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  • Harry L. Watson

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Immigrants preparing to board a U.S.-bound ocean liner, Queenstown, County Cork, Ireland, ca. 1903

courtesy of the Collections of the Library of Congress

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Not long before adventurers sailing for the first Queen Elizabeth set out to colonize the land they would call Virginia, they rehearsed the sport of empire on another outpost in the western ocean. They fought its native tribes and seized their lands. Irked by the natives' stubborn resistance and their obdurate faith in a seemingly barbarous religion, the conquerors resettled the island with thousands of British newcomers who subdued the natives but eventually developed their own economic and political quarrels with the "mother country." Suffering spread through the island until millions of its people fled westward, many to the American South. But among those remaining behind, bitterness festered between the descendants of the original natives and the newcomers. Discrimination inspired a civil rights movement, followed by repression and abetted by indelible memories on either side. And as President Lincoln said, the war came.

The outpost was Ireland, and its history is replete with parallels to the experience of the American South. The differences are obvious too, most notably that Ireland's cultural conflicts are usually called "religious" rather than "racial." For many white southerners, however, the similarities overwhelm this difference and foster a special affinity between the people of both places. The first white inhabitants of huge swaths of the southern backcountry descended from the Scottish Presbyterians who earlier settled the Irish province of Ulster. In the middle of the eighteenth century, these "Ulster Scots" or "Scotch Irish" (as Americans called them) brought their fiddle tunes and whiskey, along with their farming methods and their reputations for pugnacity, down the "Great Wagon Road" leading from Pennsylvania to the Piedmont, building log cabins and establishing churches, family names, and cultural patterns that persist to this day. And Ireland and the South both experienced a tenant farm economy and exploitation by distant outsiders, feeding poverty and grievances whose memories do not fade. The white South and the Scots-Irish were both victims and victimizers, moreover, abusing Indians, blacks, and the Irish Catholic majority just as they were dominated by distant centers of power in their turn. Scots-Irish mythology has enjoyed a boom of late, starting perhaps with historian Grady McWhiney's celebration of the role of Britain's "Celtic fringe" in shaping the modern South, and then embracing Virginia Senator James Webb's portrait, Born Fighting: How the Scots Irish Shaped America.

Pushed to the extremes, of course, the historical parallels falter, for most Irish Americans did not become southerners. Most nineteenth-century Irish newcomers were Catholics who settled in the urban North, unlike their Protestant compatriots of the eighteenth-century southern frontier. Even these differences can be exaggerated, however, because, as we shall see, urban Irish workers played important roles in transmitting southern music to the American mainstream. Even so, the authors in this issue on Ireland and the South argue that the Irish left an outsized imprint on the cultures of the American South and forged a persistent [End Page 3]

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Economic colonization, agrarian folkways, religious piety, ruins, and rebellion: parallel themes in southern and Irish history seem intuitive, and politicians have linked them together occasionally. But the motivations for doing so, and the points of cultural divergence, are equally telling. "Round Tower" and "Cross of Monasterboice," County Louth, Ireland, ca. 1903

courtesy of the Collections of the Library of Congress

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In "Another 'Lost Cause': The Irish in the South Remember the Confederacy," David Gleeson shows how Irish immigrants, marginalized in North and South alike, populated both Union and Confederate all-Irish volunteer units. The Harrison's Landing, Virginia, contingent of the Irish Brigade, 1862

courtesy of the Collections of the Library of Congress.

affinity between Ireland and the South. Our guest editor, Bryan Giemza, has assembled essays for this special issue that thoroughly explore the reasons for that attraction.

Folklorist William R. Ferris starts us off by remembering his personal ties...


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