by Karen F. McCarthy for McClatchy Newswire
It was with some surprise that I happened upon the little known story of the mass migration of Protestants from Ireland to America in the 1700s, 150 years before the Catholic Irish arrived on Ellis Island. It was even more surprising to find that they have had more influence over the creation and character of the nation than the Irish of New York, Boston, and Chicago, the Irish of Kennedy repute.
My search for this lost chapter of the Irish Diaspora took me from Dublin to Belfast and into some of the remotest regions of the South. It was a journey on which I discovered the extraordinary contribution these intrepid migrants made to American culture and character.
I learned why they produced American legends like Davy Crockett, Edgar Allan Poe, and Stephen King, why they became Second Amendment traditionalists, politically conservative, and devoutly Christian. I discovered what led them to invent country music and America’s biggest spectator sport. I also learned what few Europeans understand: why no presidential hopeful seems to be able to win the White House without some help from their Southern enclaves.
From the beginning the Scots-Irish were a different breed. Hardworking, religiously devout Presbyterians, they arrived in the north of Ireland in the 1600s at the behest of King James I of England, who was keen to colonize the country. Despite constant fighting with the Irish, they managed to set up a thriving merchant colony and celebrated their ability to freely practice Presbyterianism, far from the interfering Anglican bishops of England.
Yet not 100 years later they were setting sail on brigantines for the New World, driven off the land by the English government’s tax hikes, rack-renting, and religious persecution when their linen industry grew too competitive and their religious practices too independent.
On those ships they brought their expectations for a warm welcome in a Protestant country. But it was not to be. Their sheer numbers and feisty nature overwhelmed Boston, prompting one man to cry, “There are more Irish than people here.”
And so, partly bribed and partly coerced, they tumbled down the Appalachians into the welcoming arms of the Virginia and Carolina colonial governors who were only too happy to have hardy settlers buffer them from the Indians.
They lived in a wilderness beyond the reach of government, forced to elect their own leaders and become their own law. Subject to Indian attacks, they could rely only on themselves to protect their homesteads and feed their families. This environment, filled with hardworking, hard-fighting people with an aversion to religious restriction, government interference, and taxation, was unlike anything in the more settled northern colonies. From it a completely different character and culture evolved.
In Virginia, they produced country music legends like the Carter family and Ralph Stanley. Elsewhere, singers like Hank Williams emerged, embodying the contradiction at the heart of the Scots-Irish–a poet who could move people to tears with his sincerity, yet terrify them with his violent self-destructive streak.
Richmond was the chosen home of Scots-Irish writer Edgar Allan Poe, father of American Gothic and predecessor to kinsman Stephen King, whose stories were influenced by the horrors from the frontier that were creeping into Southern folklore.
North Carolina is also home to Junior Johnson, the notorious Scots-Irish moonshine runner and race-car driver, whose rebellious outrunning of the law was part of a tradition that eventually gave rise to NASCAR, America’s biggest spectator sport. But North Carolina didn’t just produce rascals, it gave America James E. Webb, who helped put the first man on the moon.
Their feisty nature, partly derived from being under siege from the Irish, the English, the Native Americans, and the Yankees, has resulted in an entrenched militarism that has filled the ranks of the U.S. military, and given the nation warriors such as Stonewall Jackson, George Patton, and Jim Webb.
Their championing of governmental noninterference has entrenched them in conservative American politics and produced a long list of Scots-Irish presidents who have left a defining mark on American society: Andrew Jackson, Woodrow Wilson, Harry Truman, and others.
Perhaps the strong sense of their own culture and identity was reinforced for the Scots-Irish by their history of fighting the Irish and the Indians, and by the Civil War and subsequent exploitation at the hands of carpetbaggers.
But whatever the reason, their history in Ireland and in America has shown: Leave them alone, give them a fair shake, let them feed and defend their own families, worship their own way, and entertain to their own liking, and they’ll keep their spirits high, work hard, play hard, and mind their own business. Three hundred years later, it seems Scots-Irish culture is America’s way.
Karen F. McCarthy is a political/war journalist, documentary filmmaker, and author of the recently released book “The Other Irish: The Scots-Irish Rascals Who Made America” (Sterling).