Scots-Irish were Presbyterians by Covenant and by Law

The Scots-Irish were Presbyterians by Covenant and by Law–As savvy researchers, you already know that the term Scots-Irish (Scotch-Irish used by most people) is an American designation. Before they arrived here, they were called Ulster Irish, and before that Ulster-Scots. And indeed, many of the more than 250,000 who emigrated to America between 1717 and 1790, considered themselves to be Irish.  And called themselves Irish in their first records in America.

The January-February, 2008 issue of Ancestry was a special research issue featuring “12 Superheroes to the Rescue!” The section on the Scots-Irish discussed common genealogy research misconceptions about them:

Misconception #1–All Scots-Irish were Catholics. Ulster Irish were predominantly Catholic. Scottish immigrants to the area were invariably Presbyterians, while the English were invariably members of the Church of England. Intermarriage occurred as the years passed, but the Irish partner often became absorbed into a Presbyterian congregation.

Actually, all of these sentences are misleading. Let’s look at them one at a time, so you can spot the misconceptions not fully addressed.

  1. Ulster-Irish were predominantly Catholic.  All Ireland was predominantly Roman Catholic before the Plantation system began to be imposed.  Once Queen Elizabeth took the throne in England, she imposed the Protestant faith throughout her Kingdom–which included Ireland.

    “I will make no windows into men’s souls,” she proclaimed.  “As long as you outwardly conform, you may believe whatever you like in your heart.  But, you will conform.”

  2. The Scots-Irish were Presbyterians by Covenant and by Scottish law.  The method chosen to force conformity in Ireland was the Plantation:  transplanting Protestants from England and Scotland to run local governments. The Scots-Irish were Presbyterians by Covenant and by Scottish law. The first Protestant settlement was made by law in 1560. And as occurred in England at the same time, the government swung back and forth between the old church and the new settlement as the strength of the monarchy shifted. Catholic France was a strong influence in both kingdoms and their kings were persuaded by their wives to be lenient. In 1603, the two crowns were joined as James VI of Scotland became James I of England. This whole history is complicated and of great trial to the Protestant Covenanters in both Scotland and Ireland.
  3. Scottish immigrants to the area were almost invariably Presbyterians–Scottish migration back and forth between Scotland and Ireland was a very old trend. Many family naming patterns included Scottish variants when they lived in Scotland and Irish naming variants when they lived in Ireland. Elizabeth I planted Protestant colonies in Ireland during her reign. These colonies were not really successful. She also encouraged loyal retainers in southern Scotland, like James Hamilton and Hugh Montgomery, to plant their own private colonies. And these settlements were more successful–and these Scottish settlers were almost invariably Presbyterian in their worship.  Later plantations in Ulster and other parts of Ireland transplanted Scots and English Protestants. The Scots were still Presbyterian when they left for America; the English were Anglicans, Presbyterian converts, and Church of Ireland.
  4. In Ireland, the English settlers who were planted under Elizabeth I and later monarchs, were Protestants (many were Anglicans) and required to be members of the Church of Ireland by law. The Roman Catholic faith, which a majority of native Irish followed, was banned at pain of death. These English settlers, when they moved to America (and many of them did), were Protestants and they often deserted the Anglican faith almost when they stepped on the shore. They were only Anglican and expedient members of the Church of Ireland to receive lands in Ireland. Once in America they became Presbyterians, Methodists, and very shortly Baptists and Quakers.
  5. Intermarriage occurred as the years passed, but the Irish partner often became absorbed into a Presbyterian congregation. This of all the sentences referenced above, is the most dangerous–if you are tracing your ancestry through Ireland on the way back to Scotland and England. Because: in most areas of Ireland, it has already been proven that the Presbyterian Covenanters did not usually marry the Catholic Irish. Nor did they look kindly on them after hundreds of years. Where the intermarriage lurks is in the already mingled families–where the blood lines had been merged for centuries of time: Scots and Irish had served as subtenants on the same farms and served side-by-side in the same militia units over time—these are the ones who had intermarried, not those who were recently planted.
  6. Intermarriage between the Catholic Irish and the English within the Pale–the area immediately around Dublin–was banned by law for many generations. In 1610, the law was lifted.

For a more balanced and interesting discussion, see James G. Leyburn, “Intermarriage with the Irish,” The Scotch-Irish: A Social History (Chapel Hill NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1962). This is an older and very good history of who the Scots-Irish were and how they came to be.  Leyburn’s conclusion:  If one must give his verdict, the weight of evidence seems to be on the side of little intermixture. The Scotch-Irish, as they came to be known in America, were overwhelmingly Scottish in ancestry and Presbyterian in faith. To the extent that occasional intermarriage occurred, the Irish partner seems almost invariably to have been absorbed into the Presbyterian element.

Your favorite genealogist, Arlene Eakle

PS  Keep adding these peoples to your checklist.  After a few more episodes, I will share my checklist with you and discuss the significance of knowing, in advance of focused research, what the Scots-Irish meant when they said, “We are a mixed people.”

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