ONCE AGAIN, those American politicians of the Irish persuasion are flogging the queen. The Kennedys and Careys, the O'Neils and Moynihans are aroused periodically to demand that Her Majesty remove her bloody English soldiers from Northern Ireland and restore justice to the sacred captive soil.
Flail on, brave emerald statesmen. Their political courage is as green as that Irish soap advertised on television and, surely now, the sons of Erin will remember in autumn, when they cast their sacred American ballots.
I enjoy Irish politicians as much as the next man, but I have a serious question for them. We know whom Kennedy speaks for and O'Neil and Carey and the rest. But who speaks for the other Irish in America? Who will stand up and declare for the McClures and MacNeills, the Pierces and Pangburns, the MacDaniels and MacDonalds? Yes, these are American children of Ireland too. Indeed, they came here from bloody Ulster itself, where the troubles continue.
They are sons of Orange, Irish and Protestant. Fierce, proud and independent people, who mostly came to America before our native government was established, who willingly fought the Indians and the French and the English and, eventually, fought Washington too.
I do not wish to reawaken dead religious prejudice but I am teasing my way toward a serious proposition - the idea that a solution to Northern Ireland's terrible bitter division, Orange against Green, does perhaps lie in America, where we have the space and the democratic experience to work past history's unresolvable arguments. I am squinting at the fuzzy notion that American politicians could really do this for Ulster - but only if both Irish-American families, Orange and Green, are at the table working it out, securing assurances for their distant cousins in the sweetly remembered homeland.
Not so many years ago, one could not speak lightly in public print about the Orange and the Green without looking for a punch in the eye. But this country does have the capacity to bury the world's old hatreds, to forget them and move on creatively to new ones. It takes time, but it does happen.
Sixty years ago or so, when my mother was a girl in Pennsylvania, she used to see the Orange and the Green fighting in the streets of the small river towns on St. Patrick's Day. Her family was McClure, farmers, Protestant, long settled in that region. The Catholic were miners and mill workers, mostly, and relatively new to America. What were they fighting about on the streets of Monongahela, Pa.? The pope I suppose and John Knox's Presbyterian reformation.
I don't claim that American Catholics and Protestants have completely forgiven one another for their heresies, but at least we are no longer brawling in the streets. This is progress, especially when one compares it with our Irish cousins in Londonderry and Belfast. Surely, the Protestant Irish of America have an obligation, as much as the Catholic Irish, for settling this archaic struggle.
Unfortunately, many of America's Irish Protestant families, perhaps most of them, have forgotten that they are Irish. They call themselves Scotch-Irish, with the emphasis on Scotch. Many do not even realize that the Presbyterian firebands of Ulster are their kin.
Scotch-Irish families often maintain tender presumptions about their origins. Every family seems to have, somewhere in the attic, a complicated genealogy which proves its descent from the fierce chieftain of a Highland clan in Scotland or the laird of a grand estate. The truth is less noble but, strangely enough, more stirring in the American sense. If our people were clan chieftains and lairds, why on earth did they come to the wilderness of America?
Like most American immigrants, the Scotch-Irish are descended from peasants. They lived originally in the mud, the "dark and drublie" life of chaotic poverty, as James C. Leyburn describes it in his wonderful, sympathetic history, "The Scotch-Irish, A Social History" (University of North Carolina Press). Most of the migrants came not from the Scottish highlands, But the lowlands to the south, those rolling moors beside the English border.
It seems the bloody English tryant, Elizabeth I, sent her armies to slaughter the native Irish and populate the "Ulster Plantation" with English gentry, but The English couldn't hack it. So her successor, King James I (the same one who gave us the great Bible translation) started filling up Northern Ireland with Scottish peasants.
This was around 1610, when Presbyterian discipline and education were awakening Scotland belatedly from the Middle Ages. In a century's time, Scotland underwent an incredible transformation, from a remote barbaric backwater of feudalism on the other of Sicily to a citadel of enlightment, home of philosophers and great preachers. This enlightment infused the Scottish settlers in Ulster, of course, and they brought these qualities with them to America. Meanwhile, in southern Ireland, the Jesuits were leading the Counter-Reformation - helping the other Irish to organize their nation around their faith too.
Given the barbaric arrogance of the English, London in time began to persecute the Scotch-Irish too, partly as a matter of religious intolerance, but also because the Ulster weavers and craftsmen became so effective that they represented an economic threat to the Crown. After four or five generations in Ireland (including some Protestant-Catholic intermarriage which one does not speak of), these Orangemen began their "great migration" to America. According to Leyburn, about 250,000 came between 1717 and the American Revolution. They settled New Jersey and Pennsylvania and, when that land was filled, they pushed further west and down the valley of the Shenandoah to the Carolina mountains.
Having fought Catholic Irish guerillas in their homeland, they were quite effective at fighting Indians in their new country. As Presbyterians, they also cared about education, founding an extraordinary number of colleges in order to educate their ministers. On the frontier, when a certified Presbyterian minister wasn't available, many of the Scotch-Irish got "born again" as Methodist and Baptists - and founded more colleges. Of 201 American colleges founded before the Civil War, nearly half could be attributed to Scotch-Irish people, according to Leyburn.
Now here is the funny part about these remarkable people. They did not call themselves Scotch-Irish. For 130 years on this continents, they were known as Irish, even in their own papers and records. Sometimes the "Ulster Irish" or the "Northern Irish" or the "Presbyterian Irish." But they were Irish and proud of it.
What happened? In the 1840s, the other Irish started their "great migration" to America. Four or five million Catholic Irish came over the next century. Rather abruptly, the Protestant Irish began calling themselves "Scotch-Irish" and, I suppose, hiring genealogists to prove that their noble lineage was not to be confused with these now aliens, who were poor and unwashed and, worst of all, Catholic. For 50 or 60 years, the new Irish immigrants mocked the pretensions of the old ones until, in time, these distinctions lost the fire of controversy.
Among other things, this happened: the Irish Catholics made their own extraordinary progress in this country. Check the social statistics and you will find that no other ethnic group in America climbed more dramatically in economic status than Irish Catholic families have over the last 50 years. The genealogists, one presumes, are now working for the Kennedys and O'Neills.
The Irish Catholics, in a sense, have become the new "Presbytarians" of our social order. They are proud, middle-class defenders of the orthodox manners and values. It's a good thing, too, because some of us Presbyterians got weary of that role and very strong society needs its "Presbyterians."
I love the symmetry of this, the antagoniams and the shared origins and the unacknowledged debts of those two Irish peoples. It is pure American, this social tumbling between hostile groups, the essence of our American outlook. In one generation, a family searches for earls and lairds in its past, but children of a later generation will proudly search instead for the peasants.
Now that we understand this, what can we American Irish agree on, in regard to Northern Ireland? We agree on English barbarism. The English have mucked up our homeland for five centuries and it is time we made them straighten out the mess.
That shared anger would make a good starting point for all-Irish peace taken though probably I will hear now from the English-Americans, if any dare call themselves by that name.