Derry-do on the frontier [The Scotch-Irish in America]

Republished by on September 25, 2003

The Times
November 8, 1986

NEW YORK–What do they know of
English who only

The Story of English
know? Well, not that much,
really. The companion volume to the

television series
being shown simultaneously in
Britain and here in America is pretty simpleminded,
albeit entertaining. But it does have one real, if
inadvertent merit: it demonstrates how the past history
of the New World can illuminate the present politics of
the Old. In particular, it supplies the transatlantic
dimension of a small nation whose virtues and very
existence are fashionably ignored – the Protestants of
Ulster, known to

historians of American immigration
as the
`Scotch-Irish. `

That The Story of English
features the achievements of the Scotch-Irish so
prominently is a comment on their magnitude. The book –
by Robert McCrum, William Cran and Robert MacNeil – is
in other respects a faithful reflection of the
ultra-fashionable television mind. Its political
liberalism renders it unwilling to contemplate the
possibility that some regional and ethnic varieties of
English may just be degenerations, rather than laudable
expressions of linguistic anti-colonialism. It is so
eager to emphasize the influence of black dialect on the
English spoken by whites in the American South that it
fails to mention the curious fact that, notwithstanding
centuries of such influence, black and white Southerners
can still instantly identify each other`s race, because
their accents remain quite distinct.

Some traces of this attitude affect
the treatment of the Scotch-Irish. Their story begins,
of course, with the 200,000 Scots sent to Ireland by
James I in the early 17th century to settle confiscated
rebel lands. The authors of The Story of English
quip that `when they landed in Ulster they fell on
their knees and prayed to the Lord – and then they fell
on the natives and preyed on them. `
They admit that
the new settlers` industry transformed the province,
formerly the most backward in Ireland. But, they say
disdainfully, the settlers` were hard, mean and
generally uncouth: `they are said to have short arms and
deep pockets. `
It may be doubted that any
television type would care to apply such rude
characterizations to the very similar group of settlers
who created modern Israel.

Nevertheless, The Story of
is absolutely right to focus attention on
the next act in the Scotch-Irish saga: the migration of
some two million to the New World. This began after they
had already developed into a unique cultural community,
speaking an English that included archaic Scots and more
recent Irish.

American settlement patterns are
surprisingly stable. The Scotch-Irish still predominate
in many areas of Pennsylvania, the hinterland of their
great entry port of Philadelphia. `At the time we
were apprehensive from the Northern Indians,
` wrote
one colonial official. `I therefore thought it
prudent to plant a settlement of such men as those who
had formerly so bravely defended Londonderry and
Enniskillen as a frontier against any disturbance. `

The result in this case was the town of Donegal, near
Pittsburgh. Later, echoing many subsequent British
governments, the same official was having second
thoughts: `A settlement of five families from the
North of Ireland gives me more trouble than fifty of any
other people. `

However irritating this
Scotch-Irish pugnaciousness, it was decisive in winning
a continent for the English language. As Theodore

, the Scotch-Irish `became the kernel of the
distinctively and intensely American stock who were the
pioneers of our people in their march westward. `

Pouring through the Cumberland Gap, the Scotch-Irish
settled the whole Appalachian region. A later generation
became the

`Mountain Men
` who opened up the Rockies, and
provided most of the troops who died at the Alamo with
Davy Crockett, himself of Scotch-Irish descent, while

Texas from Mexico.

The legendary American frontiersmen
with their long rifles and coonskin caps were
Scotch-Irish. Their ballads formed the basis of modern
Country & Western music. And their language profoundly
affected American English, the most famous example,
perhaps, being the use of the Irish `cabin` to describe
the log houses universal on the frontier. Today,
according to The Story of English, an incredible
20 million Americans can claim Scotch-Irish ancestry.

In the Old World, the Scotch-Irish
have sometimes recently seemed literally more royalist
than the Queen. But in the New World, they formed the
backbone of George Washington`s army and provided at
least five signatories of the Declaration of

Ironically, in

contemporary Ulster,
the Scotch-Irish community is
in effect bound and gagged, deprived of any democratic
ability to influence its future, clearly in mortal
danger of being handed over to its hereditary Irish foe.
It was an American president of Scotch-Irish descent,
Woodrow Wilson, who introduced the world to the
principle of self-determination. On the evidence of
The Story of English
, self-determination in this
context would reveal that there are not one but two
nations in Ireland. 

The author is a senior editor of
Forbes magazine in New York.

published in England, spelling and grammar vary slightly
from American style.]