Grandma said we’re Scots-Irish. The answer didn’t help much with my fourth grade class project on ancestry since she couldn’t tell me much more about it. “That’s what my Grandfather said we are,” she explained in that tone which meant the conversation was over and it was time to turn her attention back to frying chicken.
The surprising rise of the Tea Party has sent experts scrambling for explanations. Along the way some commentators, political figures, and bloggers are casting a fresh eye at my culture. Who are the Scots-Irish? Do they actually exist as a distinct identity or is “Scots-Irish” an imagined heritage cobbled together out of legend? Has the ornery cultural legacy of the Scots-Irish inspired the Tea Party Movement?
If you’ve never celebrated Christmas in a trailer park or spent a blistering summer Saturday at the dirt-track, you may be unfamiliar with the term “Scots-Irish.” The Scots-Irish as an ethnic group are illusive, but a few facts can be established.
They trace their roots to the fiercely Protestant colonists who participated in England’s long effort to subdue Ireland. In the Tudor Era England began moving settlers onto lands confiscated from Irish Catholic Lords mostly in the northern counties. As the Reformation gained momentum the conflict in Northern Ireland grew savage. The settlements developed into more than an aristocratic land-grab; they were a deeply emotional religious crusade.
Over time settlers imported to Ireland from the long-embattled Scots Borders came to dominate the culture, but ethnically the Northern Irish colonies included Protestant migrants from England, France, Germany, Ireland and elsewhere. Former Sen. James Webb in his history of the Scots-Irish grants them a romanticized legacy. He imagines them in an unbroken cultural line, stretching back to battles with Norman aristocrats and Roman Legions. Though the Borders legacy is strong, the people identified as Scots-Irish in the U.S. seem to lack a uniform ethnic identity older than the Irish Plantations. This fact is important in understanding the development of the Scots-Irish in America, as they easily melded with anyone else who shared their values.
“Scots-Irish” was perhaps always less an ethnicity formed by centuries of common ancestry than an affinity shaped in the forge of Ulster. That commonality of values and experience was enough to set them apart as a people and give them a cultural influence that reaches beyond ethnicity.
In the 18th century the Protestant colonists in Northern Ireland, frustrated by interference from their absentee Lords in England and angry over religious constraints launched a century-long mass migration to the American colonies. They usually established themselves in the frontiers where land was abundant and the arm of the hated aristocracy was weak.
There they developed a reputation for turd-disturbery, constantly fueling conflict with the Indians and rebellions against local authorities. The Conestoga Massacre in Pennsylvania established a familiar pattern.
In the 1760’s, Scots-Irish settlers were moving into lands granted to the Indians by treaty. In confusing logic, the settlers in the Susquehanna Valley complained that the Colonial authorities were failing to defend them from Indian retaliation for their land grabs. A pastor famous for bringing his rifle to the pulpit stirred up a mob that slaughtered and mutilated a band of unarmed Christian Indians unconnected with the attacks, who had long-before settled peacefully among the whites.
When the authorities tried to bring murder charges, the settlers organized a mob that marched on Philadelphia. No one was brought to justice. Ben Franklin had some harsh words for these folks, but the tactics of Ulster were loose in the colonies and he couldn’t stop them with words. As my Grandmother would have pointedly insisted, this kind of violence does not mark the whole culture, nonetheless it set a familiar, oft-repeated tone.
Grandma was sensitive to this image. She tartly refused to field questions about the various outlaws and bushwhackers that weighed down the less celebrated branches of the family tree. Her efforts were futile. It’s tough to protect the public image of a culture that mostly doesn’t give a damn what you think.
As they moved farther west or deeper into the hills the Scots-Irish shed more and more of their Old World roots. That diffusion, along with the ethnic amalgam that formed the Scots-Irish identity all along, makes it difficult to define them today. It also helps explain why Grandma could tell me little of what it meant to be Scots-Irish beyond “that’s just who we are.”
Is the Tea Party a Scots-Irish movement? There is no explicit link. There is however something distinctive in the fight-first, think-later style of the Tea Party that sounds eerily familiar. The appeal of the Tea Party in regions of the South and West where the Scots-Irish once predominated suggests at a bare minimum some overlap, an unconscious legacy. The knee-jerk resistance to taxes, a spiteful stubbornness and the combination of religious and martial imagery are all pretty familiar trademarks.
Regardless of whether the Scots-Irish can claim to have inspired this movement I expect we will eventually play our standard role as the folks who ruin things for everyone by going too far. It’s all good fun till somebody gets hurt. Whether at church, at war, or at a party, my people are usually the first to get carried away.
If the rhetoric doesn’t cool soon, expect trouble. There are folks out there right now, listening to blowhards like Michelle Malkin or Glenn Beck and coddling their resentments. They are building up to a big show. Besides NASCAR and Country Music, that’s the contribution to American culture for which we are most famous. We don’t always start the party, but you can count on the Scots-Irish to close it out with a spectacle. Like Grandma said, that’s just who we are.
For fun, a few comments on the Scots-Irish in media:
Jennifer Lawrence arguably auditioned for her part in The Hunger Games by playing the same character in the heavily Oscar-nominated film, Winter’s Bone. It’s perhaps the best portrayal of life among the Scots-Irish mountain remnant anyone has ever made, based on the excellent book by the same name.
Mel Gibson’s film, The Patriot, is loosely based on the British experience confronting the Scots-Irish settlers of the South Carolina backcountry in the American Revolution.
Do I need to mention the Dukes of Hazzard?
The Scots-Irish national anthem may be Steve Earle’s Copperhead Road, but there are some notable runner-ups. James McMurtry’s Choctaw Bingo is a close contender. One writer has nominated it as the most appropriate modern replacement for the Star Spangled Banner.
But the most appropriate theme song for the Scots-Irish may be Never Gonna Change, by the Drive-by Truckers.
Feel free to post other examples.
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