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Ulster-Scots Myth and Ethnicity

By Linda Merle

We do not use the word myth to describe something that is not true. It is true! It is a story that is bigger than life, like George Washington and the apple tree. It describes American values. This page describes some elements of what gives -- and gave -- the Ulster Scot his identity. As he moved from Scotland to Ireland -- or as he, a native Irishman, assimilated with his neighbors in Ireland, these myths formed his identity:

  • Presbyterianism is the best form of church organization -- and the rest are all going to hell!

  • King William of Orange is a hero.

  • The right side won at the Battle of the Boyne.

  • The loyal folks were inside at the Siege of Derry and the rebels were outside.

  • Reading and writing, especially reading the Bible, is really important.

  • We struggle, like the Israelites of old, a chosen people, living in a Promised Land inhabited by godless races (English, Irish and anyone else who comes along).

  • We descend from the Scottish Covenantors.

These myths identified the ethnic group Ulster Scots. Many had only recently migrated from Scotland to Ireland when the definitive events of the Seventeenth Century occurred that created a new people or ethnic group -- because they underwent experiences in Ireland that their brothers and cousins who remained in Scotland did not.

Their unique experience meant that they would not, like their Scottish relatives, be attracted to Jacobitism in the Eighteenth Century. Neither would they be able to maintain both a Scottish identity and the Catholic religion. They believed their culture, their religion, and their way of life was superior to that of their Irish neighbors, just as their children, in moving to the American colonies, would believe their culture superior to that of the Indians. Of course, everyone believes their culture is superior to everyone else's.

Scotch-Irish Myth

When we came to colonial America, we often forgot the old myths within a generation or two, though my grandfather, whose ancestors left Ireland by 1820, often spoke of the Siege of Derry. Though I have not been able to prove that we were at the Siege, he did have an ancestor who was an officer in King William's Army at the Battle of the Boyne -- but we'd forgotten that!

The Scotch-Irish and Ulster Scot myth is very much the myth of a minority -- a spiritually pure, separate people, not only battling other peoples but battling spiritual evil as well for their salvation. Though few in number, they won at the Siege of Derry and Enniskillen. Later, their descendents wrestled a continent from the Indians against tremendous odds. We like high odds!

See The Siege of Derry

Though life is more complex than myth! The Lord of Antrim -- and his Redshanks -- were Scottish Catholics, not Irish! The Official Pages. AND there were Catholic Scots undertakers who brought Catholic Scots to their Ulster plantations.

See The Men of Enniskillen

I looked in vain for factual websites on the 1641 Rising. You find mostly a politicized nationalist version on the web. I guess you'll just have to read Ulster 1641: Aspects of the Rising, edited by Brian Mac Cuarta, SJ. (Queens, Belfast, Northern Ireland). Modern Catholic scholars find little contemporary evidence to support the notion of a long term conspiracy. At least some of the "Risers" believed that they were rising in defence of King Charles against the Parliamentarians. As such, they got suckered into the British Civil War. The Rising was used by the Parliamentarian press to foment fear and hatred in England against both Charles and the Irish. Many Protestants were murdered, some brutally, as with too many events in Ireland, participants on both sides descended into animalistic states. Some people were killed in Antrim because apparently they were McDonald tenants who made the mistake of using Gaelic when communicating with Monroe's army. It was full of Campbells.

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