible Irish art and culture exhibit at the Telfair Academy’s Jepson Center and tours designed specifically around Savannah’s Irish heritage, including the old Kehoe Iron Works building being restored by Charles Morris.
A Savannah-Wexford app is also in the works.
Growing trade and business
While trade and business development generally take longer to evolve, the Irish business community is seriously interested and the outlook is very promising, Grant said.
To that end, the World Trade Center Savannah and partner Georgia Power will be working with their economic counterparts in Ireland to identify those companies interested in expanding to the United States and willing to consider the Savannah region as their gateway to the Southeast. They are already working with prospects they met in Ireland last month.
Those companies’ principals will be WTC Savannah and Georgia Power’s guests at the 2017 Savannah Music Festival, where they will experience Savannah’s culture, heritage and business opportunities, Grant said.
“It’s estimated that 56 percent of Savannah’s Irish came from County Wexford and we’re discovering so many connections that still exist,” Grant said. “There is a great awareness of Savannah there and we’d like to help bring that home.”