Of holes, names and history
Denis Healey’s famous First Law of Holes (“When in a hole, stop digging”) has, in the last couple of weeks, been adeptly implemented by Des Browne, Patricia Hewitt and even Tony Blair. Malcolm would now like to add to the code with his Law of Blogs: the more promising the thread, the more likely subsequent posts descend into partisan abuse.
Malcolm spent some time elsewhere this month, matching his abilities with the Real Men at Slugger O’Toole‘s Fisticuffs and Flyting Forum. Malcolm likes Slugger because it is a prime source of news for Northern Ireland across a spectrum of sources, has a quantum of bright and breezy contributors, and frequently the commentary is spot-on. Inevitably, though, any extended thread of discussion descends into abuse between Nationalist/Unionist, Prod/Mick, green/orange.
That sparked Malcolm to consider two related issues:
- The Ulster Protestant identity: British or Irish or what?
- Why it is that, once they have left Ulster, most seem unconscious or dismissive of that identity? And why this is particularly so in the United States, where more than half the “Irish-Americans” are Protestant and descended from the Ulster diaspora.
Root and seed
Malcolm was taught that the root of the Ulster “problem” was the 1607 Flight of the Earls, the forfeit of their lands to the Crown, and the distribution of those lands through plantation. If that was the root, the seed must be earlier yet.
Cause and effect: the accession of James VI to the throne of England provided a terminus ad quem to the Border wars between the two kingdoms. All that energy had to go somewhere:
Thousands of Scots … poured into Down and Antrim, reinforcing the already significant Scottish element in the populations. Strongly Protestant in character, they were to introduce a radical element into the area which made the north-east prosperous as well as ethnically different. The Scots also came in substantial numbers as tenants on the new estates in the planted area. Such was the level of emigration that in 1636 a proclamation banned any Scot from coming to Ireland without licence. But they continued to come throughout the century and the Scottish colony grew to be almost a little Scotland beyond the sea. The ‘Scottish nation in the north of Ireland’, as it called itself, formed a powerful political as well as religious presence in Ulster. By the 1640s, Presbyterians had become dominant among the Scots and henceforth Presbyterian Ulster was to provide a powerful religious, political, radical and even military voice in Ireland. A social revolution of immense significance for the future of the province, and indeed of the island at larger, had taken place.
Malcolm savoured that, if only because behind the text he could recall the voice of James Lydon of TCD.
But what about the seed?
George MacDonald Fraser introduces The Steel Bonnets, The Story of the Anglo-Scottish Border Reivers with an observation:
At one moment when President Richard Nixon was taking part in his inauguration ceremony, he appeared flanked by Lyndon Johnson and Billy Graham. To anyone familiar with Border history it was one of those historical coincidences which send a little shudder through the mind: in that moment, thousands of miles and centuries in time away from the Debateable Land, the threads came together again; the descendants of three notable Anglo-Scottish Border tribes—families who had lived and fought within a few miles of each other on the West Marches in Queen Elizabeth’s time—were standing side-by-side, and it took very little imagination to replace the custom-made suits with leather jackets or backs-and-breasts.
And, of the physiognomy:
Richard Nixon, however, is the perfect example. The blunt, heavy features, the dark complexion, the burly body, and the whole air of dour hardness are as typical of the Anglo-Scottish frontier as the Roman Wall. Take thirty years off his age and you could put him straight into the front row of the Hawick scrum and hope to keep out of his way. It is difficult to think of any face that would fit better under a steel bonnet.
And that, presciently, was first published in 1971, a year before the Watergate burglary.
Besides Nixon, Johns(t)on and Graham one could add names like Armstrong, Irving, Potts, Turnbull (Trimble); Tailor and many more. [Malcolm found it interesting that David Trimble, on his first outing as a paid-up Tory, was emphasising his lowlands Scots ancestry: he did not feel it significant enough to include this on his website.]
That, surely, was the seed.
The first attempt
No sooner had the Scots appropriated much of Ulster than, like the Vikings before them, it was time to go further. On 9th September 1636, the Eagle Wing sailed, where the Down coast crests northwards before the trunk of the Ards Peninsula, with 140 Presbyterians:
Robert Blair, John Livingston, James Hamilton, and John McClelland: all afterwards promoters of the cause of truth in Scotland and Ireland. Among the families that composed the company were the names Stuart, Agnew, Campbell, Summervil, and Brown.
They intended west for the Merrimac in New England. That voyage failed:
half-seas through, the manifold crosses they met withal, made them give over their intentions.
They landed back at Lochfergus on 3rd November.
Others would follow:
The first Ulster Scots turned up in 1713. In Worcester, Massachusetts, they were much in demand as Indian fighters and as a tough barrier between the English settlers and the ‘savage wilderness’ beyond… Between 1717 and 1776, perhaps a quarter of a million Ulstermen came to America, 100,000 of them as indentured servants. They did not remain servants for very long, as colonists soon discovered that Ulster Scots were not born to be obedient…
The people who best represent the traditional Presbyterian Scot culture were the Ulster Scots, or, as the Americans called them, the “Scotch Irish”. They were Irish by geography only … they had struggled to preserve the twin characteristics of their Scottish forbears. The first was a fierce Calvinist faith. The other was a similarly fierce individualism, which saw every man as the basic equal of every other, and defied authority of every kind…
The first great wave of Scotch-Irish emigration began with the failed harvest of 1717… Another wave of Ulster Scots followed in the 1720s; so many, in fact, that the British Parliament demanded an enquiry, wondering whether they would completely depopulate the Protestant element in Ireland before they were done.
Malcolm noted, in passing, those “indentured servants”. Squeamish souls should look away now.
100,000 indentured servants from Ulster
In essence the process was:
- a ship-owner publicised an imminent departure;
- individuals and families arrived at the stated date and place;
- those who could, paid (and so were free agents on arrival): all the rest accepted indentures, normally seven years service in exchange for the passage;
- on arrival in the American colonies, the ship-owner could sell those indentures to the highest bidder;
- after seven years, the indentured servant was free of obligation, unless other commitments or debts were incurred (as they frequently were).
This was, of course, a form of serfdom: indeed, it was the legal basis which evolved into slavery (and, let it be recalled, there was slavery for whites in the colonies before the “peculiar institution” involved black slaves). Lerone Bennett, Jr, is pertinent:
When the ships arrived in American ports, the dead were thrown overboard and the survivors were cleaned up for on-deck sale. In some cases both men and women were stripped naked and examined by prospective buyers…
Like the slaves who followed them, the white servants were separated and sold with little or no regard for family connections. Husbands and wives were separated, and children under five were sold or given away until their twenty-first birthday…
It was not unusual for merchants to sell blacks, whites and Indians from the same auction block. In 1714 Samuel Sewell, a prominent Boston merchant, offered for sale:
several Irish maid servants time
most of them for Five Years one
Irish Man Servant who is a good
Barber and Wiggmaker, also Four
or Five Likely Negro Boys
Some enterprising and insensitive merchants, called “soul-drivers”, bought servants in lots of fifty or more and drove them through the countryside, selling them by ones and twos…
Once the sale was consummated, the servant became subject to the will, whim, and interest of another human being… In practice, as almost every student of white servitude has pointed out, he was a de facto slave until the end of his indenture.
The consolation of religion, and moving on
Malcolm finds it incredible that the indentured undertook the “hazardous, even murderous” crossing and the subsequent horrors in ignorance or out of some belief in “freedom” and opportunity. They were going through desperation: the famines of the early 1700s were smaller, more localised than the 1840s, but for individuals the choice was the same—emigrate or die.
But, at least Puritan New England would be sympathetic to Ulster Presbyterians? Wrong: those Ulster Scots in Worcester, MA, may have been useful in keeping the savages at bay, but, when they tried to build their own Presbyterian church, their neighbours tore it down. Conformity was enforced. Failure to be in church, the endorsed place of worship often meant a week of servitude. Persistent absence merited a year and a day of servitude. Not surprisingly:
It was said that no Scotch-Irish family felt comfortable until they had moved twice.
Hence the frontier, ever moving westward:
The Scots-Irish … had been transported from Scotland to northern Ireland around Ulster, and their struggles with local Catholics encouraged aggressive qualities. They also learned to hate and fight Englishmen, and it is not surprising that in America they immediately got away from the seaboard colonists as possible. The Scots-Irish were fighters, hunters, marksmen and they bred leaders like Andrew Jackson, John C. Calhoun, and Sam Houston.
Hence, too, the proliferation of communities with telling names: all those Orange Counties, for one obvious instance. Meanwhile, as David Hackett Fischer has shown, these Scotch-Irish devised their distinctive whiskey (note that spelling), by substituting local corn and rye for barley. Their Appalachian dialect came down through mountainmen and cowboys to be the lingua franca of truck-drivers and C&W ballads, and thereby to be re-exported. So “I guess” came from the archaic “I wis” (still current in Shakespeare, meaning “I think”), only to come back into British English via the GI and the Hollywood movie. A even more curious re-import is craic, which has been lurking there, to be re-discovered to sell Temple Bar and the Stag Weekend:
crack, craic, crak vb Originally to boast; to engage in lively or entertaining conversation; gossip; tell jokes; etc. Hence n A boast; a quip; chat; entertaining talk … The spelling craic, now frequent in Ireland, erroneously suggests that the word is from Irish, but this spelling arose only in the early 20th century. In English the term dates from as early as the 15th century.
The Ulsterman might still say, “That’s a real cracker”, and thereby declare his Scots origin.
Self-evidently this is a concept that had no place in Ireland, except in the great houses of absentee aristocrats, before 1801′s Act of Union. Even then, it was something foisted on the protestant populace by the Ascendancy, the true natural enemy of Presbyterian Ulster. Those Presbyterians had been United Irishmen, even (perhaps with little enthusiasm) went with Wolfe Tone’s republicanism. Yet, within a couple of generations they had adopted the Union Flag as testimony of their “Britishness”. What happened?
The Ulster image defined
The Scots-Irish became “British” at a specific moment: it was when Thomas Macaulay published his History, specifically Chapter XII (which dealt with the Siege of Derry):
A new city soon arose which, on account of its connection with the capital of the empire, was called Londonderry. The buildings covered the summit and slope of a hill which overlooked the broad stream of the Foyle, then whitened by vast flocks of wild swans…
The inhabitants were Protestants of Anglosaxon blood. They were indeed not all of one country or of one church: but Englishmen and Scotchmen, Episcopalians and Presbyterians, seem to have generally lived together in friendship, a friendship which is sufficiently explained by their common antipathy to the Irish race and to the Popish religion.
Chapter XVI (which covered the Battle of the Boyne):
The first of July dawned, a day which has never since returned without exciting strong emotions of very different kinds in the two populations which divide Ireland. The sun rose bright and cloudless. Soon after four both armies were in motion…
A wild shout of defiance rose from the whole shore: during one moment the event seemed doubtful: but the Protestants pressed resolutely forward; and in another moment the whole Irish line gave way.
Not only was Macaulay’s History a stonking best-seller (which, incidentally, established the Whiggish tone for history texts as long as that subject was properly taught in English schools), it gave the Ulster Protestants what they saw as their rightful place at the crucial moment in English/British/Irish history. They now had an identity in the Empire, and were glad to be British.
The deracinated Ulster-American
Not so across the Atlantic. The Ulster-Scots had been the backbone of the Revolution, indeed (as Governor McKinley, later the 25th President, and descended from emigrants from County Antrim, declared):
They were the first to proclaim for freedom in these United States; even before Lexington the Scotch Irish blood had been shed for American freedom.
The first encounter of the War of Independence was a skirmish at the Alamance River in North Carolina, on 14th May 1771, between local Ulster Irish and Governor Tryon’s regulars. Six signatories of the Declaration had Ulster origins: the secretary of the Congress, Charles Thomson was from Maghera. The printer of the Declaration was John Dunlap of Stabane.
Yet, many of those who descended from Ulster stock seemed to have lost the link. Malcolm suggests there are historical, sociological, demographic and even technological reasons for this. And they all boil down to An Gorta Mór.
Kerby Miller did the spadework twenty years ago: between 1815 and 1819 two-thirds of Irish immigrants into the United States were from Ulster, overwhelmingly Protestants; between 1822 and 1832, this flow was still accounting for half of the Irish immigrants. Only in the 1830s did Catholics come to outnumber Protestants. Throughout all of this period, the emigrants were not destitute: US port officials in 1820 recorded 27% of immigrants from Ireland were “farmers”, 22% artisans, 10% tradesmen and professionals, and just 21% labourers. In 1818, the Dublin Evening Press observed that:
Emigration is necessarily restricted to the class immediately above the labouring poor, who cannot raise the money to pay their passage.
The Queenstown Story Interpretation Centre at Cobh has a display showing how emigration through the port increased. When Malcolm first saw it, it denied one of his assumptions: there was not a sudden “quantum leap” in emigration in the 1840s, but a continuing upward geometric curve. What was happening was a combination of push- and pull-factors. Remittance monies from emigrants allowed and encouraged other family members to follow. Brunel’s Great Western heralded the arrival on the Atlantic steam packets: fifteen days across. Costs came down, for vessels could now make more than a single return crossing in a season, and the season was extended as the vessels grew larger: in itself, this technological improvement meant more and more emigration.
Until the late 1840s, Ulster Protestants were regarded in America simply as Irish. The arrival of the despised Catholic hordes changed that: a new identity was needed. Carl Wittke spotted that, writing as early as 1956:
The sharp distinction between Irish and Scotch-Irish developed in the United States in the last half of the nineteenth century for reasons that were primarily American. After the great influx of Irish immigrants and the problems created by this sudden boiling over of the melting pot, the Scotch-Irish insisted on differentiating between the descendants of earlier immigrants from Ireland and more recent arrivals.
The curious anomoly of Seamus McFly
Marty McFly‘s great-grandfather is Seamus, a farmer, recently arrived in America:
SEAMUS: Sir, I’m proud to make your acquaintance. McFly’s the name. Seamus McFly.
Marty is amazed to meet his ancestor …
MARTY: Seamus McFly. Right. I’ve heard of you.You started the whole family.
Seamus has to have a stage-Oirish accent and stereotyped red hair. Clues (making the sign of the cross before food) suggest the McFly household of 1885 is Catholic.
If so, he would be extremely non-typical. The vast majority of the Irish Catholic immigrants stayed very close to the urban centres, where they had support mechanisms through the Catholic church and the trades unions which they dominated by the 1850s. When the Irish moved West:
Often they came West to find work as miners, clustering in the mining districts of states such as Montana, Wyoming, and Nevada, where the proportion of Irish-born greatly exceeded the national average. At the end of the nineteenth century the copper center of Butte was the most Irish city in America … Butte miners told the joke of the Irish man who sent a letter home encouraging his brother to come over. “Don’t stop in the United States”, he wrote, “come right on out to Butte.” The Irish community in Butte was rooted in strong kinship ties, ethnic associations such as the Ancient Order of Hibernians, and, most important, the Catholic parish, staffed almost entirely by Irish priests.
In other words, precisely the environment and associations that the independent-minded Ulster-American would eschew. In reality, it would not be the newly-arrived Irish immigrant to be found in his sod-house on the Plains, if only because he lacked the $1,000 the Department of Agriculture regarded as the minimum capital:
By the end of the [Nineteenth] Century Germans made up a third of the population of Texas, and so large were the numbers of Swedes, Norwegians, and Russians in the population of the northern plains that according to the census of 1890 the region had the highest proportion of foreign-born people in the country.
[Both those last two quotations are from Hine and Faracher.]
The still-unanswered question
Malcolm began this diatribe by musing on identity. He has satisfied himself of why and how the Ulster Protestant became “British”. Whowever, he feels no nearer to explaining why the Ulster-Americans, seemingly unique of all the immigrant groups, lost awareness of their origins (except that many think of themselves as “Scots”, which is only part of the story). Why is that googling “Ulster American” drags up a vast number of sites this side of the Atlantic (mostly devoted to the Omagh theme-park) and so few from the other side?
Malcolm feels he has more reading to do. Doubtless (if he continues in this vein) in due course he will be referring to James Graham Leyburn and Patrick Griffin, which are the next items on his reading list. And Griffin may have the solution: the title of his book is “The People with No Name”. And so, Malcolm, for the time being, ceases excavation, and leaves his hole part-dug.