Beyond green beer and St. Pat's in Five Points: Columbia's Irish History

Published: Mar. 15, 2016 at 4:25 PM EDT|Updated: Mar. 23, 2016 at 4:22 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, SC (AP) - It's been about 200 years since the Irish immigrants began settling in Columbia.

Most of the Irish came to the Southeast in the early 19th century to labor on canals and railroads. Their work on the Columbia Canal still stands today.

"The Irish-built part of the canal did not break during last year's flood," said Columbia historian Tom Elmore, referring to the breach of the canal during the historic flooding in October 2015.

With most as laborers, the American Dream was a nightmare for many Irish immigrants, so they stayed close in their communities.

"Most of the Irish people who lived in Columbia were generally poor," Elmore said. "Most of them were day laborers. Most had an annual income of about $100."

If poverty wasn't a challenge for their survival, disease certainly was.

"The great bane of many of the Irish people who came to Columbia was the heat, humidity and malaria."

According to the 1860 census, about 8,800 people of Irish descent lived in Columbia. Based on the census and the Business Index of the time, Elmore said they concentrated in four neighborhoods in Columbia: near where the Carolina Coliseum is today, two blocks north of the State House, Arsenal Hill and near the State Asylum on Bull Street.

"St. Peter's Catholic Church was founded in 1821 by the Irish workers who were building the canal, many of whom are buried in its cemetery," Elmore said.

The original church for St. Peter's was designed by renowned architect Robert Mills.

"This was pretty much the center for the Irish community in Columbia for decades," said Elmore.

"The Civil War pretty much wrecked it," he said. "If you look at the famous picture of Main Street from the State House, you're looking at the remains of New Dublin."

Discrimination against the Irish was common. "No Irish Need Apply" was a sign frequently posted in businesses when they were hiring.

"In the 19th Century, being an Irishman was just a step above being a slave," Elmore said. "So a lot of Irishmen actually wanted slavery to stay because they would not be able to compete with freed slaves, as far as their labor costs, and that ended up being true."

After the war, Elmore said many surviving Irish laborers in Columbia headed west to build railroads or to find work. Irish fared better finding jobs in seaports like Charleston and Savannah.

Not all were poor, though. Some Irish skilled stonemasons worked on the South Carolina State House. And the Lynch family included a doctor, Catholic bishop and a nun, all highly educated.

Dr. John Lynch, who was a successful physician in Columbia, is buried in St. Peter's Church cemetery on Assembly Street. He was born on a boat crossing the Atlantic as his family immigrated to South Carolina. They owned a plantation in Cheraw.

Lynch's sister ended up being Mother Superior of the Ursuline Convent in Columbia during the Civil War. Sister Baptista Lynch, who personally knew General William T. Sherman, protected the Ursuline sisters and their students through the Burning of Columbia, which Sherman promised her convent would be "unmolested" during the Union occupation of the city. As history tells, that protection didn't occur and Lynch, her sisters, and their students huddled in St. Peter's cemetery the night Columbia burned in 1865.

"She gave him a good tongue-lashing that only a good Catholic nun could give," Elmore said.

As a result of her relationship with Sherman, Sister Baptista Lynch is credited for saving the Hampton-Preston Mansion from destruction by the Union Army.

And while serving as Bishop of Charleston during the war, Patrick Lynch, Sister Baptista's brother,  was the Confederacy's emissary to Pope Pius IX.

"He had gone to the Vatican to try to convince Pope Pius IX to recognize the Confederacy."

Elmore has written several books on the Civil War history of Columbia and South Carolina. He also is a member of the Columbia Chapter of the Ancient Order of Hibernians. 

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