The Irish in the South, 1815-1877

By Dougan, Michael B. | The Arkansas Historical Quarterly, Autumn 2002 | Go to article overview

The Irish in the South, 1815-1877


Dougan, Michael B., The Arkansas Historical Quarterly


The Irish in the South, 1815-1877. By David T. Gleeson. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001. Pp. xi, 296. Acknowledgments, introduction, illustrations, conclusion, appendix, notes, bibliography, index. $45.00, cloth; $19.95, paper.)

Ask a class of Arkansas students which of them has Irish ancestry and probably two-thirds will respond affirmatively. Yet the great bulk of the Irish did not come to the South, and only a small percentage of those could be found in Arkansas. How these numerous familial affiliations came about must remain, like the equally ubiquitous Cherokee grandmother, something of a mystery.

The first problem when it comes to tracing southerners' Irish roots is one of cultural identification. The northern counties of Ireland had become home to Protestant settlers of a largely Presbyterian orientation. These Scots Irish were among the first large group of settlers in the southern colonies, where their mercantile activities soon encompassed the whole South. A number of Arkansas merchants were of the second and third generations, but one later immigrant was druggist and, then, lawyer Patrick R. Cleburne, the great Confederate general.

By contrast, the Catholic Irish represented one of those suppressed nationalities among whom some 400 years of oppression had, in many cases, produced a cultural depravity manifested in drinking and fighting. While some of the less depraved came over before the potato famine years of the late 1840s, it was this latter group that largely defined the Irish in American life, producing a stereotype consisting of simian features and blatherskite speech.

In the North, the flood of immigrants led to persecution, parochial schools, and poverty. The South proved to be more welcoming to the few who came. Irish laborers found work on levees and railroads, and a large Irish laboring population could be found in New Orleans, Savannah, Charleston, and Memphis. The settlers who made their way into the hinterlands were rapidly integrated into southern life. Where the Irish lived in sufficient numbers to create a community, they supported the cause of Irish rights. Their rhetorical effusions on this score contrasted sharply with their pronounced support for slavery. …

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