Think the luck of the Irish is reserved for our blustery neighbors to the North? You may want to think again. Though you may be hard-pressed to find many cities as ostentatiously Irish as Boston or Philadelphia below the Mason-Dixon, the Southern propensity for subtlety should not preclude its right to the title: the South owes a great deal of its cultural identity to the Emerald Isle. Though the nineteenth-century Potato Famine is generally credited with the influx of the majority of the Irish into the New World, this wave was actually the second to land on American shores. While masses of these new immigrants made their way to Northern cities in search of a new life, pockets of Irish settlers had already been established in the hills of the Ozarks and Appalachia for some hundred-odd years. This first group, the so-called Scots-Irish, arrived in the early 1700’s and brought with them a unique culture and signature style that filtered into and helped to shape the burgeoning identity of the South.
- A Wee-Bit of the Southern Twang The term “hill-billy” is reputed to have originally begun as a reference to the Irish that settled in Appalachia and the numerous mentions of “King Billy,” or King William III, in their folk songsIf you’ve ever directed someone “over yonder,” gone to visit “kin-folk,” or been “madder’n’a wet hen,” you can thank the Irish for the privilege. Many of the speech patterns, grammatical idiosyncrasies, and colorful turns of phrase that we’ve come to consider bonafide representations of the Southern vernacular come to us courtesy of the Scotch-Irish that settled in Appalachia. Quirky colloquialisms like “tuckered out” and “so tough he can whip his weight in wildcats,” the baffling Southern propensity to leave the “g” off of somethin (there is no “-ng” in Celtic languages) but irreverently plunk r’s into words like warsh, this-here, that-there, hit, you-uns, his’n, her’n, and yo’rn, even the moniker “hillbilly”—considered by many to be a spin-off of Irish folk songs dedicated to “King Billy,” William of Orange—can all be traced back to Irish roots.
- The Green in the Grey Six Confederate generals, including the legendary Stonewall Jackson, came from Irish bloodlinesPerhaps it was the all-too-fresh memory of their struggle to be free of the oppressive yoke of an overbearing government, perhaps it was the newly-minted patriotism for the country that helped them escape it, or perhaps it was simply their infamous appetite for a good scrap—whatever the inspiration, something about the Confederate cause during the American Civil War tripped the trigger of the region’s Irish population, fanning the spark of their legendary fighting spirit into full flame. There were Irish brigades in eight of the eleven states that seceded from the Union, and their roots quickly made themselves apparent: the brigades’ refusal to back up or back down became the stuff of legends and extended from the trenches to the top of the line: some of the most infamously intractable generals of the Civil War—including Nathan Bedford Forrest and Stonewall Jackson—were descended from Irish immigrants.
- That High, Lonesome Sound Traditional Irish instruments and melodies helped shape the bluegrass music of AppalachiaThere are few songs as all-American as “Cotton-Eyed Joe” and “Buffalo Gal” . . . or are there? Though bluegrass is often hailed as the original American musical form, the same high, lonesome sound that made Appalachia famous once wound its way through the hills and dales of the Emerald Isle. The Scots-Irish immigrants that settled in the piedmont and mountains of the South brought with them a musical sound unlike any other, marked by the fiddle, the pipe, and the sweet-high melancholy of the Celtic ballad. Though the traditional lyrics of these songs eventually evolved to reflect the characters and landscape of their new environment (“The Mountain Top” became “Cotton-Eyed Joe” and “Battle of the Boyne,” “Buffalo Gal,” for instance), and their musical traditions blended with those of Native American and African origin, the songs still retained a great deal of the original Irish sound: a high, sonorous, upbeat melancholy that is still evident in the bluegrass music of today.
- Presidents, Pop-Stars, and Trailblazing Pioneers The seventh president of the United States, Andrew Jackson was born to Scots-Irish immigrants in the piedmont of North CarolinaWhat do Andrew Jackson, Willie Nelson, and Billy the Kid have in common? You guessed it: they’re all Southerners who can trace their bloodlines back to Éire. The impressive assemblage of Southerners who can claim the luck of the Irish includes everything from Presidents to pop stars. Scots-Irish settlers in the South formed the frontline of pioneering momentum as legends of exploration like Lewis and Clark and Davy Crockett pushed their way through the unbroken backcountry from Missouri to Texas. This vanguard spirit wasn’t limited to the wilderness, however. Some of the South’s greatest artistic voices come from Scots-Irish stock, including musical icons ranging from Dolly Parton to Elvis and hailed architects of the Southern literary voice like Mary Chesnut and Flannery O’Connor. The ranks of Irish names in the Southern pantheon of success run thick, proving that the combination of Southern grit and the Irish fighting spirit is a force to be reckoned with.