LEARNING FROM OUR HISTORY: A St. Pat’s Day visit with Scots-Irish past

Call them the other Irish — the invisible Irish, the Scots-Irish. They’re more associated with corn, coal, and moonshine than green beer. They’re the offspring of Scots whom King James transplanted to northern Ireland at the same time he was colonizing Jamestown in Virginia and producing the King James Version of the Bible in the early 1600s.

There was a mass migration of Scots-Irish to America from 1717 to 1775, enough to claim 15 percent of the colonial population and stock Gen. Washington's army with hearty, feisty fighters who relished freedom and routed Redcoats in the Revolution. Not known for good manners or refined habits, they were ideal raw material for frontiersmen, pouring south into Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, the Carolinas, and on into Georgia, Alabama and the Florida panhandle.

A second wave of Scots-Irish crossed over the Alleghenies and headed westward through Pennsylvania, Maryland, West Virginia, and on into Ohio, Indiana and Illinois. Their offspring crossed the Mississippi into Iowa and went south through Missouri, the Ozarks of Arkansas, and on into Texas. Davy Crockett and Sam Houston were Scots-Irish. The southern branch produced the first Scots-Irish American president, Andrew Jackson, while Ulysses S. Grant hailed from Ohio, adding to the stock of 10 (some say 12) American presidents of Scots-Irish descent.

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The early Scots-Irish immigrants were Presbyterian, but the Scottish church couldn’t supply enough ministers to keep up with western expansion, allowing Methodists and Baptists to make huge inroads. But whatever stripe of Protestant they were, most Scots-Irish retained a hero-like worship of Good King Billy, King William III whose Protestant army won a huge victory in Ireland over his Catholic rival for the crown in 1690. The southern “Billy Boys” who populated the hill country of Appalachia were termed hillbillies, intended as a derogatory term by some but celebrated by others.

“Others” include people who know coal mining, country music, moonshine, car racing, and who the Hatfields and McCoys were. But they also celebrate a New South which embraces progressive policies, hi-tech, the digital age, clean coal, college football and advanced education. My wife’s mother was born in Paint Lick, Ky., giving me only a hint of hillbilly, though I’m sure Jeff Foxworthy could find enough evidence to convict and convert most anybody into hillbilly ranks.

I found exactly where my Scots-Irish lineage is located — the southwest corner of Pennsylvania, County Armagh in Northern Ireland, and, before that, County Ayrshire in Scotland. The Scots-Irish were known as thrifty to a fault — they saved everything. In my case it was family letters from the 1790s that allowed me to trace that lineage to a ridge and a farm in Pennsylvania, a village and farmhouse in Northern Ireland (where a Burns family still lives two centuries later), and on back into Scotland.

The past offers pluses and minuses. On the plus side, my Pennsylvania roots are linked to William McGuffey, whose McGuffey’s Readers became our national textbooks of the 1840-1920 period. Henry Ford cited McGuffey’s Readers as one of the strongest influences on his life, becoming a collector of things associated with McGuffey and West Finley Twp. in Washington County, Pa., where my family homesteaded. Ford transported my cousin’s covered bridge over a stream below the ridge to Greenfield Village, had tea with my cousin at her house to seal the deal, and then invited her to Michigan for the bridge’s dedication ceremony.

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On the minus side, I found our ancestral farm in Northern Ireland in the midst of a terrorist flashpoint area near the border when I first visited there during The Troubles in 1979. Two attacks by the Irish Republican Army had just killed four policemen and a mother of six who was a prison guard. The loyalists and British Army battled back, atrocities inflicted on both sides until a peace agreement removed most of the guns, bombs, and belligerence from the conflict.

So we come full circle back to the Scots-Irish and their contribution to this country. On St. Patrick's Day, a hard-core Billy Boy would drink orange rather than green beer since King Billy was William of Orange. But just as we're all Irish on St. Patrick's Day and celebrate the best of our American-Irish heritage, if you check your family tree back to colonial times, you'll likely find that you're a wee bit Scotch-Irish. And maybe even with a hint of hillbilly. You could do worse.

Former Ohioan James F. Burns is a retired professor at the University of Florida.

Former Ohioan James F. Burns is a retired professor at the University of Florida.

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