Tuesday, December 12, 2017

No Scotch-Irish need apply (Welcome to New England & Philadelphia)

05b Jonathan Dickinson Shipwreck S 1

Yes, the title of this post is a deliberate rework of the infamous mid-1800s slogan which was aimed at Irish immigrants fleeing famine for what they thought was refuge in either Britain or America*. The more I read about the first waves of Ulster-Scots / Scotch-Irish migration into New England over a century earlier, from 1718 onwards, a similar slogan could easily have been applied to them as well. And maybe was, but just hasn’t been recorded for us. The era was different, the context was different, but the human experience seems to have been pretty much the same.

Those first Ulster-Scots emigrants faced sectarianism from those whom they might have regarded as fellow Non-Conformists, class discrimination from an √©lite establishment who had previously indicated a welcome, and commercial exploitation due to the local grain supplies being bought up by New Englanders just before the arrival of the Ulster families, which almost doubled the market prices (see here). They were outcasts from the beginning.

The Quakers from Philadelphia were shocked and scandalised by the clothing they wore as the ships landed, or in the case of the Ulster-Scots women, didn’t wear: "full bodices, tight waists, bare legs and skirts scandalously short". Well that’s what poverty and the quest for survival during two months starving at sea during the summer does to the dignity of once-modest, once-muscular, country Presbyterian women. It's life or death and they have no plans for dying just yet. You get a sense from that particular account of the disgust and social disdain which their new 'superiors' had for them.

For the emigrants it must have felt like ‘meet the new boss, same as the old boss'.

This all goes against the grain of the many of the old-fashioned ‘heroic narratives’ of say the past 100+ years, when hagiographies were being fervently penned, of people stepping purposefully ashore and conquering all in front of them and constructing the greatest nation the world has ever seen.

But we have to be careful here too, as this now plays too easily into our present era’s fixation upon ‘victimhood’ – which is actually faux victimhood – where to be a victim (or even a descendant of a perceived victim group) is not only fashionable but it also secures a privileged status in what has been called the ‘Oppression Olympics’. As the adverts ask, “Suffered an injury? You may be entitled to compensation”. Nowadays that injury might just be hurt feelings. The compensation is that you get a seat at the big table. Victimhood = entitlement = power. Even perpetrators have learned to present themselves as victims. That’s how warped our era is.

I am certain they were hard done by. I am also certain they were instilled with a fair amount of ‘No Surrender’ given their experiences from the Siege of Derry and of the post-1702 ‘establishment' in Ulster.

In his oft-quoted letters of 1718 & 1719Jonathan Dickinson, the Philadelphia Quaker hinted at above, could see that too:

“a swarm of people … the speech of these people was English, but they spoke with a lilting cadence that rang strangely in the ear … but even in their poverty they carried themselves with a fierce and stubborn pride that warned others to treat them with respect’.

That "strange, lilting cadence" was of course Scots, or Ulster-Scots, words, expressions and language.

So what had they left behind? In 1928, in a Northern Whig article entitled 'Education In the United States: Ulster’s Contribution’, Dr John S. MacIntosh wrote that leading up to the emigrations of 1718, Ulster Presbyterians had suffered ‘Five Wrongs’ at home:

- wronged by the State
- wronged by the Church
- wronged in the home (by landlords and bishops)
- wronged in trade (rising taxation)
- wronged in death (denied recognition of burials and graves) 

It’s not a case of comparing oppressions - either with the later ‘Famine Irish’ or with any other group - but rather a recognition that human history repeats its experiences over and again, both the good ones and the bad ones. We are all very much the same. Our stories are very similar.

PS: This article from the New England Historical Society helps explain more


* In 2002, the famous slogan was claimed by an academic to have been a myth, but in 2015, largely thanks to digitised newspaper research, his claim was proven to have been demonstrably false by a smart, highly dedicated 14 year old student (article here).