Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Scots-Irish

Todat the BBC today carries an article by Joe Bageant about the influence of (what he calls) Rednecks on the US election this year. Rednecks are the descendants of the so-called "Scots-Irish", people who left Scotland for Ireland partly because of disagreement with the Church of England, which is "high church" and closer to Catholicism than their own "low church" Presbyterianism. Indeed the word "Redneck" comes from this background:

"Many Covenanters signed in their own blood and wore red pieces of cloth around their necks as distinctive insignia; hence the term "Red neck", (rednecks) which became slang for a Scottish dissenter"

Originally Celtic, like many people already in Ireland, the people who came to Ireland from Scotland were independent and combative. These were the people who, in the past, had produced William Wallace and Robert the Bruce. The English were happy to move these troublesome people out of Scotland by granting them land in the north of Ireland.

The Scots-Irish "Redneck" vote has been a common sub-theme of this election campaign, lying somewhere below the major themes of pigs, lipstick, and house-counting. This Talking Points Memo article on Obama's Appalachian problem covered the ground, back in the Democratic primaries. The Bageant article goes beyond the Appalachians, mining areas such as Northern Minnesota in search of Scots-Irish rednecks.

James Webb wrote an important book on the Scots-Irish ("Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish shaped America") and for a while he was considered as a potential running mate for Barack Obama. But, Webb was not chosen, and now the Scots-Irish ticket is McCain-Palin. McCain is considered Scots-Irish, and up in New Hampshire I saw "Irish for McCain" placards.

I can see a lot of my own background in Ireland here. Where I grew up, in the hilly country of the north midlands of Ireland not far from the border, the population were hard-working small farmers who had guns (my father shot our neighbour's dog dead for disturbing our sheep), the signposts were pocked with bullet-holes (i waited for a school bus beside one such bullet-riddled Stop sign), poitín (moonshine) was popular as was whiskey, I went to stock-car races and demolition derbies, there was very little trust of "Dublin" (i.e. central government), and people worked hard and were (are) proudly self-sufficient. A compliment in rural Ireland is that someone is a "divil for work" [a devil for hard work, i.e. a hard worker]. Distrust of the "Dublin" government echoes the distrust here of the "Washington" government. When traveling in New Hampshire or West Virginia, I have thought "this feels like home". I mean, it literally even looks like home.

There is a religious aspect here too. But, I don't think it's as simple as people make out. Certainly, the Scots-Irish mostly come from a "low church" Presbyterian or evangelical background. They would be very much a product of the Reformation, very different from centralized, "big church" Catholicism. I'd definitely see the distrust of "big church" as sublimating into distrust of "big government", and I'm certainly not the first person to notice that. And, you can trace the thread of self-sufficiency, and the virtue of hard work (salvation through work, no predestination, etc). But, it's not so simple. In Ireland, where I grew up, the instincts for self-sufficiency and hard work stretched across the religious divide, it was not Protestant thing or a Catholic thing. I would attribute this to a number of factors: the hardscrabble life (everyone had to work hard), Saint Patrick's "Celtic Christianity" ("Christ beside me, Christ at my right hand" in Saint Patrick's Breastplate which we all learned at school) which talked about a personal relationship with God (no "big church"), the local influence of Protestantism, and the Irish (and Scottish) resentment at being told what to do. So, I'd argue that there is a lot of "Irish" in the Scots-Irish, and it should not only be seen in sectarian terms.

My own background includes the old Irish aristocracy who lost to the English at Kinsale, then lost large tracts of land to the Ulster Plantation. But it also includes people who moved to Ireland with the Scots-Irish hero (and probable homosexual) William of Orange, AKA "King Billy". One family legend is that we supplied King Billy with the white horse seen in paintings such as the portrait in the Bank of Ireland in College Green in Dublin. However, my family would be more "Anglo-Irish" than Scots-Irish. There are also French Hugenots thrown in for good measure (a story all of its own).

Like me, Ireland itself is a product of all those influences. In Ireland itself, there is a gradual acceptance of the "Scots-Irish" as being, well, Irish. Historically, the problem was that the land they were given in Ulster (the "Ulster Plantation") had been forcebly taken from Catholics (including the land of the old Irish aristocracy in places like Tyrone). That created grievances which have lasted to this day. Arguably, the conflict in Ireland was as much about land and freedom as religion. Indeed, Presbyterians fought alongside Catholics against the British in the Irish rebellion of 1798, not long after their co-religionists across the Atlantic had fought for freedom against the British in the US War of Independence.

Ireland now is moving on to include the "hillbilly" [the name itself means a follower of King Billy] Scots Irish in the definition of what it is to be Irish, through events like the opening of the Battle of the Boyne center which commemorates the famous victory by King Billy which is celebrated by Scots-Irish on the 12th of July.

And, indeed, the "hillbilly" Scots Irish are becoming part of the definition of what it is to be American, thanks to books like Jim Webb's "Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish shaped America".

Locally here in New England, the common definition of "Irish" seems to be all about more recent mostly Catholic Irish immigrants rather than the Scots-Irish who came before. It excludes people like John Stark, whose Scottish-born father first settled in Derry before sailing to America, whose special forces beat the British at the Battle of Bunker Hill in Boston, and who popularised the motto "Live Free or Die" which is New Hampshire's motto to this day. "Boston Irish" seems to apply exclusively to Catholic immigrants, whereas the Irish immigrants who came earlier now seem to be assimilated "non-hyphenated" Americans. Although, in another (good) way, it is often said that everyone is to some extent Irish in Boston, regardless of background.

Getting back to the main point, will these people decide the election?

Further reading: A great backgrounder on the Scots-Irish on Eric Stewart's Old Style Liberal Blog


And here is an extract from the Joe Bageant BBC article:

American ethos

The term redneck indicates a lifestyle and culture that can be found in every state in our union. The essentials of redneck culture were brought to America by what we call the Scots Irish, after first being shipped to the Ulster Plantation, where our, uh, remarkable cultural legacy can still be seen every 12 July in Ireland.

Ultimately, the Scots Irish have had more of an effect on the American ethos than any other immigrant group. Here are a few you will recognize:

  • Belief that no law is above God's law, not even the US Constitution.
  • Hyper patriotism. A fighting defence of native land, home and heart, even when it is not actually threatened: ie, Iraq, Panama, Grenada, Somalia, Cuba, Nicaragua, Vietnam, Haiti and dozens more with righteous operations titles such as Enduring Freedom, Restore Hope, and Just Cause.
  • A love of guns and tremendous respect for the warrior ideal. Along with this comes a strong sense of fealty and loyalty. Fealty to wartime leaders, whether it be FDR or George Bush.
  • Self effacement, humility. We are usually the butt of our own jokes, in an effort not to appear aloof among one another.
  • Belief that most things outside our own community and nation are inferior and threatening, that the world is jealous of the American lifestyle.
  • Personal pride in equality. No man, however rich or powerful, is better than me.
  • Perseverance and belief in hard work. If a man or a family is poor, it is because they did not work hard enough. God rewards those who work hard enough. So does the American system.
  • The only free country in the world is the United States, and the only reason we ever go to war is to protect that freedom.

All this has become so deeply instilled as to now be reflexive. It represents many of the worst traits in American culture and a few of the best.

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