May the road rise to meet you,
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
The rains fall soft upon your fields.
And until we meet again,
May God hold you in the palm of his hand.
I think now I understand why I know practically nothing of my Irish history; it’s difficult to talk about. A lot of people are afraid to ask questions because sooner or later they will learn of a degree of unpleasantness. But today is a day where I’m celebrating what it is to be Irish, so I decided to learn my history. (Granted, this information is a general story of why they might have left Ireland, it’s not a specific story or reason; as it was lost long ago … I’m just going with the most statistically likely series of events.)
I had a few clues to go on: one branch of my ancestors was from Antirim County, the other was from somewhere in Ulster (which includes Antirim County and several other counties as well). The other information told us that one of them emigrated to the states in 1728 and the other came over in 1788.
Wikipedia tells me that “Between 1717 and 1775, an estimated 200,000 migrated to what became the United States of America.” They were from Ulster, Ireland. For the record, this was long before the Great Famine that destroyed Ireland’s potato crop in 1845 and lasting through 1852. (Given the dates, and one of my family tendency to be fashionably late, it’s safe to say that they both were a part of this wave of migration.)
The history of the problems between the Protestants and Catholics in Ireland is well documented. Much (though not all) of Ulster is Northern Ireland, but it turns out that my ancestors were neither Protestant nor Catholic, they were Presbyterians. Scottish Presbyterians, to be specific.
Scottish immigration to Ulster, Ireland had been going on for generations, even at the start of the process of colonizing Northern Ireland (which had been generally empty, it was mostly used by a few clans as graze land for their herds of cattle. About the same time time that the English had decided to establish colonies and plantations, the Scottish had the same idea. Technically, they were supposed to displace the Irish, but that didn’t always happen – after all, there were so few of them in the north compared to the south. Each group of people, Irish, English, and Scottish, had their own religion (Catholic, Protestant, and Presbyterian, respectively) and they took matters of faith very seriously.
So between the two sets of differences, belief and origin, conflict was inevitable. When it was time to choose sides, well, that decision was pretty easy; you chose the side of the people most like you, who believe what you believe, who are from where you’re from; or the side of another group that most benefits you and takes care of your interests. Things got out of hand, massacres, hostility, and resentment; these things are not easily forgotten. To add to the issues, whenever tension was felt in the homeland, it was also felt in the colonies – civil wars, it seemed, were contagious.
In the 1690s, there was a famine at the border of Scotland that triggered another wave of immigration to Ulster. By 1720, the Ulster Scots (still Presbyterians … and Calvinists) were the majority. They tended to own a lot of land and were generally wealthier than most, their status was assured by picking the right sides, and yet, for all their wealth and land, they had no representation and no vote in matters of politics. Not only that Penal laws had been passed and were being enforced that were making life much more difficult: Presbyterians were barred from public office, their marriages would not be recognized by the state, and it fueled discrimination against the Ulster Scots. Enough was enough; because of these religious, political, and economic issues, they emigrated. The Scottish-Irish were the biggest group of immigrants in the years prior to the American Revolution … which they had just arrived in time for.
Yet again, they were being asked to choose sides. One Hessian (that is, German) officer said: “Call this war by whatever name you may, only call it not an American rebellion; it is nothing more or less than a Scotch Irish Presbyterian rebellion.” A British major general testified to the House of Commons that “half the rebel Continental Army were from Ireland”.
The majority of the Scottish Irish settled in Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Kentucky, and Tennessee. As well as Across the Alleghenies and the Ozarks. They were the first to settle the frontier and usually lived in small communities where their families lived together, worshiped together, and didn’t really marry outside of the faith, as their ancestors had learned that outsiders were usually problematic. The Presbyterian Church couldn’t meet the growing demand for pastors in these communities, but Methodist and Baptist Churches didn’t require nearly as much education or support, so many descendants of the Scottish Irish aren’t really Presbyterians; like me, they’ve been American and Baptist or American and Methodist for as long as they can remember (if they’ve kept the faith, that’s totally optional these days.)
It’s estimated that 27 Million Americans are descendant from the Scottish-Irish Presbyterians. We come from a proud people that did well, but always wanted to do better. Our ancestors didn’t settle for less because they set their sights on more. The character traits of the Scotch-Irish such as loyalty to kin, extreme mistrust of governmental authority and legal strictures, and a propensity to bear arms and to use them, helped shape the American identity and are still present in their descendants. It makes me proud to be one of them; In a time when it was Catholic vs Protestant, they dared to be Presbyterians. When the Irish were up against the English, they held true to their Scottish heritage. I know, they don’t sound particularly Irish, not like we might think – but they certainly had the fighting spirit of the Irish … which isn’t all that surprising, because generations of them were born in Ireland. A great many still live in Ulster, having managed to make it their home and keep it. So distant cousins, it’s a pleasure to meet you and I’m glad that I was able to find our story, it was worth telling.