Wearing orange on St. Patrick’s Day might provoke a serious fight in some neighborhoods, but in the American South, and in particular East Tennessee, the color orange should invoke a sense of history and pride that has nothing to do with a love of football.
The “orange Irish” from Northern Ireland were also known as the Scotch-Irish or Scots-Irish. They have also been called Ulster-Scots, Ulstermen, Northerners, Ulster Protestants, Presbyterians and Unionists.
The orange band on the tricolored Irish flag represents the country’s Irish Protestants, while the green band represents the Irish Catholics. The white band that separates the orange and the green stands for a hope for peace between the two groups of countrymen.
It has been estimated that more than 200,000 Scotch-Irish migrated to the Americas between 1717 and 1775, and many found their way to the hilly frontiers of southern Appalachia.
Writer and documentary filmmaker Karen F. McCarthy has written a book about these fiercely independent “rascals” and, like many of the early settlers before her, made the journey from Ireland to the Tennessee Valley to find and follow their stories.
McCarthy’s book is called “The Other Irish: The Scots-Irish Rascals Who Made America,” and it joins other similarly themed projects that draw attention to this lesser-known history of an unsung group of immigrants, who are also credited with helping shape America’s values and independent spirit.
Even President Theodore Roosevelt, in his book “The Winning of the West,” spoke highly of Scots-Irish accomplishments in the settlement of America, according to tennesseehistory.com.
In the book’s preface, McCarthy writes, “One can’t swing a muskrat without hitting a Scots-Irishman, but outside the South they are little known. While ‘Irish’ became synonymous with Irish Catholic, these ‘Scots-Irish’ remained proud, independent-minded, self-reliant Presbyterians.”
McCarthy said the values of the Scots-Irish are still prevalent in the South today, especially when it comes to Southerners’ commitment to self-reliance, the freedom to work and worship, a desire for smaller government and generally conservative politics.
While researching for the book and tracking down sources for interviews, McCarthy said she discovered a cast of characters with incredible stories that read like historical fiction.
“One rarely gets told of the orange Irish. These are fantastic characters,” McCarthy said.
To get a sense of what early frontier life may have been like for them, McCarthy said she spent time hunting in the backwoods of Sequatchie County, retracing steps of the frontiersmen. While in Chattanooga, she spent a cold and snowy week of winter in a tiny cabin aboard the Delta Queen Riverboat.
“If I was to get any sense of these hardy folks, I needed to stay on the river,” she said. She also took back road routes between interview destinations around several Southern states to put herself inside what the mountainous journey might have been like for these early Irish-Americans.
Although few may be familiar with this “other Irish” and their contributions to American culture, McCarthy said that “this wild bunch of patriotic, rebellious, fervently religious rascals gave us the NRA, at least 14 presidents, decisive victories in the Revolutionary War, a third of today’s U.S. military, country music, ‘Star Wars,’ the Munchkins … and American-style democracy.”
Updated @ 12:17 p.m. on 03/17/12 for clarity.