COLUMBIA -- Hundreds of Irish laborers, many of whom died digging the Columbia Canal in the early 1800s, will be honored today at Riverfront Park in an elaborate ceremony some feel will tell their story for the first time.
The Irishmen built a canal that today generates up to 10 million watts of power and supplies 35 million gallons of drinking water per day for Richland and Lexington counties.
But their most important contribution to South Carolina came later, when they expanded the Roman Catholic Church by building St. Peter's on Assembly Street originally built so the workers would have a place to be buried other than in the walls of the canal.
And today, at Columbia's popular Riverfront Park, a large granite "I" memorial will be dedicated with bagpipes, dancing and a speech by the Irish consul general.
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"It's uncovering a layer of history that we are all forgetting," said Niall Burgess, the consul general who is on his first visit to South Carolina. "It's a story that deserves to be much better known in Ireland."
Burgess toured the canal Friday, along with a handful of people from the Ancient Order of the Hibernians, an Irish historical group.
It was the Hibernians, led by Jim Lawarcy, who got City Council to approve the location of the monument, which is made from granite stones that once formed the walls of the old CCI prison.
The canal, completed in 1824, cost $209,000 to build and was part of a state system designed by Robert Mills to transport goods to Charleston for export.
Much of the state's population was slave labor, but slaves weren't used to build the canal because they were deemed too valuable. Irish laborers were hired because they were a cheaper option.
"Canal worker was a job disproportionately dominated by the Irish," said Chris Rounds, a history instructor at Winthrop University who has studied the Irish impact in the United States. "And in South Carolina, because of the system of slavery, there wasn't a lot of competition with other racial or ethnic groups."
After construction, many of the Irish workers moved on, but some stayed, founding St. Peter's on Assembly Street.
"The canal is my family heritage," said Richard Peterson, who said his relatives helped establish the church. "That's why they came to Columbia and settled."
The canal thrived for the first few years of its existence, but like many of the state's canals was put out of business in the mid-1800s by railroads. The canal was rebuilt and extended in 1891 to produce power.
Burgess, whose consulate includes much of the East Coast of the United States, said for much of its history Ireland has been an emigrant nation, spreading its people all over the world.
"We are not a people of place," he said. "We have a strong sense of connection globally."
But in the past 10 years, that has started to change somewhat, he said, as the immigrant population of Ireland has been growing.
While Burgess felt a connection to his homeland's emigrant past, others, such as Peterson, felt a stronger connection with South Carolina.
"All of these communities started building up what became the capital of South Carolina," he said. "A lot of that history is lost. Hopefully (the memorial) will shed some light on one of the events that really sparked the development of Columbia."