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Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Scots-Irish and Swing Voters

Salena Zito has published a column at TownHall in which she notes some learned wonk's discovery that areas of "swing voters" correspond roughly to the parts of the USA settled by the Scots-Irish.

Having a drab of "Scots-Irish" heritage on my mother's father's mother's side of the family or something like that (with Jewish and Scandinavian elsewhere, and married into the Chinese), I was rather amused to see so much attention paid to a population that supposedly melted into the great WASP middle long ago. But, after doing a bit of reading and noticing a few things during my long sojourn as a Presbyterian (still going on, basically), I've come to a few conclusions.

Before the potato famine made the name "Irish" mean "Roman Catholic Irish", the so-called Scots-Irish were simply Irish Protestants from Ulster. Indeed, the early American "Ancient Order of Hibernians" and the first St. Patrick's Day parades in New York were mostly Protestant affairs.

I'm not denying that many Protestant Irish came from Scots (with a number of English and Welsh) planted in Ulster from the days of James VI and I on, but I strongly suspect that there was a considerable native Irish element among people who would become "Scots-Irish" during the 1800's.

I visited old Presbyterian cemeteries in western Pennsylvania and saw names ending in -ehan and others that looked suspiciously native Irish rather than Scots-Irish suffixes. I've read 18th century records of presbyteries that received Irish immigrant ministers and elders whose names began with "Mc-" (admittedly, something found among Scottish Gaels, too)--and don't forget the family of Jane McCrea, the daughter of a Presbyterian minister, whose murder by British-allied Mohawks turned the "Scots-Irish" (Irish Protestant?) settlers of western NY to the patriot cause. I've even read an Irish nationalist study of the history of Gaelic use that claimed that in 18th century Ulster, literacy in Irish Gaelic (as opposed to simply a spoken knowledge of the language) tended to be associated with Protestants, who were supposedly "settlers".

I propose that some of the identification of Irish Protestants as all Scots settlers and Roman Catholicism as an inseparable part of "Irish" identity may owe less to who these people actually were and who their descendants are than to the following:

1. the end of penalties against Protestant dissenters in the UK
2. Drift away from Irish separatism among Protestant Irish Presbyterians during the 19th century
3. Identification of "Irish" as poorer, less-acculturated Roman Catholic immigrants after ca. 1840 in America.
4. The search for "racial" explanations of political alignment in Europe, and the export of such ideas to the USA during the 19th century.
5. Late 19th and early 20th century exaltation of the "Anglo-Saxon" in British and American discourse.

This is neither a plea for Irish Protestants to embrace the IRA (filthy friends of Andropov and Qaddafi) nor a disparaging of historical Irish grievances against British rule, nor a call for either a cession of the Six Counties to Eire or the re-incoporation of Eire into the UK. It's just voicing a suspicion I have about how things were before that great roaring engine of 19th century social theorizing got cranked up.

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