The sub-title of Karen F. McCarthy’s highly readable The Other Irish: The Scots-Irish Rascals Who Made America sums up the book’s tone and scope: “The Scots-Irish Rascals Who Made America.” This is a general introduction to the Scots-Irish contribution to the history and culture of the United States, with special attention to their role in shaping the South. As the author puts it in her Preface, “In the South, one can’t swing a muskrat without hitting a Scots-Irishman, but outside the South they are little known.” Indeed, one could make the case that the Scots-Irish, even in the South, where their influence has been greatest, are barely known even to themselves. This book will help remedy that.
If you’ve ever heard someone say the South is the way it is because of the Scots-Irish, you may have wondered, What made the Scots-Irish the way they are? In a chapter entitled, “The Invasion Of The Irish,” McCarthy presents a brief but emotionally engaging summary that will shed light on that question. Beginning in ancient times, the author relates how the warlike Dal Riata tribe raided, drank, and pillaged its way around Ireland and present-day Scotland. The Romans found them to be ungovernable. Later, the English fared somewhat better in establishing control over them, eventually dominating both Ireland and Scotland, though never able to turn them into profitable colonies. James I of England hit upon a plan that gave Scottish serfs lands in northern Ireland, which enabled the Scots to significantly better their lives, though the dispossessed Irish soon found themselves in poverty, which forced them to turn to their old raiding ways.
But by the early 1700s, the fortunes of the Scots-Irish reversed. The English Parliament placed restrictions on trade that burdened Ulster and favored England. As rents rose and Anglican policies supplanted Presbyterian forms of worship and governance, the New World beckoned, and hundreds of thousands heard the call. Once in America, the Scots-Irish reverted to their ancient ways, and adopted much of the dress of the Indians they encountered and fought. As McCarthy puts it, “This rapid transformation in appearance quickly set them apart from the wigs and buckles and frilly shirts of New England. Almost immediately the frontier revitalized the hunter-warrior encoding in their bloodline.”
Following her general history of the Scots-Irish, McCarthy presents notable Americans of Scots-Irish descent. The remaining chapters organize their stories by vocation, including religion, the military, politics, music, literature, the interlocking legends of moonshine and stock car racing, and even the Space Race.
And what characters you will meet. In addition to the ones you’d expect, such as Andrew Jackson, Edgar Allan Poe, and Junior Johnson, you’ll get to know other nation-building “rascals,” such as Colin Layne, William Campbell, William Tennent, and James E. Webb.
There’s a great deal to like about this book. The War of Northern Aggression is covered (and the author uses that name!) in the context of Stonewall Jackson’s tragic but inspirational life and career. Also, General William T. Sherman is characterized as “America’s incarnation of Oliver Cromwell,” whom McCarthy describes as “the most maniacal savage England produced.” Of the Scots-Irish in general, McCarthy makes this observation:
“They settled the frontier, intermarried with other migrants, imbued the national character with their own nature and values, and, arguably, became the most patriotic of all Americans. They provided American icons like Davy Crockett, literary giants from Mark Twain to Stephen King, American warriors from Sam Houston to George Patton. They invented NASCAR — the biggest spectator sport in America — and provided more than twenty presidents.”
In a heated moment when all things Southern are being not only vilified, but vigorously expunged from the national dialogue and even from the national history, it is encouraging to recall the essential role the South’s most definitive ethnic group played in this nation’s history. Even more heartening is this entertaining book’s reminder of what we, as a people, have bravely faced and mastered, and can still stubbornly endure.