An Appalachian Ulster Scot’s St. Patrick’s Day reflections

Thomas Fitzgerald was born at Kerry, Ireland His wife, Hannah Pyne Fitzgerald, was born at Cork, Ireland Burial: Calvary Catholic Cemetery Knoxville, Tennessee

Did you remember to wear something green on St. Patrick’s Day? If not, quite likely you were pinched. Among the mountain youth of the 1970s, St. Patrick’s Day was mostly an excuse for pinching those who forgot to wear green. Teachers would make scissors and green construction paper available so that pupils, who forgot to don the green, could cut out shamrocks and attach them to their clothing.

As a word of caution, I would warn against pinching transplants to the Mountain South, not attired in green, on St. Patrick’s Day. Several years ago, I learned that a female security guard at the East Tennessee History Center, unfamiliar with Appalachian customs, was unaware of the practice. I am glad that I didn’t take advantage of the opportunity to pinch her first. Obviously, pinching those who do not wear green on St. Patrick’s Day, is not as a widespread practice as I would have assumed.

That St. Patrick’s Day is not an important holiday in East Tennessee is not surprising. The Scotch Irish Protestants, who settled the Southern Highlands, were a distinct ethnic group apart from the Roman Catholic Irish. Descendants of Vikings who settled on the outcroppings of Scotland hundreds of years ago, they resettled in Northern Ireland, before making the voyage across the Atlantic Ocean to the New World. Here in the mountains of Southern Appalachia we have remained a unique tribe forged in Ulster.

Mostly isolated from other Roman Catholics throughout much of their history, Coastal Georgia’s Irish have also remained a unique tribe. Living through, observing, and somewhat participating in their St. Patrick’s Day festivities at Savannah was both educational and exciting for me.

Spring itself, of course, comes earlier in Savannah. After a much shorter dormant season than we are accustomed to here in East Tennessee, spring is definitely in the air when St. Patrick’s Day arrives at the oldest city in Georgia.

The festivities, including a major parade, turn automobile traffic into gridlock. The only practical way to move about town for several days is on foot.

The trek from my Reconstruction Era apartment to the souvenir shop, where I worked along the old wharf on River Street in the year 2000, was adventurous in itself as I crisscrossed grass carpeted city squares that had seemingly become a healthy bright green overnight. Water that flowed through decorative public fountains was dyed green and the dome atop city hall was spotlighted in green.

An organization called the Jasper Greens holds an observance at Savannah’s Catholic Cemetery in Savannah around St. Patrick's Day each year. I didn’t attend the event but read about it in the Savannah Morning News.

After I left the East Tennessee History Center on what was a markedly lowkey St. Patrick’s Day, compared to Savannah’s celebratory occasion, I drove east in hope of recapturing the experience at Knoxville's Catholic Cemetery. I was expecting, or at least I had hoped, to find shamrocks and greenery. Instead, I found faded Christmas decorations.

In the mid-nineteenth century, Roman Catholic Irishmen came to East Tennessee to build the railroad. With so many Irish names inscribed in stone, one could easily imagine for a moment that he was in Ireland.

Adjacent to the Potter’s Field and the Confederate Cemetery, the Catholic Cemetery on Martin Luther King Avenue (formerly East Vine Avenue) was established in 1869 at what was then some distance from town. Most likely, the rear entrance, now closed to traffic on the old road to Rutledge (presently Bethel Avenue), was the original entrance.

Before the Catholic Cemetery was established, Irish Catholics buried their dead in the northwest section of Gray Cemetery (presently Old Gray Cemetery) in a section that continues to be known as Little Ireland. The residential area where the Irish lived east of Crozier Street (presently South Central Street) was once known as Irish Town.

Immaculate Conception Church, East Tennessee’s first Roman Catholic Church, was built in 1855 on the crown of nearby Reservoir Hill overlooking the railway below. The present building was completed in 1886. Confederate Army Chaplain, Father Abraham Ryan, author of The Conquered Banner that became the requiem for the Lost Cause, pastored Immaculate Conception Church in the early years of reconstruction. Father Ryan High School in Nashville is named for him.

Perhaps Ryan inadvertently gave inspiration to the post-war political slogan Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion affixing blame for the American Civil War on the Democratic Party.

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