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Florida & the Irish

Of all the many peoples who have explored and settled in Florida, the one you hear of the least is the Irish.

Of all the many peoples who have explored and settled in Florida, the one you hear of the least is the Irish.
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With St. Patrick’s Day this weekend, the time to celebrate the Irish in Florida is now.

Hibernia by way of Spain

It is probably not true that the Spanish governors were the first Celts in Florida.

Who really knows why they were Irish – except perhaps that given close and frequent contact with the Dutch, the English and the French, the Spanish needed better PR to handle the all the northern Europeans.

It is true that at least three of the Spanish governors – including St. Augustine’s founder Pedro Menéndez de Avilés who claimed the state of Florida in the name of Spain – hailed from Asturias in the Celtic region of northern Spain.

An ancient habitation, Asturias was settled first by Homo erectus, then by Neanderthals, and then in the Iron Age (circa 1,300 BC-700 AD) by the Celts.

Still an autonomous community today, Asturias is a separate principality from the central Spanish government and has been since the Middle Ages.

East Florida, Second Spanish Period

By most historical accounts, Menéndez was something of a religious zealot, so his rule as a Spanish governor of Florida may not be typical of Spanish civil administration in the New World.

Once the Spanish had established their stronghold, however, the governors’ duties settled down to the mundane administrative tasks that we’re familiar with today.

However, in 1796, another of the Spanish governors, Enrique White, made a huge impact on northeast Florida when he did fellow Irishman George Fleming a solid.

For Fleming's military service in Spanish East Florida, “distinguished and extraordinary service, to which he contributed both his property and person in defense of the said province at different periods, sacrificing and abandoning his property, as a faithful subject, worthy of every recompense for his love, fidelity, and patriotism,”on Oct. 28, 1790, White granted Fleming 1,000 acres on the west side of the St. John’s River northwest of St. Augustine.

And so Fleming Island and Fleming Island Plantation were born and with them Hibernia, named for George Fleming's Irish homeland.

Fleming, who’d immigrated to St. Augustine from Charleston, S.C., sometime in 1785, was a direct descendant of the Baron Slane of Ireland, who forfeited his lands and title for supporting James Stuart’s claim to the English throne.

The Flemings' exploits are chronicled in part in Eugenia Price’s historical novels ‘Margaret’s Story’ and ‘Don Juan McQueen.’

Known for her good works and determination, Fleming’s granddaughter Margaret Seton Fleming employed ingenuity and just plain gumption to rebuild her Hibernia Inn and the family fortune twice before the turn of the twentieth century.

Irish Florida today

One of the best resources for learning about the influence of the Irish and Irish culture in Florida is the Florida Irish Heritage Center.

According to the Center’s research, one in nine Floridians claims Irish descent. That’s about two million erstwhile Irishmen statewide.

A quick search of the Internet reveals the following resources to learn even more about the Irish contributions to Florida culture.

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OFFICIAL BIO: K Truitt is a second-generation, native Floridian born in Jacksonville. Truitt worked in public higher education for 25 years and knows newspaper publishing, printing and graphic design. Contact: kt.4examiner@yahoo.com