Proud History of a Fighting Race

The News Letter (Belfast, Northern Ireland), October 26, 2004 | Go to article overview

Proud History of a Fighting Race


Byline: BILLY KENNEDY

News Letter journalist BILLY KENNEDY, author of eight books on the Scots-Irish (Ulster-Scots) in America, reviews a powerful book just released in the United States, which complements his own work and detailed research on the subject over the past decade

JAMES WEBB, distinguished Vietnam war marine and a Defense and Navy Secretary in the United States administration of President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, is a man with a mission.

He is intensely proud of his Scots-Irish (Ulster-Scots) roots in Virginia, Kentucky and Missouri and says he is determined to reclaim the dignity of these people - "for themselves, and for America. It's long overdue."

Mr Webb has been down the remains of the Great Wagon and Wilderness Roads to retrace his heritage and says it is in the Appalachians Mountains that "my people", the Scots-Irish, settled after leaving Ireland and the north of Britain in the 18th century.

"They tamed the wilderness, building simple log cabins and scraping corn patches in thin soil. And they pressed onward, creating a way of life that many would come to call, if not America, the defining fabric of the South and the mid-West, as well as the core character of the nation's working class," he said.

Mr Webb travels off the main highway in Virginia to seek out Alley Hollow. His Scots-Irish greatgreat grandparents are buried there in a rough patch of woods on top of a nearby mountain.

He said: "Like many others, these ancestors have only rocks for headstones. I worry that, when my generation dies, their heritage will be lost just as completely - buried under the avalanche of stories that have on occasion ridiculed my people and trivialised their journey. "They came with nothing and, for a complicated set of reasons, many of them still have nothing. Slurs stick to me, standing on these graves.

"These people are too often misconstrued and ignored when America's history is told. They did great things. And, in truth, the Scots-Irish (sometimes called the Scotch-Irish) are a force that still shapes our culture."

He says the Scots-Irish brought with them a strong, bottom-up individualism, largely inventing America's unique populist- style democracy.

"They gave us at least a dozen Presidents, beginning with Andrew Jackson and including Chester Alan Arthur, Ulysses S Grant, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and Ronald Reagan - through his mother.

"Their unique soldierly traditions formed the backbone of the country's military, particularly in the army and Marine Corps. In the Civil War, they formed the bulk of the Confederate army and a good part of the Union army as well. In the later wars, they provided many of our greatest generals and soldiers.

"Thomas Jonathan 'Stonewall' Jackson comes to mind, as do Ulysses S Grant, George S Patton, and a slew of army chiefs of staff and Marine Corps commandants.

"Not to mention Sergeant Alvin York, hero of World War One from Tennessee; Audie Murphy, the most decorated soldier of World War Two, and David Hackworth, one of America's most decorated veterans of Korea and Vietnam.

"The intense competitiveness that makes them good soldiers also produced a legion of memorable athletes, business leaders and even such American pastimes as NASCAR racing - which evolved from the exploits of the daring moonshine runners of the Appalachian Mountains during the prohibition years of the late 1920s. "They created and still dominate country music. Dolly Parton and Reba McEntire are Scots-Irish - which, along with jazz and soul, is one of the truly American musical forms. They gave us so many brilliant writers - Mark Twain, the lion among them; Horace Greely, Edgar Allan Poe and Margaret Mitchell not far behind, and Larry Mc-Murtry, a good honourable mention - that their style of folklore became one of the truest American art forms.

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