The Scotch-Irish: from the north of Ireland to the making of America

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Book Reviews, Issue 3 (May/Jun 2006), Reviews, Volume 14

The Scotch-Irish from the north of Ireland to the making of America 1The Scotch-Irish: from the north of Ireland to the making of America
Ron Chepesiuk
(McFarland & Co., North Carolina, £17.95)

To buy or not to buy? This is the constant dilemma we all face when we pick up a book that has just been published. With a long-standing and particular interest in the Scotch-Irish, I put my hand in my pocket after a fairly cursory scan of this volume but, not being a wealthy man, I reflect that I might have waited to consult a library copy. So, going back to the bookshop, what was it about the book that encouraged investment?
The first impression one forms of any book tends to be the front cover. Here we find an image of what look like children from the west of Scotland—might the book address the Scottish context from which migrants to Ireland departed more effectively than heretofore? The second image is of what look like southern European immigrants arriving at Ellis Island around 1900—might the book look at the Scotch-Irish within a comparative frame of mass European emigration to America? Might this also indicate that the author recognises that Ulster Protestants did not suddenly stop migrating across the Atlantic in 1820? The author was not known to me—might his interpretation be fresh and original? A professor and head of special collections at Winthrop University might be expected to reveal the fruits of fresh archival research. The name Chepesiuk suggested paternal lineage located in the Ukraine rather than Ulster—might this assure academic distance and prevent ancestor-worship? Furthermore, the review blurb on the back cover assured me that the volume was ‘well written . . . well-indexed’ and boasted ‘a comprehensive bibliography’. OK, I had talked myself into it. That will be £17.95, thank you.
Unfortunately my thought process in the bookshop should be retrospectively classified as wishful thinking as the predominant answer to these quick-fire questions proved to be a resounding ‘NO’. Had I dallied a moment longer and read the first two paragraphs of the preface and scanned the ‘comprehensive bibliography’ I should have been alerted, and consequently the guts of £20 better off. The former offered a potted version of the well-worn ‘heroic’ narrative of Scotch-Irish history, without much definition or discussion of the nomenclature, which remained variable and confusing throughout. The bibliography also revealed a great deal: whilst it might have been deemed ‘comprehensive’ a generation ago, today it could only be described as seriously dated. Excepting one slim newsletter of 1997, every item listed in the bibliography pre-dated 1983. At least a dozen works that significantly adjusted the historical interpretation of migration from Ulster to North America in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were missing, and this was clearly reflected in the text.
Following a little extra detective work, courtesy of Google, it became clear that the author was also a prolific freelance journalist best known for his publications on the contemporary US drugs problem. Was the book a fairly swiftly remoulded early ’80s dissertation, I asked myself? Whilst I would be the first person to acknowledge the merits of a well-written popular history that drew upon the wider literature on a given subject, I was rather left asking whether this can really be classified as history at all. If the book is essentially a generation out of date and tells one very little more than could be gleaned from a standard work like James Leyburn’s The Scotch-Irish: a social history (Chapel Hill, 1962), is it history, if history is defined as a constantly evolving interpretation of the past?
In a curious way, however, Chepesiuk’s work is actually not unrepresentative of the popular literature devoted to the Scotch-Irish in its dogged adherence to and almost ritualistic repetition of what we might call the ‘God’s frontiersmen’ mantra. On both sides of the Atlantic there is clearly a market for literature that simply retells the story one more time. Thus it is clear that the high point of the story, the ‘keystone’ chapter, is that which (in the literal middle of the book) addresses the Siege of Derry and attaches the subtitle ‘the Protestant Triumph’. Drawing largely on Tony Gray’s 1975 account, No surrender, the author describes the valour and sacrifice of the besieged citizens (of whom he affirms the largest part were Presbyterian), their decisive contribution in securing the Glorious Revolution, and the seminal role of the siege in the experience and memory of those who would later cross the Atlantic.
The opening paragraphs of the next chapter, entitled ‘Sailing West for the Promised Land’, throw particularly interesting light—to this reader, at least—on the blind spots of the traditional ‘heroic’ narrative. ‘If the plantation was now firmly established in Ulster’, muses the author, ‘it was the Scotch-Irish who undoubtedly deserved the credit; their industry and hard work had made it a success’. Not only does this miss the subsequent competition for glory between Dissenter and Episcopalian concerning the ‘Protestant victory’ at the Siege of Derry, it also rather glaringly ignores the significant English and Welsh contribution towards the establishment of the Protestant interest in Ulster in the seventeenth century.
Then Chepesiuk, pointing to the extremely significant Scots influx of the 1690s, refers to those flocking to Ireland ‘to take advantage of the cheap land and the many opportunities that were now available’. Compare this, for example, with the interpretation offered by William Roulston in Researching Scots-Irish ancestors: the essential guide to early modern Ulster, 1600–1800 (Belfast, 2005). There Roulston tells us that ‘the aftermath of the Williamite war saw a fresh influx of thousands of Scots to the north of Ireland, encouraged by harvest crises in their native land’. Chepesiuk is by no means the first or only writer dealing with the Scotch-Irish to focus on the pull rather than the push factors at work in the 1690s, but I spotlight it because I would suggest that this interpretation reflects a conscious desire to lessen the possibilities for any analogy between refugees from famine in the 1690s and later refugees from famine who came to America from Ireland in the 1840s.
The book also reminds one of the challenges of effective trans-national history. Credit should be given to the author for the commitment to beginning the story well before the Plantation of Ulster. In one of the sager passages of the work he reminds the reader that ‘for centuries the area encompassing Ireland and Scotland was a vast cultural sea, which experienced a continuous intermingling of its people and a sharing of traditions’. However, there are a great many typographical and factual errors in the text. There is only space here for a sample: Sir Donal O’Cahan is referred to as Donnell O’Cohan (p. 37), Thomas Blenerhasset becomes Clenerhasset (p. 46), the earl of Abercorn becomes Abercarn (p. 48), A.T.Q. Stewart becomes A.T.A. Stewart (p. 48), Iveagh becomes Inveagh (p. 60), Antrim in 1690 is referred to as a city (p. 77), William III landed at Turbay rather than Torbay in Devon whilst James II landed at Kinsdale rather than Kinsale (pp 78–9), 1780 should be 1680 (p. 99), Denmore, Pennsylvania, is cited as an Irish placename (p. 119), and 1890 should be 1790 (p. 127). Such mistakes are at best frustrating.
Given the fact that the book takes no account of the significant revision undertaken in the past quarter-century in relation to early modern trans-Atlantic migration from Ireland, there is much that one could challenge in Chepesiuk’s account, but perhaps the single greatest critique relates to the easy, almost unthinking reliance upon, and perpetuation of, ethnic stereotypes. These serve to sustain characters in the story who appear simple rather than complex and whose behaviour miraculously remains constant over time. The Irish thus are left ‘leaderless’ and ‘helpless’ by the Flight of the Earls (p. 37), and are contemptuously dismissed as the ‘mere Irish’ by the settlers (p. 45); in 1641 they sought to make Ireland once again ‘truly Gaelic’ (p. 59), and had no answer to Cromwell because they were ‘disorganised’ (p. 65). The English are cast in the seventeenth century as weak and soft by comparison to the sturdy Scots planters (p. 49), and by the eighteenth century had become greedy, absentee landlords and extravagant spendthrifts (pp 97, 101). The Scots, however, ‘proved stubborn, tough, resilient and hardworking—the same qualities their descendants later exhibited in America’ (p. 49), where their reputation as being ‘hot-tempered, rash, combative and unfair towards the Indians’ was contrasted with the Germans who settled the Appalachian backcountry alongside them (p. 119).
The life of the Scotch-Irish in Scotland, Ireland and America, according to the author, was characterised by strong religious faith, determination, adaptability and resourcefulness, the qualities of the quintessential frontiersmen (p. 135). Quoting Leyburn on the Scotch-Irish, Chepesiuk presents us with the proposition that ‘his moral standards’ were ‘implanted in his very being before he could effectively resist, like his conscience’ they were ‘ingrained’ (p. 134). In this sense the volume under review here is not unlike another volume published in the US fairly recently and apparently selling well—James Webb’s Born fighting: how the Scots-Irish shaped America (New York, 2004). Somewhat paradoxically, the descendants of those portrayed as the ultimate individualists, as men of action, actually remain trapped by narrow ethnic stereotyping. Apart from not being very good history, it isn’t a very uplifting prospect for somebody writing in Omagh in 2006.

Patrick Fitzgerald


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