Most Catholic Irish who came to the United States arrived beginning with the potato famine of the 1840s. But Irish people of the Protestant faith came to America by the thousands in the 1700s and played a large role in settlement of the Appalachian frontier and the American Revolution.
They considered themselves Irish when they arrived, the later prejudice against Catholic Irish possibly inspiring the designation Scotch-Irish. These days we call them Scots-Irish, the word scotch being reserved for the drink. It is a useful term, writes James G. Leyburn in “The Scotch-Irish — A Social History,” published in 1962 by The University of North Carolina Press. “The Scots who lived in Ulster before they came to America simply were not, in background, religion, and many other aspects of culture, identical with the Irish of the southern provinces of Leinster, Munster, and Connaught; neither were they, after many decades, any longer identical with the people of Scotland.”
Leyburn demonstrates the change in character that resulted from England’s planting of Scots in Ulster and ousting of the Irish subsistence farmers in the 1600s and from the Scots-Irish emigration to a new continent.
“Pride, noteworthy in the Scots, had become intensified by living as royal colonist in a conquered country among a people held in general contempt. Conflict with the Irish, especially during and after the insurrection of 1641, toughened and hardened a character that had never been soft, with an added iron provided by steady church discipline.” “To move away from all familiar places and customs to an entirely different country necessarily meant adjusting oneself to new circumstances and surroundings — and this was but the first step in continuous adjustment.”
“It had initially been a risk to go to northern Ireland; it was a greater risk to go to America. But it was taken by thousands of Ulstermen. What makes the character of the Scotch-Irish interesting is the degree to which their acquired adaptability would show itself in the New World, and the points on which they would not compromise.”
Some quarter-million Ulstermen came to America from 1717 to the Revolutionary War, said Leyburn, mainly for economic reasons. Alarmed by the success of the Ulster Plantation and the competition of its goods, England passed the Woollens Act of 1699, prohibiting the export of wool and woolen cloth to any places except England and Wales. The linen industry was just developing, but it experienced periods of depression. The third reason for emigration was the rise in land rent.
In five great waves of emigration — 1717-18, 1725-29, 1740-41, 1754-55 and 1771-75 — and periods of lighter emigration, most settlers went west 100 miles or so in Pennsylvania and southwest through the Shenandoah Valley, making their homes from Philadelphia to the upper Savannah River. Germans settled simultaneously in alternating and parallel movements in Pennsylvania, but language, religion, cultural attitudes, temperamental traits and social heritage kept the groups separated. The third region of Scots-Irish settlement was the Piedmont country of the Carolinas.
Settlement on the frontier caused a “gradual modification of concepts of social distinctions,” said Leyburn. “What occurred among the Scotch-Irish between 1717 and the end of the century was an augury, almost a pattern, of things to come in the United States.
“When the Great Migration began in 1717 no one in his right mind, either in the British Isles or in the colonies, questioned the fact of social superiority and inferiority. … The stability of society derived from this order; people always knew where to look for leadership, and the training in responsibility was assumed in families of property, education, and background.”
“Scotch-Irish settlements east of the Appalachians marked, in effect, a turning point in American life. … Those who stayed showed their belief in stability, viable institutions, community control of morality, amenities of social intercourse, decency and order, the worth of tradition. Those who moved away preferred instead the values of individualism, adventure, independence of action, making their own way in the world, taking risks.”
“Children and grandchildren of the original Scotch-Irish settlers in America were always among the leaders in the move to the new West; but they were no longer Scotch-Irish in their social characteristics and outlook.”
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