The Irish in Florida

When you think about major centers of Irish culture in the United States, where does your mind go first? Boston? New York? Would it surprise you to know that Florida is home to one of the five largest Irish-descended populations in the United States?

Man enjoying the St. Patrick's Day parade in Lake Worth (1988).

Man enjoying the St. Patrick’s Day parade in Lake Worth (1988).

According to the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2010 American Community Survey, over 2 million Floridians identify as having Irish or Scots-Irish ancestry. That’s over 10 percent of the entire state’s population! But how did all these Irish and Scots-Irish people get to Florida?

Some of the earliest Irishmen came to Florida not as settlers, but as soldiers. In 1781, during the American Revolution, Spanish forces laid siege to Pensacola to wrest it from the British, who had held both East and West Florida since 1763. Among the Spaniards were a number of mercenary soldiers, including the “Regimento Hibernia,” comprised of Irishmen who had volunteered to fight for the Spanish King.

Depiction of the 1781 Siege of Pensacola.

Depiction of the 1781 Siege of Pensacola.

The number of Irish-descended Florida residents increased during the second Spanish colonial period (1783-1821), owing mainly to the Spanish government’s desire to develop a thriving economy in the Florida provinces as quickly as possible. The Spaniards granted large tracts of land to individuals willing to cultivate it, even if they were foreigners. A number of Irishmen and Irish-descended U.S. citizens were among the men and women who held title to these grants when Florida became a United States possession in 1821. See the Spanish Land Grants collection to browse these documents.

Map of Irishman George Fleming's grant of land from the Spanish government, given in 1816. Click on the map to enlarge it and view the rest of the documents associated with the Fleming Grant.

Map of Irishman George Fleming’s grant of land from the Spanish government, given in 1816. Click on the map to enlarge it and view the rest of the documents associated with the Fleming Grant.

Many of the American settlers who entered Florida after it became a U.S. territory also hailed from either Irish or Scots-Irish ancestry. They often migrated southward from Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia, where they had previously settled after spending time as indentured servants, freehold farmers, or residents of British colonies in the Caribbean. Once in Florida, many of these newcomers set up small family farms and worked cattle on the open range, becoming what historians and folklorists often call Florida “Crackers.”

The Great Potato Famine of the 1840s drove a large wave of Irish immigrants to the United States. Although the majority of new settlers in this group went to northern cities like New York and Boston, as many as 100,000 of them may have ended up in the South. About 25,000 Irish lived in New Orleans by 1850 – fully a quarter of that city’s population. Others spread across the rural countryside, including Florida.

The cultural impact of Florida’s Irish and Scots-Irish settlers can be seen in a variety of place names, celebrations, and other traditions practiced around the state even today. Hibernia, a small community in Clay County near the St. Johns River, takes its name from the Latin version of “Ireland.” It began as a plantation belonging to the Fleming family whose Spanish land grant is referenced above. The small community of Shamrock in Dixie County was named in honor of the Irish ancestry of William O’Brien, a timber magnate who helped found the powerful Putnam Lumber Company. Central Florida boasts a Dublin (Lake County) and a Killarney (Orange County), both named after cities in Ireland.

The Fleming House Hotel at Hibernia near the St. Johns River (ca. 1940s).

The Fleming House Hotel at Hibernia near the St. Johns River (ca. 1940s).

St. Patrick’s Day is by far the most popular traditional Irish celebration practiced in Florida, although the revelry extends far beyond just those who identify as having Irish ancestry. Communities in every corner of the state mark the occasion each year by holding parades, enjoying Irish music and dancing, and wearing green.

St. Patrick's Day celebration in Melrose (ca. 1907).

St. Patrick’s Day celebration in Melrose (ca. 1907).

St. Patrick's Day parade in Lake Worth (1988).

St. Patrick’s Day parade in Lake Worth (1988).

Preserving Florida’s Irish and Scots-Irish heritage also has a more serious side apart from the merriment of St. Patrick’s Day. Irish descendants have formed a number of organizations over the years to train new generations in Irish cultural traditions while enjoying the fellowship that goes along with them. The United Irish of Southwest Florida, the Irish Cultural Association of Orlando, and the Irish Cultural Association of Jacksonville are just a few of these groups helping to educate the public about Irish genealogy and culture. The Florida Folklife Program has also helped preserve Florida’s Irish ties through cultural performances at the Florida Folk Festival and its Folklife Apprenticeship Program.

Irish folk group

Irish folk group “South Moon Under” performing at a “Ceili” celebration hosted by the Irish Cultural Association of Jacksonville (1991).

James Kelly works with folklife apprentices Pam Carsey and Linda Gesele on playing the Irish fiddle in Miami (1988).

James Kelly works with folklife apprentices Pam Carsey and Linda Gesele on playing the Irish fiddle in Miami (1988).

Are you a Floridian with Irish or Scots-Irish ancestry? If so, how do you celebrate your heritage? Let us know by leaving a comment below and sharing this post on Facebook or Twitter!

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9 thoughts on “The Irish in Florida

  1. Always have a good Irish dinner out if possible. We also dress up in Green, shamrocks, and this year green hair!
    Also I have a centrepiece out with our coat of arms laying on a table cloth that has an Irish prayer on it. Off to Beef O’Brady’s this year

  2. My Scotish ancestors were McLeods who settled Walton County, Fl in 1826 in the Euchee Valley near today’s De Funiak Springs. My GG grandfather was the second Sherriff, fought in the Seminole War of 1836, was the first educator of west Florida and became a District Judge in 1866. His wife’s mother was the Anna namesake of Eucheeanna where they lived on White Creek until their death.

  3. I really enjoyed your article have Irish heritage on my Mother’s side. Her maiden name was Kinard. Thanks for all the work you put in this article.

  4. Between 1833-1853, my 1st Gen Irish-American ancestor, France’s Fair, wife of James Rinaldo Nicks lived on the north side of Lake Iamonia, Leon Co., Terr. of FL. A native of Charleston, SC, she was soon joined by her sisters (Mary Ann, Sophia and Elizabeth Fair), brother (Joseph Harrison Fair) and mother (Elizabeth Harrison). She was from Cavan Co., Ireland as was her 1st husband, Richard Fair. Both arrived in Charleston in the decade before 1800 and married in 1804. Of the Fair sisters who have remained in Leon Co. Is Elizabeth Jane Fair VanBrunt who first lived where Tall Timbers is today. (See Census records since 1840).

    • Also arriving in Leon Co., Terr. of Florida from Charleston in the 1830s were Sarah Ann and Martha Nicks with their mother, Elizabeth (Harrison Fair) Nicks who after her husband, Richard Fair died in 1817, remarried the Tutor, Joseph DeWitt Nicks. When the siblings and mother moved to Columbus, GA they too moved. Eventually they all settled in Opelika, AL. Sarah Ann married the widower, James D. Sauls of GA and Leon Co. Many of their descendants are still living in the NW Florida area to this day.

  5. Among the Day Book started in 1831 and passed 5 generations was an Irish Melody by Thomas Moore, titled “Oh! Breathe Not His Name.” It can be Googled and listened to being quite appropriate for those with Irish Ancestry. France’s Fair’s book reveals much of her interests during her married life until her death in 1864 in Hernando Co., FL.

    • Your contribution is fascinating. Thank you for sharing your history. And a very happy Saint Patrick’s Day to you.☘️

  6. I am very proud to be Irish, I love my Irish heritage. My fathers and mother’s parents migrated here from Ireland.My fathers parents in 1952 and my mother’s parents in 1954. My grandmother has taught me Irish Gaelic growing up I’m almost fluent all I can say is I’m very proud to be 2nd generation irish!!

  7. My Irish family arrived here in the late 1600’s to early 1700’s. My ancestor Jacob Kelly fought in the Revolutionary war and was granted land in Jasper county GA for his service. From there my family migrated south to Florida and we are spread from the panhandle all the way south to Okeechobee.

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