When completing US naturalization paperwork in 1858, a certain Patrick Kehoe noted that he’d departed “Wexford, Ireland” for Savannah aboard the Brothers—likely, the sailing that berthed in February 1851. With his parents and multiple younger siblings, Kehoe settled in Savannah’s heavily Irish Old Fort neighborhood, where a distinctly American family saga of tragedy and success ensued.
Shortly after the family’s arrival from Wexford, its patriarch Daniel succumbed to “the Disease”: the yellow fever epidemic that ravaged Savannah during the summer of 1854. One result of the Wexford-Savannah Axis research has been the discovery of the Free Ground in Savannah’s Catholic Cemetery, where Daniel and scores of other, mainly Irish victims of the ’54 Fever were interred.
The youngest Kehoe son, Simon, advanced professionally due to Savannah’s growth as a rail nexus; however, he died in 1877, aged just 31, when the train engine he was driving overturned, “mangling [his] flesh.” Born in 1842, another son, William, lived to be 87, and that Wexfordian rose to such prominence as to be eulogized as “one of [Savannah’s] most widely known and beloved citizens.”
Son of Wexford rebuilds Savannah
Son of Wexford rebuilds Savannah
The February 1916 edition of the trade publication Iron Tradesman profiled Kehoe’s Iron Works—the business that William Kehoe fostered in Savannah’s historic Trustees’ Garden district.
Having described the facility as “the largest and best equipped plant south of Newport News [Virginia],” the article concluded by commending Kehoe and his sons as “real men…standing for good citizenship, clean business, home building, and moral ideals.”
Today, the visionary Savannah entrepreneur Charles Morris is sensitively restoring the multi-acre Kehoe’s Iron Works complex, repurposing it as a major “Events Campus” for arts-and-culture happenings, conventions, and more. Originally known as Phoenix Architectural Iron Works, the reborn Kehoe’s Iron Works promises to become a prominent venue in Savannah and the greater Coastal Empire region.
Thanks to a variety of informational installations and mobile-device prompts to be located throughout Kehoe’s Iron Works, Wexford will soon enjoy a renewed, highly visible presence in Savannah.
The Wexford-Savannah Axis research team has identified Mounthoward in the north of Co. Wexford as the the townland (or rural district) in which William Kehoe grew up.
Home to Esmonde Kyan, a famed leader of United Irish Rebellion of 1798, Mounthoward was deeply impacted by that bloody, traumatic uprising, which sought an Irish republic.
William Kehoe would have been raised with the lore of the Rebellion, in which a significant percentage of Wexford’s people died. Having been baptized in the Catholic church at Boolavogue, the parish associated with Father John Murphy, a key 1798 martyr, Kehoe in his sixtieth year influenced the renaming of Irish Green, a large Savannah park, in honor of another United Irish hero: the Protestant Robert Emmet.
The non-sectarian ethos central to the United Irish movement’s republican vision perhaps informed Kehoe in 1916, when he helped established the Catholic Laymen’s Association of Georgia.
Producing propaganda to counter the call, by the Ku Klux Klan and others, for a boycott of Catholic businesses, that body advocated “a friendlier feeling among Georgians irrespective of creed.”
Kehoe’s desire to own—and to protect what he owned—likely owed much to his family’s background as tenant farmers in north Wexford, where, well before the Great Famine, organized tenant-rights activism was strong. In addition to his Iron Works, Kehoe built two mansions—what an Irish observer might call Big Houses—both on Columbia Square.
Erected in 1893 to designs by Andrew Dewitt Bruyn, the larger, red-brick property now operates as the Kehoe House deluxe inn: the #1-ranked hotel in Savannah, according to tripadvisor (2016-2017).
Kehoe continually expanded and diversified his business interests, bearing out a remark made in 1842 by the German J.G. Kohl that “Wexford men” are “all hard-working and industrious people.” He proved critical to the development of Tybee Island, at the mouth of the Savannah River, as “the great summer and winter seaside resort of the South Atlantic.”
One obituary noted that in addition to “serv[ing] as president of the Tybee Beach Company and the Hotel Tybee Company,” Kehoe was also “an originator of the [Savannah to] Tybee Railroad, in which he held Script No. 1 in recognition of his pioneering work.” On Independence Day of 1881, Tybee was the location of a gala event, organized by Kehoe and others, to laud the visiting John Howard Parnell, brother of the man leading the pro-tenant Irish National Land League, which had several Savannah branches. To the son born to them that fall, Kehoe and his wife Annie Flood Kehoe gave the name Francis Parnell Kehoe.
In developing his Savannah enterprises and mansions, Kehoe, a proud scion of Wexford, continually acted as a booster for the tenant farmers of Ireland, who could own neither the land they rented nor the homes they built.
The Kehoe family constitutes just a piece of the extraordinary Wexford narrative that’s central to why Savannah became—and remains—the most Irish city in the American South. The Wexford-Savannah Axis project seeks to honor that diaspora tale as Georgia and Ireland strengthen their mutual economic and cultural ties, recognizing each other as significant players in our interconnected world.