March 15, 2011

Down East Journal: Hyphenating an Irish past

Sam Smith

The estimable Brunswick Times Record recently published an interesting article about Maine's Irish immigrants who were so important in the creation of the state.

Except the paper didn't call them Irish, but rather Ulster-Scots.

Being part Irish Protestant myself, it's a problem with which I'm familiar. Even my own family members disparage their ancestors by referring to them as Scotch-Irish.

In fact, the early American ancestors of those who now call themselves Ulster-Scots or Scotch-Irish mostly described themselves as Irish. The modifiers were added in the late 19th century to create distance from poor Irish Catholic immigrants coming into the country in large numbers - and thus are a bit snotty and prejudiced.

Besides, those of us of Irish Protestant background shouldn't denigrate our contributions to both American and Irish culture, which include:

- Redefining St. Patrick's Day as a cause for bawdy celebration and not simply as a day of holy obligation.

- Founding important American support groups such as the Hibernians, the Friendly Sons of Saint Patrick, and Irish Aid societies

- Helping in the largely Protestant revolt of 1798. With two minor exceptions there would not be another Irish armed rebellion until the 20th century.

- Irish Protestant emigrants played a major role in the American Revolution and the revolution in turn influenced events in Ireland. For example, the first copy of the Declaration of Independence to be printed outside of North America appeared in the pages of the 'Belfast Newsletter.'

- Among the influences on Irish Protestants were the writings of Tom Paine. His 'Rights of Man' was declared "the Bible of Belfast.' 40,000 copies were sold in Ulster and it was reprinted in four Irish newspapers.

- Irish Protestant Thomas Addis Emmett, brother of 1798 uprising leader Robert Emmett, was captured and condemned but later won a reprieve. In 1804, a year after his brother was hung, he emigrated to America. He became the highly regarded attorney general of New York. Tom Paine liked him well enough to leave him $200 in his will.

- A 20th century Protestant fighter for the Irish cause, Erskine Childers, was executed on charges of possessing a small pistol after helping Eamon de Valera and other IRA members lead a rebellion against the Irish free state government. His son would become president of Ireland in the 1970s. In support of his father's execution, Winston Churchill said, "no man has done more harm or done more genuine malice or endeavored to bring a greater curse upon the common people of Ireland than this strange being."

- Although he would later become far more conservative, Protestant poet WB Yeats as a young man was a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood. An 1899 police report called him as "more or less revolutionary."

- Yeats said of Irish Protestants during a 1925 Senate debate on divorce, "We . . . are no petty people. We are one of the great stocks of Europe. We are the people of Burke; we are the people of Swift, the people of Emmet, the people of Parnell. We have created most of the modern literature of this country. We have created the best of its political intelligence."

Why would anyone want to dilute such a history with mere Scottish blarney?

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