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Greenville Business Magazine

Remembering the Irish impact on the Upstate

By Marty Flynn

There’s Irish in these hills. And while our tracks are not laid bare in well-documented historical accounts, our footprint runs deep beyond name and story. In recording the converging paths of immigrants to this region, historians chose convenience over conscientiousness when they batched Irish influence in the South Carolina Upstate under the Scotch-Irish label as though we are a blended cultural concoction. 

And even this is a poor analogy, as the Irish spell their whiskey with an “e,” and the Scots in their frugality go straight from “k” to “y.”

When I first arrived in these parts 37 years ago with my Irish brogue intact, encounters with locals frequently prompted the part question, part refrain, “You’re not from around here?” And now having a good handle on the human topography that has shaped these lands, my answer today would be, “Actually yes, I am a lot from around here.” 

Where should we begin? By Irish standards it’s not a long distance back, but I’ll take it up with the Cherokee Nation who were the early settlers of our region. Enter Richard Pearis born in Ireland in 1725, an ambitious pioneer who upon arriving in South Carolina found favor with the Cherokee and his friendship was rewarded with the daughter of a chieftain for a wife, and 12 miles of prime real estate of Yeah That Future Greenville. Pearis was the first man to appreciate the economic value of the Reedy River, using it as a power source to harness his grist mill. In his rise to riches, he overlooked the valiant spirit of the colonial rebel and, backing the wrong horse in the Revolutionary War, ceded most of his property rights. His legacy is further dented by the omission of the letter “e” in naming Paris Mountain after him. 

Conversely, the name of the Upstate town of Gaffney remains true to its Irish founder Michael Gaffney, who in 1803 built a tavern and hardware store on an old Indian trading post in Cherokee County. Granard Street in the downtown district bears the name of his Irish birthplace, and complements his statuesque presence nearby. That being said, when the Interstate 85 traveler encounters the iconic Peachoid standing sentry to the city of Gaffney today, the story of the Irishman who laid out the first welcome mat on an old dirt path could easily be mistaken for some good old homespun lore. 

While Irish pioneers like Richard Pearis and Michael Gaffney hitched their wagons to the stars of exploration and chance, many Irish would come to South Carolina after them, driven by need and want. Such was the case of the 500 Irish families who comprised much of the workforce on the Stump House Tunnel, an ambitious project undertaken in the 1850s to run a railroad from Charleston through the Blue Ridge Mountains all the way to Cincinnati. This period coincided with the worst years of the Irish famine, a human catastrophe that heaved over a million Irish refugees onto the shores of America, desperate for any work at any price. Encamped in a mining village called Tunnel Hill overlooking the town of Walhalla, the men of the Emerald Isle faced the granite of the Blue Ridge Mountains armed with pick, axe and hunger. The enormity of the task in terms of cost and physical challenge, combined with its unpredictable nature amid a climate of political uncertainty, drove a growing wedge between the advancement of the project and its funding prospects from state coffers. The miners, charged with tunneling over 500,000 feet, had proven their worth and were within 800 feet of piercing the North Carolina sky when the funding line stalled. History changed course, leaving in its tracks a monument of might, and an abandoned workforce dispersed to the hinterlands of new hope. 

The story of the Stump House Tunnel is a passage through time that is primarily recorded in numbers, measures and milestones. The faces and voices who lived that story remain a ghost tribe of Irish souls buried in the unyielding rock that stayed its course. I imagine a green vein pulsing through the Blue Ridge Mountains, which every year in the month of March rises to the rock face to commemorate the plight of the Irish who bore into it not in search of treasure, but as a means of survival. 

But history is not bound by the scribe and leaves a path for us to retrace our steps beyond the bias of the storyteller. I have read little about what became of my Irish tribe after they became unhitched from the iron ties that bound them to these parts. I know that a few stayed around, their prominent Irish surnames revealing the tracks of their quiet assimilation into these hills. I know that an Irish hand once aired out the soulful sounds that today waft off the bow of a young Appalachian fiddle player. I know that mountain clogging and Irish step dancing are sisters of the same beat. I know that our beautiful Irish language known as “Gaeilge” once kindled fireside chats in Carolina country cottages. And I know that some of these words such as “clog,” which means time in the Gaelic language, live on in local dialect. 

So when you come to our 25th annual Return to the Green Irish Festival at Fluor Field on March 15, you will discover the treasure of our enduring spirit, for the Irish who roamed these parts before us left us the only riches they possessed, their love of song and dance and music.