A largely unrecognized ethnic group that is possibly the single largest ethnicity
and most prominent heritage among the population of the United States
. Distinct from both the Irish
, as well as from the Anglo-Irish populations of Southern Ireland, the Scotch-Irish originated with the plantation of Protestant
settlers in Northern Ireland
by the British crown in the early 17th century. The conditions that shaped the culture of these settlers, that of doing the dirty leg work of distant rulers by being outnumbered interlopers among a hostile native
population, created unique cultural characteristics that later shaped much of the American psyche as these people emigrated to the new world.
At the time, Great Britain under James I was attempting to consolidate its rule over the rebellious Catholic population of Ireland. From shortly after the Norman Conquest the monarchs of England had imperial designs on Ireland, gradually extending their hegemony over the island. Anglo-Normans settled on plantations in Southern Ireland, lording over the native population, but their control was tenuous. After the Protestant Reformation in England, the need for control took on a new urgency because Catholic Ireland was used as a base for Spanish attacks on Britain.
It was for this reason that James I implemented a scheme to dilute the rebellious Catholic population in the North of Ireland with a loyal Protestant population. The result was the 'Ulster Plantation,' a settlement in Northern Ireland of down and out peasants recruited from the impoverished, chaotic border region of Southern Scotland and Northern England. In the wake of the English Civil War and Cromwell's attempts to further subdue Ireland, even more Protestant settlement of the Plantation was encouraged. Neither fully Scottish nor English nor Irish, these transplanted people became known as the Scotch-Irish, reflecting their origins and current home.
The Scottish border lands they had come from were turbulent for centuries, a land of battling armies, clans, thieves, and outlaws that fostered its own sort of rugged individualism. Upon arriving in Ireland, the settlers were faced with the situation of being hired intruders in need of defense amongst a hostile native population whose defining factor was their religious difference. This characteristic heritage fostered the cultural traits of the Scotch-Irish, often unique for the British Isles, which can still be seen amongst their descendants in Northern Ireland and in the national ethos of the United States, where the Scotch-Irish settled en masse in the subsequent centuries. These traits are the somewhat contradictory impulses of 1) gun toting individualism yet militant religious adherence and Protestant bible thumping, and 2) excessive patriotism and group loyalty yet mistrust and hatred of government and authority.
Beginning in the late 1700s, the Scotch-Irish engaged in a massive out-migration. They mostly settled in the United States, where they were the first effective settlement throughout much of the new nation, especially the South and Appalachia. Old patterns continued on the new continent. Where the Scotch-Irish in Northern Ireland were peasants doing the dirty frontier work of the lords of the plantation and rulers of Britain, in the United States they did much the same, fighting the Civil War for the right of other, wealthier people to own slaves. While a southern planter would likely have an aristocratic English name like Wellington, a foot soldier of the confederacy would likely have a name like McCormic, indicating their respective heritages. This reverberates culturally even down to today, even though ethnic differences among white Americans have long since blended away. America's most notorious recent anti-government 'patriot' has humble origins and the telling surname McVeigh, while the people who might actually benefit from a reduced role of government are safely away in far off county clubs.
There was also some Scotch-Irish settlement in Canada and Australia, but not as heavily as the United States. These nations tended to receive the Scottish themselves as immigrants instead of the Scotch Irish, and some of the cultural dissimilarities these nations have with the United States can be traced to this difference in first effective settlement. For instance, the United States is more inclined to engage in draconian 'Law and Order' type measures such as capital punishment, which is characteristic of a colonizing population (Scotch-Irish), whle Canada and Australia are more likely to uphold individual rights, characteristic of a colonized population (Scottish).
Those Scotch-Irish that remained in Northern Ireland comprise the Protestant Unionist population there today, having grown to majority status. They retain many of the cultural traits discussed earlier. It is interesting to note that yet again the upper crust of Protestant unionist society have very English sounding names like 'Trimble,' whereas the ranks of the paramilitaries are filled with those whose names reveal more humble (Scottish border) origins.
The term 'Scotch Irish' is often misused to refer to all protestant Irish, but this is incorrect. There were other Protestant populations of Ireland, including the descendants of early English settlers in the South of the country, who would properly be called the 'Anglo-Irish,' as well as a portion of the native population that converted to Protestantism. The Scotch Irish are specifically the descendants of the Plantation settlement in the North.