By Bill McGimpsey
Comprehensive works on the Scotch-Irish are few and far between. Since James Leyburn’s milestone “Social History,” published way back in 1962, there have been few notable exhibits. It is now eight years since Senator James Webb introduced his colorful version of the Scotch-Irish story, Born Fighting, a completely different narrative style from the Leyburn landmark, but covering the same cross Atlantic timeline. Now we have another recently released version of the ScotchIrish story by a Karen F. McCarthy, which she calls The Other Irish. (Both McCarthy and Webb prefer Scots-Irish terminology.)
McCarthy’s book is a surprise for a number of reasons. First, she herself is not from the American Scotch-Irish heartland (she was born in Ireland). Second, she is not a north of Ireland product but a graduate from UCD in Dublin and the London School of Journalism. Third, she is not a historian. Finally, she is from the mainline Irish community, who has traditionally written less favorably about the Scotch-Irish.
Karen F. McCarthy is an accomplished non-fiction filmmaker, journalist and author. Although technically an outsider, she has studied her subject well, spending considerable time in America and interviewing many of her Scotch-Irish subjects in their home setting. Her keen and inquisitive journalistic eye and her skillful interpretation of political events add a considerable richness to the presentation. Sure, there are flaws and weaknesses in places, but they are overwhelmed by the overall quality of the body of work.
How did it all happen for her. In her own words she tells us that her 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 America legends like Davy Crockett, Edgar Allen 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.”
It is not all sugar though. She has sections on slavery, moonshiners, the Klan, and the ugly indentured servants business, but there is no finger pointing. Her documentation of the Scotch-Irish contribution to southern culture, everything from music to auto racing, is impressive. If you are looking for the twenty-first century edition of Leyburn, forget about it. This book has its own style and its own major contribution to the Scotch-Irish experience.