‘Tis the month for celebrating being Irish. Saint Patrick’s Day, Green Beer, Shamrocks and the Dublin Irish Festival (Dublin, Ohio, that is). Until I went to Notre Dame for my undergraduate studies, Saint Patrick’s Day never meant much to me. Now I live near Dublin, Ohio, so I can’t help but think about Saint Patrick’s Day whenever it rolls around. Just today, we drove past a car dealership that had shamrock flags flapping in the wind…in case we didn’t remember Saint Patty’s Day is on the way.
When people ask me where my ancestors are from, I rarely think of Ireland. I usually say England, Germany and Kentucky. But the reality is that quite a few lines in my family tree come from Ireland. Shaws, from County Antrim; Wrights, from County Monaghan; Hollingsworths, from County Armagh; and no doubt others.
The complication–the reason for the question mark in the title of this post–is that these families probably weren’t really Irish. In all likelihood, all these families were Anglo-Irish. They were English families that had transplanted themselves–or been transplanted–to Ireland.
The history of every nation is filled with stories–immigrations, conquests, assimilations, disintegrations. Ireland’s seems particularly so. The Celts, the Vikings, the Normans, the English: all made their mark on Ireland’s history. True Gaelic culture is buried under layer upon layer of later history.
Of the various undulations of Irish history, the most interesting to me is the plantation movement–the transplanting of English and Scottish families to Ireland that occurred during the reign of the Tudors and the Stuarts in the 16th and 17th centuries. It was probably during these migrations that my Irish ancestors made their way from England or Scotland to Ireland.
The social, political and economic goals of these plantations were complex. The outcome has been relatively simple–a lot of unrest. The divisions between Protestant and Catholic, between Anglo-Irish and Gaelic-Irish persist to this day. The British Crown’s idea of diluting Irish culture with English families who would bring English culture and English loyalties never really worked.
Most of the settlers for these plantations came from northern England and Scotland. Many were farmers and working class people who needed land. The Crown promised that if they would go to Ireland, build defenses against the Irish rebels and remain loyal to the Crown, they would receive a good plot of land in return.
The offer of land was surely appealing, but the potential for a measure of religious independence was probably even more of a factor for many. Religious friction was rampant in 16th and 17th century Britain. The Reformation had unleashed a torrent of religious passion. Martin Luther’s movement to reform the Church had resulted in a fragmentation that left many different competing religious systems in its wake. Britain had not only Catholics, but also Anglicans and Dissenters of every stripe.
The Crown insisted that only Protestants could take part in the plantations. Ireland was already filled with Catholics and the Crown was trying to limit the power and influence of the Catholics, not encourage them. Many of those who chose to go to Ireland–far away from the Crown’s center of power–were Dissenters. These were people who accepted neither Catholicism nor organized, Anglican Protestantism. These were religious free spirits who wanted to practice their religion as far from secular control as possible.
Many of these Dissenters eventually embraced Quakerism, a style of Christianity founded and promoted by George Fox beginning in the 1640s. Albert Myers, in his monumental study called Immigration of the Irish Quakers into Pennsylvania, 1682-1750, suggests that “the converts to Quakerism in Ireland were drawn almost exclusively from the English and Scotch Protestants.” Since all my Irish ancestors were Quaker, it seems likely that my Irish ancestors are only partly Irish. They’re really English or Scottish.
Saint Patrick’s Day celebrations often focus on the aspects of Irish culture that derive from its Gaelic past. The Old Irish are known for being free in spirit, lyrical in language, mystical in religion and full of life. Among other things, they are known as master storytellers. That set of characteristics holds great appeal for me.
But the character of people who would decide to leave their homeland to go to Ireland, the wild frontier of the time, is appealing to me too. These settlers chose to do better for their families by accepting a gift of land in return for being willing to fight for the Crown. They showed courage and lived honorably.
So this Saint Patrick’s Day I’ll celebrate being Irish, even if only a little.