A Narrow Sea - Episode 60
Identifying the Ulster-Scots
Written by Dr Jonathan Bardon
Modern nationalism, which could be said to have originated in revolutionary France, sped along rapidly extending railway lines to engulf every part of Europe by the end of the 1800s.
As modern communications steadily eroded parochial sentiment, peoples discovered their national identity. Every nationality emphasised its individuality and distinctiveness.
In Ireland, as the debate on the island’s political future intensified from the 1830s onwards, citizens seemed divided sharply into two ethnic groups with profoundly divergent aspirations.
Ulster joined in the developing European debates on racial typifications and national traits.
Many of those northern unionists who were opposed to a ‘Home Rule’ parliament in Dublin took pride in their Scottish ancestry, looking upon themselves as a distinct people, Ulster Scots, quite different from nationalist Catholics now seeking a form of independence for Ireland.
The Ulster Journal of Archaeology, founded in 1852, in its first issues ran a series of articles entitled ‘The origin and characteristics of the population in the counties of Down and Antrim’.
These informed readers that Protestants in eastern Ulster were Anglo-Saxon in race, possessing the inherited virtues of thrift, capacity for hard work and respect for law and order.
Using such words as ‘staunch’ and ‘stalwart’ to describe themselves, northern Protestants had no difficulty in accepting this theory.
Nationalists largely accepted Protestants’ assumption of their racial separateness, for they at the same time were emphasising their Celtic origins and laying claim to inherent characteristics such as hospitality, passion and love of poetry.
A similar movement developed in the United States. Some descendants of Ulster Presbyterians, who had settled in America, were becoming alarmed not only by the influx of Catholic Irish but also by the arrival of great numbers from eastern and southern Europe.
On the 8th of May 1889 the ‘Scotch-Irish Society of America’ was inaugurated at Columbia, Tennessee, and over the next twelve years held ten congresses - largely to define and celebrate ‘Scotch-Irish American’ identity.
Robert Bonner, the permanent president of the society, declared that the proceedings reflected the cordial good will, the patriotic fervour, the indomitable spirit, the tenacity of purpose, and the stern integrity, which have always characterised the Scotch-Irish.
Certainly Governor William McKinley of Ohio, elected 28th President in 1897, regarded the Scotch-Irish as a distinct race. He remarked: The Americanised Scotch-Irishman is the perfection of a type which is the commingling and assimilation process of centuries…Before he loses his racial distinctiveness and individuality he should be photographed by history’s camera.
The Scotch-Irish, he believed, should distance themselves from the Celtic-Irish as the most undesirable, the most mischievous, the most damnable element of population that could have been scraped out of the corners of the earth.
In the wake of two world wars, Hitler’s programme of genocide and the ethnic slaughter which accompanied the break-up of Yugoslavia, the hollowness of extreme claims of racial distinctiveness have been exposed.
Like all the inhabitants of Ireland, Ulster Scots are a blend. This was ensured from the earliest times by constant coming and going across the Narrow Sea.
Lowland Scots and their descendants who arrived in Ulster as colonists in the 1600s did not separate themselves from the native Irish population quite as much as was formerly believed.
In western Ulster, Scots settlers, particularly those of low status, sometimes married local women and within a generation their descendants could well be speaking Irish.
On the other side of the province the incoming flood of British colonists encouraged many native Irish to embrace Protestantism, speak English and drop the prefix ‘O’ or ‘Mac’ from their surnames.
Some O’Flynns changed their surname to Lynn and many O’Neills and MacNeills adopted the surname Neill.
A cursory glance at registers in segregated schools past and present will show many Lowland Scots surnames – such as Hume, Adams and Sands – in Catholic roll books.
Native Irish surnames – such as McCusker, O’Neill and Magennis – frequently appear in Protestant school registers.
The 1800s saw a dramatic fall in the number of people who could speak Irish and, as surnames were anglicised, translated or given pseudo-translations, the memory of ancestral connection was often lost.
In addition, in the same century, the many Catholics who joined Protestant churches during the evangelical revivals often changed their surnames.
Laverys on the eastern shore of Lough Neagh became Armstrongs; the Johnston surname was borrowed by McKeowns and MacShanes; and the O’Carrolls of Dromore almost all changed their surname to Cardwell.
Following a quarter of a century of research, the historian Douglas Carson found that all in Ulster bearing his Lowland Scots surname are related, however distantly, and that there are almost as many Catholic as Protestant Carsons.
However blended, a great many people in Ulster take pride in their Scots ancestry and culture…and with good reason: the influence of Ulster-Scots across the globe has been out of all proportion to their numbers.