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Nomenclature for Ulster Emigrants: Scotch-Irish or Scots-Irish?

by Familia Ulster Genealogical Review: No. 20, 2004


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by Michael Montgomery

"IN THE SUMMER OF 1995 I had the opportunity to say a few words at the launch of The Scots-Irish in the Hills of Tennessee, a book by Northern Ireland journalist Billy Kennedy at the office of his newspaper, the Newsletter.

As a native of the hills about which Kennedy wrote and as someone quite interested in connections (especially with respect to speech) between my part of the world and the one I was visiting, I pointed out several historical links and commonalities between Tennessee and the historical province of Ulster. At a reception following the formalities, however, I was surprised when a local man approached and chided me (and my compatriots) for using Scotch-Irish to refer to Americans whose ancestors came from Ulster. ‘Scots-Irish is the correct term’, he insisted. ‘Remember, Scotch is the drink, Scots are the people’.

Having grown up acquainted with only Scotch-Irish, I was rather puzzled. In the first forty-five years of my experience in Tennessee and elsewhere in the American South, Scotch-Irish was a perfectly neutral and respectable term, one used without negative connotations and never suggesting an alcoholic beverage. It was the exclusive term employed by my family of abstainers, my relatives, and many others I was aware of, whether they claimed Ulster ancestry or not.

Even if it did little but account for our minority-group status as Presbyterians in an ocean of Baptists, our ‘Scotch-Irishness’ was an uncontroversial, indeed uncommented-upon, fact of life and our family history."

This article examines what Ulster Emigrants choose to be known as and looks at the difference between 'Scots-Irish' and 'Scotch-Irish'.