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Book Review - Born Fighting


This is a fascinating and highly readable history of the so-called Scots-Irish (otherwise termed Ulster Scots) by a former US Assistant Secretary of Defence, James Webb. The author proudly identifies with the Scots-Irish, albeit with some names like Doyle, Connolly and Murphy also in his ancestral tree and includes an autobiographical element set against the historical background.

He traces their ancestry back to the Celtic inhabitants of Southern Scotland and the Borders region. Historically, people of this area would have spoken a Celtic language akin to Welsh rather than Gaelic. Webb describes this as “Braveheart Country”. Its inhabitants had fought numerous battles over the centuries against invading English armies and were well accustomed to armed conflict and hardship. While the author does not dwell on it, this region also included the territory of the “Riding Clans” or Border Reivers” (described by McDonald Fraser in his book “Steel Bonnets”) who survived on barren soil essentially on the spoils from raiding southwards into England. These clans were “broken” by the Scottish James VI, when he became James I of England. Many members of these broken clans subsequently migrated to Ulster, as evidenced from extant family names, especially numerous in Fermanagh and Tyrone.

The “official” Ulster Plantation, which occurred when the O’Neill, O’Donnell, Maguire and other northern princes fled to the Continent in 1607, was less instrumental in changing the mix of the Ulster population than a private plantation dating from 1603. This began, when two Scots lairds from Ayreshire (Hamilton and Montgomery ) “persuaded” an imprisoned Con O’Neill to sell them a large tract of his land, as a condition for their help in having him liberated. This enabled them to bring over tenants to work the land. Those who migrated were essentially poor landless Scots, who thereafter never achieved ownership of the land which they worked in Ulster. Subsequently, various stratagems were used to deprive many of the remaining native Irish chieftains of their lands and the tide of Scottish settlers continued to flow in. The objective of the “official” plantation was to have half English and half Scottish settlers in Ulster, but this was never achieved. Moreover, many of those English who did come, subsequently left, particularly at the period of the 1641 Rebellion.

The “jewel in the crown” of Scots Ulster folklore is of course the Siege of Derry in 1689 and Webb cites the “No Surrender” slogan as typifying their stubbornness of character. It is of interest to note here that to this day the spot in Derry, where the (poorly armed) Jacobite regiment of Colonel Charles Cavanagh (Clonmullen/Carrickduff) was encamped, can still be pointed out. An ancestor of my own and his brother were among the besieging ranks; they never made it back home to Wexford, settling down instead near Derry after one brother fell seriously ill just as their regiment was departing southwards.

The Ulster Scots were Calvinists and suffered from persecution and discriminatory laws at the hands of the Anglican establishment, like their Catholic neighbours. In particular, the introduction of the Test Act of 1703 left them with a sense of betrayal following their support for the Williamite cause. This Act required all office holders in Ireland to be Anglican, eliminated the legitimacy of Presbyterian ministers, forbade Dissenters to teach school, or hold even minor government positions or serve as officers in the militia. Discriminatory laws, combined with periodic economic downturns, drove many to emigrate to the American colonies from 1717 onwards. The kinship which bound the Scots-Irish culture allowed whole families to emigrate and establish themselves in America as a clan. It is estimated that between 1760 and 1775 some 55 000 Ulster people went to America. Although the emigration included some Ulster Catholics, the vast majority were Scots-Irish. From this point onwards, the author concentrates on their enormous impact on American culture and way of life.

Webb points out that their fellow Calvinist Puritans would have nothing to do with “those confounded Irish” because of their hard drinking habits, their lack of respect for hierarchical authority, their love of music and merriment and unpuritanical sexual behaviour. As a result, the Scots-Irish headed for the mountainous areas in Pennsylvania (where they named a town Donegal) and then into the Appalachians and down into the Southern States.

They carried with them a burning resentment of English misrule in Ireland and, as a consequence, the Scots-Irish formed a major part (at least a third and perhaps as much as half) of Washington’s army. At a crucial stage of the war when the British felt they were winning, an army of irregular Scots-Irish militiamen, using frontier tactics, destroyed a Loyalist army commanded by a Major Ferguson at King’s Mountain. Ironically some newly arrived Highland immigrants, who had suffered most from royalty back home in Scotland, took the Loyalist side in the war.

The Appalachian Hillbillies were Scots-Irish who developed country music from their own traditional sources. They were also the frontiersmen who saw no reason why they should not seize “unused land” from the Indians, with whom they fiercely fought and occasionally intermarried (A friend’s wife who is of Iroquois origin told me that when they have a tribal gathering, the Indians with reddish hair and pale complexions are known as “the Irish”). Davy Crockett, Daniel Boone, Kit Carson and Sam Houston were all Scots-Irish.

The author goes on to point out that the percentage of the Southern US population who were slave owners was tiny. The Civil War was essentially a clash of interests between a growing industrial north and a very rural south and the right to retain slaves was of little importance to the most of those (heavily Scots-Irish) who fought in the Confederate ranks. According to the author, the Confederate soldiers fought out of Celtic-style loyalty in support of their kith and kin against the Northern Yankees. Of course there were Scots- Irish on both sides in this horrific war, but the Scots-Irish were predominantly on the southern side. The author points out that the Confederate flag incorporates the cross of St. Andrew and that the legendary Confederate General Patrick Cleburne was Irish-born. In more recent times, Scots-Irish descendants who changed from Presbyterianism to becoming Baptists and Methodists, sowed the seeds for the emergence of the Bible Belt.

Some thirteen American presidents, starting with “Old Hickory” Andrew Jackson were of Scots-Irish origin. The author singles out Jackson (first elected President in 1828), of an Ulster father and fiercely anti-British Presbyterian mother, as a typical unyielding Scots-Irish fighter, who defeated the British at New Orleans in 1815 and waged bloody war on the Indians. His entire career from Revolutionary War child soldier to “facer down” of the Southern anti-tariff lobby (led by a Scots-Irish Calhoun) was a long series of battles. Both Teddy Roosevelt and Ronald Regan had Scots-Irish blood from their maternal side.

The final chapters of the book are autobiographical and reveal the hurt of a decorated Vietnamese war veteran at the attitudes of many of those in the New England area to him on his return.

In summary, the author portrays a stubborn, fun loving, hardy, fighting people who distrusted Big Government and have strongly influenced the “self reliance” attitude of the US. They were traditionally non-intellectual, not given much to book learning and in religious matters the Scottish kirk was organised along democratic lines and they had no time for any hierarchy. The author remarks that the power of Scots-Irish culture derives from its insistence on the dignity of the individual in the face of power, regardless of ones place or rank in society. It should also be said that when an unintellectual approach and stubbornness are combined with a belief in ones own God-given righteousness, it can sometimes have unhappy consequences.

The author reckons that perhaps half of the 40 million or so Americans who indicate Irish origin are in fact Scots-Irish. However, the Scots-Irish have long since regarded themselves as part of mainstream America and have never organised themselves ethnically in the same way as the “Catholic” Irish.

This is a fascinating book which gives some valuable insights into the background of a major element of the US population, which has made an immense contribution to US life and culture. It also provides some valuable insights into the way of thinking of many of those who “stayed behind” in Northern Ireland.

Born Fighting : How the Scots-Irish Shaped America
James Webb.
Broadway Books,  NY.
ISBN 0-7679-1688-3



Cathal Cavanagh - Clann Member