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Scots-Irish in Appalachia
By Scott Nicholson

The Scots-Irish heritage celebrated in the Appalachian mountains often seems heavier on the Scots than the Irish, but Ireland had its share of influence on the culture that goes beyond kilts and bagpipes.


The Scots-Irish that settled in the region came here partly as a result of English political and religious domination, as the Scots were "imported" to the Northern Ireland province of Ulster to help tame some of the rebellious spirit of the Irish. The Presbyterian denomination, as well as the Roman Catholic Church, often clashed with the Anglican Church of England, and the echoes of that conflict still rage today between Protestant and Catholic Irish.

As Presbyterians were pushed out of government power, they began looking for religious freedom, and American offered a fresh start both spiritually and economically.

Billy Kennedy, author of several books on the Scots-Irish migration to the New World, estimates that quarter million Scots-Irish came to America from the early 1700’s through the Revolutionary War. A famine in Ireland around 1740 also caused an immigration push.

Upon landing in the New World, the Scots-Irish found the English colonial government here just as unpalatable as they had in their homeland, so they often pushed from Pennsylvania into new territories beyond British influence. The sparsely-settled Southern Appalachians served this purpose well, and there may have been another instinctive factor in the decision. Some geologic evidence suggests that Appalachia is part of an ancient mountain chain that runs through the northern United Kingdom.

"Scots-Irish" was also used as a term to help differentiate those from the Ulster province from Irish Catholics who came from other parts of Ireland. The Scots-Irish had a rather severe and stubborn reputation, and church and education were heavily entwined.

Their brand of Protestantism served as the foundation for the Baptist and Methodist faiths of today, though they brought a talent for making corn whiskey to go along with their distaste for government, which lives on in the unfortunate stereotype of the paranoid hillbilly.

Ireland also lent its lingual influence to the region, and the Irish word "seisiun" lives on in American English as "session," a term for a musical gathering.

Other words that have Irish roots are "galore" (go leor in Irish, meaning "enough" or "plenty"), "shanty" (sean tigh, meaning "old house"), "slob" (slaba, meaning "mud"), "slew" (sluagh, meaning "host, army, or crowd"), "smithereens" (smidirini, meaning "small pieces"), and "whiskey" (uisce beatha, meaning "water of life").

According to linguist Lorien Hightale, a lot of mountain vernacular comes from Gaelic and Celtic roots. Examples include the use of "what" in place of "that," as in "He’s the man what went to church."

Another is the use of "on" to demark the bestowing of emotions, as in "She was loving on that boy."

For those of us who are sometimes grammatically incorrect, we can lay some "blame" on the Scots-Irish influence, as in the use of "Who with?" instead of the formal "With whom?"

Hightale said there is no word for "only" in Gaelic, so "There is not but one" or "There ain’t but one" are ways to get around saying "There is only one."

Similarly, "I’m a-fixin’ to milk the cow" has its roots in "fix" as a Gaelic synonym for "do" or "make" and "a-going" is from the phrase "ag dul."

Of course, music is the area most often recognized for providing a Celtic influence that continues to this day. Ballads and hymns from the church were popular because they could be sung without accompaniment.

The Irish are often associated with the harp, but that sophisticated and expensive instrument was often limited to the ruling classes that were allied with England. Penny whistles and bagpipes were native to Scotland and Ireland, but neither made a major impact on Appalachian music.

However, the fiddle does play a prominent role both historically and currently, as well as the lilting Appalachian style that has its foundation in the Irish and Scottish reels. In truth, Appalachian music is a blend of a number of influences, including the African-American banjo and the European guitar.

While you won’t find many leprechauns popping out of hollow tree stumps, if you listen closely, you’ll hear plenty of the sounds of old Ireland in these hills.

(Copyright 2003 by Scott Nicholson)

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