Walking tours in historic downtown Savannah typically start somewhere pretty: perhaps along a quaint cobblestone street or beneath the Spanish moss of a live oak tree.

But lawyer and local history buff Brandon Carter's latest tour is anything but typical: It starts outside a parking garage.

There's good reason, though.

“This is where it all starts, 200 years ago,” he tells his tour group, pointing across Montgomery Street to the site of Savannah's original St. John the Baptist Church.

The building — Savannah's first Catholic house of worship — is no longer there, but the tradition it baptized is alive and well: the Savannah St. Patrick's Day Parade.

Marking its bicentennial in 2024, the procession is now among the busiest St. Patrick's Day parades in the U.S. — owing not just to the city's vibrant tourist economy and warm coastal climate, but also to its deep Irish roots that flourished on March 17, 1824.

Carter's tour focuses on two pivotal events from that day: a public speech delivered in the morning at the church by Catholic Bishop John England and, later that evening, a series of toasts given at City Hotel by the Hibernian Society of Savannah. (The precise parade route between the church and hotel remains unknown, Carter said: “I think the newspapers probably didn't think this was a big deal.”)

Below are excerpts from Carter's tour about those two events, edited for length and clarity.


‘A lesson of caution’: The bishop's speech

“The guy who plays a massive role in what we do here today is Bishop John England. Ironically, John England was born in Ireland. He goes to a Protestant school as a kid, and he must have not been well liked by his teacher because his teacher called him ‘the little Papist’ [referring to a derogatory term for Roman Catholics].”

“He is the first appointed bishop of the Diocese of Charleston. When the diocese is formed in 1820, it's the seventh-oldest in the United States. It encompasses both Carolinas and the state of Georgia. That's 14,000 square miles. That is the largest Catholic diocese in existence when it is laid out. The Diocese of Savannah doesn't come about until 1850.”

“In his Savannah speech — delivered to an audience of not only Catholics, but also Protestants and Jews — he's lamenting the loss of religious freedom in Ireland, but he's saying that America is doing it right:

'We, my friends, may differ very much in our religious doctrines. Yet we live in the harmony of affection, each representing the rights of his friend and claiming for himself what he concedes to his brother. We can weep over the crumbs of those that have ruined our country, and we can learn wisdom from the exhibition of their havoc, and better appreciate the blessings of which we are here made partakers.'

“He blames the British for putting the final nail in Ireland's coffin for Ireland's greatness, and says:

'Oh, let it be to you a lesson of caution: may the sad fate of my country create in you vigilance to detect and firmness to restrain those ambitions and immoral individuals who would divide a people that they may build upon their own fortunes with the fragments of national union.'

“What happens 36 years after this speech? Secession. England is talking about how to prevent a divided nation. And Savannah did not listen. Then, the bishop starts teeing up his conclusion:

'May God long preserve the liberties of America from any union of any church and any state. It will then be permitted to us this day to enjoy the melancholy gratification of contemplating the former greatness of our country, and going back in spirit and affection to the land of our fathers, to the island of shamrocks, to the emerald gem of the ocean.'


‘Hear, hear!’ times 13: A baker's dozen of historical toasts

Carter leads his tour group through downtown Savannah, chronicling various chapters of the city's Irish history, including what the inaugural procession looked like:

“We know that it was led by Hibernian Society president James Hunter, and then its two past presidents. We also know that in the center of the procession was their standard — or their banner — and that it had an Irish harp on a deep green field with the shamrock border. A band playing Irish airs would have been in front of the procession.”

“The society was founded 12 years before the first parade, by 44 men. They consisted of Catholics, but also Protestants and at least one Jewish member, as well. So, even non-Christians were members of this. You had to be a man, had to be at least 21 years old and you had to be of Irish descent. They were formed for ‘the relief of the indigent and exiled Irishman to promote social and friendly harmony among the members of said association.’”

Finally, the tour group arrives at the known endpoint of the inaugural parade: the former City Hotel building on Bay Street — what is now Moon River Brewing Company building on Bay Street.

“About 80 people attended the first St. Patrick's Day dinner here. At 4 p.m., the Hibernian Society sits down to eat. It was an early dinner because of all the toasts that would follow! There were 13 official toasts given by the society's president, each one of them followed by an Irish song. Can you imagine how long that went? And then there were 37 toasts from volunteers after that, meaning there were 50 toasts!”

Carter recites verbatim each official toast (click here to listen) from the cavernous basement party room of the brewery — his tour guests seated at banquet tables, drinks at the ready. They then take turns reading the 37 volunteer toasts — but not before Carter adds a quick one of his own:

“To us, for doing this!”