Kennedy: Scots-Irish roots run deep in the South

Kennedy: Scots-Irish roots run deep in the South

March 18th, 2012 by Mark Kennedy in Life Entertainment

Country music, stock-car racing, serpent handling and moonshining all flow from the same mother culture.

They are all Southern traditions we owe to the Scots-Irish immigrants who populated the American South more than 200 years ago, according to Irish journalist Karen F. McCarthy.

McCarthy spent months in the South, including several days in Chattanooga, doing research for a new book, "The Other Irish: The Scots-Irish Rascals Who Made America" (Sterling, $25).

The book is illuminating. It suggests that many of our Southern impulses -- "rascals" is an apt word -- are actually linked to the DNA of the estimated 250,000 free-spirited Scots-Irish immigrants who came to America beginning in the 1700s.

McCarthy was in Chattanooga last week as a guest of David Crockett, director of Chattanooga's Office of Sustainability and a central character in a chapter about the frontier tradition of gun ownership in the book.

Crockett, who is related to the famous Scots-Irish frontiersman Davy Crockett, took McCarthy into the woods with some of his buddies to show her how to spot wild turkey and shoot a musket.

In an interview, McCarthy said that the traditions and temperament of the Scots-Irish immigrants who flooded the Appalachian Mountain region from the 1700s onward are more than mere influences on today's South; they are the embodiment of the culture.

"People are not aware of the extent of the influence of the Scots-Irish on Southern icons," she said.

Most of the Scots-Irish who settled in Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee and throughout the Deep South were Protestants, specifically Presbyterians, who fled the Ulster region of Northern Ireland, McCarthy reports. (The later, more well-documented waves of Irish-American immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries were mostly made up of Irish Catholics who remained clustered in large American cities along the East Coast, McCarthy notes.)

The earlier Scots-Irish immigrants who filtered into the South were from the stock of former Scottish peasants who had been lured to the Ulster region of Ireland by the English monarch King James, who was seeking to dilute the ranks of the Irish by populating the country with Scottish planters, McCarthy writes.

Eventually, these so-called Ulster-Scots tired of Anglican Church influences and their own flagging linen trade. Some of them sailed aboard squalid ships to America seeking religious freedom and economic opportunities. Many, too poor to pay for their passage, agreed to be indentured servants for years after their arrival here, McCarthy writes, a type of near-slavery that is scarcely noted in American history today.

Many of the Scots-Irish died of starvation and illness while sailing the Atlantic, and those who made it to America were pushed to the undeveloped border regions.

From their ranks came such towering American personalities as Davy Crockett, Andrew Jackson, Mark Twain, William Faulkner and George S. Patton. Today, about 3.5 million Americans identify themselves by Scots-Irish ancestry, McCarthy notes.

McCarthy came to the South to find descendants of the "proud, independent minded, self-reliant" people who set sail from Ulster centuries ago.

Along her journeys she interviewed Junior Johnson, one of the godfathers of stock-car racing. Racing in the South was popularized by moonshine runners, who were the descendants of Scots-Irish whisky makers.

She profiled James E. Webb, the former U.S. senator from Virginia who has written about the role of the Scots-Irish tradition in the American military.

There are also chapters on religion, politics, music, slavery and more, along with rich stories about the people McCarthy met and researched.

While in Dixie, McCarthy said, she found that people were trusting once they determined that "I wasn't a Yankee." She also said she followed someone's sensible advice to avoid the word "hillbilly" while she was here.

Her book is a must-read for those who love the South enough to look beyond Civil War history to understand the real heartbeat of a culture.