frontline 15.

Troubled Past. The Ulster-Scots part two

Chris Guthrie concludes his look at the history of the Ulster Scots, and their political legacy today. The first part of this article was carried in Frontline 14.

Read Part One of this article


Many Presbyterians became so aggrieved by the intolerance shown their religion and the restrictions placed on their commercial prospects that they turned their attention to the new frontiers being opened up on the other side of the Atlantic. By the early 1770’s it was reckoned that migrants from Ulster were reaching North America at the rate of 12,000 a year. They carried with them a sense of grievance against the British establishment, which added to the growing anti-British sentiment among them.

Benjamin Franklin on a visit to Ireland in 1771, suggested the possibility of future co-operation between Irish and Americans, by which both might obtain,

“ a more equitable treatment from Britain. “ (12)

On the outbreak of the American war of independence, the English historian Froude wrote,

“England had no fiercer enemies than the grandsons and great grandsons of the Presbyterians who held Ulster against Tyrconnell” (13)

While at the same time in Ireland, Harcourt, the Lord Lieutenant in Dublin commented,

“the Presbyterians in the north are in their hearts Americans. (14)

After gaining independence from the British in America, the descendants of those Ulster Scots became, over the years, essentially Americans. Unlike many of those who remained in Ireland dependant on the British state for support, and are still proclaiming today to be British subjects.

In their quest for liberty in America many of those descendants of Ulster Scots could still refuse to acknowledge the rights of the indigenous population and enslaved Africans. (But, then, if you are not part of god’s elect…)

The effects of the American war of independence in Ireland included a drain on troops and naval protection, diverted to the American war. Under threat of a possible popular Irish uprising allied to a French invasion, a Volunteer corps was formed for the protection of the Anglican ascendancy which had its hands full - suppressing the majority, Catholic, population, with the one hand; while attempting to defy the English government with the other.

In the north, however, the Volunteers included large numbers who were sympathetic to the ideas of the American Revolution.

After the immediate crisis of the American war had passed, the volunteers turned their attention to domestic matters - agitating for the implementation of greater autonomy and for lifting of trade restrictions. This had limited success when the constitution was granted some reforms in 1782.

Another strong influence of the time was the Scottish Enlightenment. With Trinity College Dublin being prohibited to Presbyterians, they again turned to Scotland and Scottish universities fulfilled their higher educational needs.

While there they took part in the political, economic and philosophical debates of the day, which they then carried back to Ulster on their return.


The limited reforms in the Dublin parliament proved unsatisfactory to many of the volunteers, particularly in the North, and some ex-Volunteers, strongly influenced by the events of the French Revolution, formed the United Irishmen Society, in Belfast 1791: mutual links were later developed with the United Scotsmen in Scotland and in exile in Paris.

From the late eighteenth century, due to a combination of economic, political and geographic factors, Belfast was being developed as a major industrial town (in some ways similar to the industrial based ports on the Clyde and the Mersey, Glasgow and Liverpool). Although Belfast had a strong Presbyterian presence and politically contained strong radical elements, there still remained currents of anti-Catholicism, which the United Irishmen attempted to overcome by forging a common alliance.

Wolf Tone, a Dublin Protestant, and one of the leaders of the United Irishmen had written a pamphlet in 1792, entitled, “An Argument on Behalf of the Catholics of Ireland”

There had also been a split among Presbyterians in the 1760’s over their attitude to the issue of Catholic emancipation, and subscription to the Westminster Confession of Faith - which among other articles, portrayed the pope as the anti-Christ. The Presbyterians were then divided between the “Old Light” or subscribers, and the “New Light” or non-subscribers: the latter proved to be POLITICALLY the more radical and in favour of Catholic emancipation.

Throughout Ireland secret agrarian societies had long been in existence to agitate for land reform. County Armagh in Ulster, (which had been planted mainly by English Episcopalians), had by this period the highest density of rural population in Ireland – and was also where the weaving of linen and cotton had seen rapid progress. Competition for land and work became intense and took on a sectarian nature, due largely to the fact that economic and social relationships were, in law, demarcated by religion. Peep O’Day boys, a Protestant group (who developed into Orange societies in 1795) made early morning raids on Catholic homes, on the pretext of searching for illegally held arms, destroying looms in the process; with the result of forcing many Catholics out of the county. In response Catholics formed groups known as Defenders.

Meanwhile the gentry, becoming alarmed at the growth of radical politics among the United Irishmen, launched a wave of repression against their followers. This drove the U.I. underground, and only served to increase the revolutionary fervour of the more radical elements – while compromising the less committed. The newly formed Orange societies, overwhelmingly Episcopalian in origin, were willing collaborators in this repression, many of their members being incorporated into a yeomanry force for this purpose. Sectarianism was encouraged by the establishment, as can be seen by this quote from General Knox, in 1797,

“I have arranged….to increase the animosity between Orangemen and United Irishmen…..

Upon that animosity depends the safety of the centre counties of the North.” (15)

Outbreak of war between England and Revolutionary France had increased the panic of the authorities in Ireland at the possible French assistance for a rebellion in Ireland. Wolf Tone was in Paris at this time summoning help for just that purpose. Exposure of large sections of the un-enfranchised population to the ideas of reform and emancipation created a ready audience for revolutionary ideas. Limited literacy meant the transmission of those ideas orally, with the consequence of them being literally re-interpreted to suit local conditions.

The United Irishmen incorporated the Defenders into an alliance without differences in aspirations being fully acknowledged. So, what had started out as a mainly Presbyterian dominated organisation, aimed at securing national sovereignty, was transformed in some areas by the influx of the numerically greater (Catholic) Defenders; who in many instances were intent on re-claiming Irish (Catholic) sovereignty over what they had experienced as the injustices of Protestant rule.

At the same time, reports of the “terror” in post-revolution France, together with the cause of radicalism becoming associated with an illegal conspiracy and a rising of the Catholic peasantry, (directed, in some instances, against Protestants in the South), caused many Presbyterians to draw back from the United Irishmen, and many one time radicals took refuge in the Orange lodges. After the failure of the 1798 rising, the execution, imprisonment and exile of most of the U.I. leaders, resulted in the decline of that organisation.


The events of the ‘98 rising encouraged the London government to abolish the Dublin parliament and push through an Act of Union (1801). Initially, the Protestant ascendancy in Ireland was opposed to the union, as it deprived them of their parliament in Dublin: and the Catholic hierarchy was in favour, as they had been promised that Catholic emancipation would be introduced with the act. The Catholic church had already been granted a seminary at Maynooth in 1795, partly in the hope of stopping priests having to be trained in Europe and coming into contact with revolutionary ideas. Commenting on this, Richard Lalor Shiel addressing the House of Commons, said.

“ are not lectures at Maynooth cheaper than state prosecutions ? Is not a large standing army and a great constabulary force more expensive than the moral police with which by the priesthood of Ireland you can be thirstly and efficaciously supplied?” (16)

The failure of the British government to grant Catholic emancipation, until 1829, provided Daniel O’Connell the opportunity to develop a popular mass movement in favour of emancipation, (and later for repeal of the union); utilising the structure and networks of the Catholic Church. So it was to (con)fuse the causes of national and religious rights in the minds of many.


The ensuing struggles of the nineteenth century around land rights had a crucial distinction between Catholics and Protestants. For Catholics, land agitation was against what the English crown had confiscated from their ancestors: Protestant claims were for tenant’s rights granted by that crown in the seventeenth century.

The modernisation processes which took place throughout Europe in the nineteenth century, connected to industrialisation and new social relationships, re-shaped peoples identities; individually as workers; and collectively as classes and nations. These processes took place later and more unevenly in Ireland.

The majority of the population, primarily in the South, were excluded from the affluence of their more industrially advanced neighbour. Their cultural identity, including their religion, allowed there discontent to find national expression.

However, the special relationship embodied in Orangeism, in the North, according to D.W. Miller,

“helped many Ulster Protestants to avoid the full consequences of the erosion of traditional role relationships, which is supposed to create the need to identify strongly with the national culture.. .In many situations his essence was still his social position ie. his Protestantism.” (17)

The middle class also benefited materially from the developments of the Industrial Revolution and could participate in the spoils of the British Empire.

So the foundations were laid for the ensuing conflict in Ireland.

The Gaelic, radical elements of the Presbyterian tradition in Ulster has been largely lost, or at least neglected; as they perceived themselves to be threatened by the influence of the Catholic church in the South (and also by some who see a threat of an international, Jewish, Catholic, communist conspiracy).

An editorial in Ian Paisley’s newspaper the Protestant Telegraph” (June 72) stated,

“ watch the Jews. . . watch the papist Rome rising to a grand crescendo with the communists. The reds are on the march. They are heading for an alliance against the return of the Lord Jesus Christ.”

In the politics of many of those “Loyalists” or “Unionists” there is a certain ambiguity about whether their first priority is their “loyalty” only to the protestant crown: to the union with Britain - or simply their own self interest.

Within their ranks they now contain those who favour complete integration within Britain; those who want a return to some form of devolution, as they had in their one party state from 1920-72; and those who want an independent state in the North.

One Loyalist representative interviewed in a T.V documentary, made the following statement,

“We’re British. We’re proud to be British, and we’ll fight to remain British. We will even fight the British to be British,” (18)

The radical tradition among Presbytarians was not altogether lost, and continued in some form into the twentieth century - when some 400 Presbyterians gathered in Ballymoney, Country Antrim, in 1912, to initiate a Home Rule covenant in opposition to Carson’s Loyalist covenant. (19)

And in June 1987 a Loyalist march went from Carrickfergus to Ballycarry to commemorate Willie Nelson, a Presbyterian who was hung for his part in the 1798 rising. Explaining the march, it was stated in Young Unionist (May 1987)

“Like it or not, we are rebels once more, striving for nothing more than justice. It will be a courageous step, taking the history of the United Irishmen and seeking to explain why they did what they did in Ulster. Let us play every card we hold in our struggle for justice. Let us reclaim our heritage from the Gael.” (20)

If only some acknowledged that they also share a heritage with the Gael - and also hopefully the prospect of a shared future.


(12) J.C.Beckett: Making of Modern Ireland.
(13) quoted in P.MacRory:- Seige of Derry OUP (1988) page. 351
(14) J.C.Beckett: Making of Modern Ireland page. 207
(15) quoted in Paor: Divided Ulster Penguin (1970) page. 27
(16} quoted in P.Beresford-Ellis: History of Irish Working Class V.Gollancy (1972) page. 83
(17) D.W. Miller: Queens Rebels Gill & McMillan (1978)
(18) “The cause of Ireland” Channel 4 1983 Director C.Reeves.
(19) B.Kay: History of Ulster Scots BBC Radio Scotland (Oct 89)
(20) quoted in Ian S. Wood (ed) : Scotland & Ulster Mercat Press 1994