The Thinkers: He studies the Scots-Irish place in the region's history

One in a series

Share with others:

Print Email Read Later

The Thinkers
This monthly series will highlight people from Western Pennsylvania who are on the forefront of new ideas in their fields.

Some have joked that Presbyterians are "denser" in Pittsburgh than anywhere else.

All over Allegheny County, you can find Presbyterian churches within a stone's throw of each other, and despite population losses, Western Pennsylvania continues to have more Presbyterians than any other region of the nation.

There's a strong historical reason for that.

It is connected to a group of immigrants who were a bedrock of the region's early settlement, but whose role in American history is virtually unknown to many people.

They are the Scots-Irish, although it's not a term they originally would have applied to themselves, according to Peter Gilmore, a retired labor journalist who is doing his Ph.D. dissertation at Carnegie Mellon University on this often-neglected group.

The Scots-Irish were Scottish families who settled in northern Ireland in the 1600s and 1700s.

Driven by a desire for cheap farmland and a thirst for independence, Mr. Gilmore said, the Scots-Irish formed the first big wave of emigrants from Ireland to the American colonies.

While the Pittsburgh region had its share of famous Scottish immigrants, such as Andrew Carnegie, the Scots-Irish, such as the Mellon family of banking fame, were far more numerous and important in shaping the area's early history, Mr. Gilmore said.

Because of the Irish potato famine in the 1840s and the subsequent emigration of millions of Irish Catholics to the United States, most people think of Irish-Americans as being more like the Kennedys than the Mellons.

Yet demographic surveys have shown that the majority of Americans who list their heritage as Irish identify themselves as Protestant.

That may be because the Protestants, and particularly the Scots-Irish, got here first.

Before the Revolutionary War, Mr. Gilmore said, an estimated 250,000 Scots-Irish settlers arrived in the colonies, and many settled in Pennsylvania, with thousands more filtering down into the Appalachian regions of Tennessee, Virginia and the Carolinas.

Even though they had a Scottish heritage, many of the immigrants' families had lived in northern Ireland for generations and would have described themselves as Irish.

They didn't start calling themselves "Scots-Irish" until the latter 1800s, said Mr. Gilmore, who can trace his own roots to northern Ireland.

The hyphenated term "came into vogue at the end of the 19th century for two reasons," he said. "One was to assert a waspish identity that was equal to that of the Boston Brahmins or the Virginia Cavaliers -- that we, too, are of hardy Anglo-Saxon Protestant stock and came here early.

"The second reason is that it was an attempt to distinguish their forebears from the more recent Irish immigrants who were Catholic, poor, or doing all the wrong things like voting Democratic or joining unions."

The Scots-Irish got their start largely because of a failed rebellion by Irish clan chieftains against Queen Elizabeth I in the late 1500s and early 1600s.

Two of the Irish Catholic leaders and their followers exiled themselves to mainland Europe in 1607, Mr. Gilmore said, and England's King James I then divvied up their lands among English noblemen, who encouraged Scottish lowlanders to immigrate and farm the Ulster plantations, which made up the northern third of Ireland.

Even before that, he said, other enterprising Scots had bought out an Irish clan leader and settled many of their compatriots in County Down and County Antrim, the site of Belfast.

Even though the Scottish settlers in Ireland were Protestant, they had their own grievances against the English, Mr. Gilmore said.

In the early 1700s, Presbyterian ministers were not allowed to perform weddings or baptisms in Ulster, he said. Those restrictions, combined with periodic famines and rent increases, caused many Scots-Irish to emigrate to the American colonies, starting in 1718.

There were two reasons why many of them ended up in Pennsylvania, Mr. Gilmore said.

Philadelphia was a major port in the linen trade. Flax was shipped from America to northern Ireland, where the Scots-Irish farmers made extra money producing linen cloth from the fibers of the plants. When the ships returned, they often carried settlers with them.

Pennsylvania was also a favored site because it did not have an established church, which meant that Presbyterian settlers did not have to pay taxes to support another denomination.

Through all the years in Ireland and again in America, he said, the Scots-Irish clung to their Presbyterian faith, because "their understanding of scripture was that Presbyterianism was the closest thing to the kind of Christianity created by the disciples, so anything else wasn't going to cut it."

The Scots-Irish in Western Pennsylvania not only were staunchly Presbyterian, he said -- they also represented every variety of Presbyterianism, including the conservative splinter groups known as the Covenanters and the Seceders.

Mr. Gilmore believes that's one reason why Presbyterianism continues to prevail among the region's Protestants today.

When there were disputes in local Presbyterian congregations in the 1700s and early 1800s, he said, "instead of wandering away from Presbyterianism to become an Episcopalian or a Methodist or something else, they could simply switch the variety of their Presbyterianism."

Some of the issues Presbyterians fought over can seem arcane by today's standards.

For instance, traditional Presbyterians believed that only Psalms should be sung in church, to a limited number of tunes.

When some congregations began to use "modern" hymns composed by the Englishman Isaac Watts, Mr. Gilmore said, "there were numerous instances of congregations here being horrified ... and some members going down the road and creating a Seceder congregation."

Presbyterianism also remained strong here because of the traditional role of the session, or church council, in governing the affairs of members, he said.

For research on his dissertation, Mr. Gilmore reads a lot of old session minutes, and while many of them deal with disciplinary actions such as "having people brought up on charges of drunkenness or fornication, other times they describe the mediation of disputes that might otherwise have gone to the civil courts."

In the 1800s, local Presbyterians became heavily involved with the temperance and abolitionist movements, he said -- but the temperance movement took a long time to solidify.

That's because many Scots-Irish farmers in the 1700s were involved in the whiskey trade, and presbytery meetings in that era often started with drams of whiskey being distributed to elders and clergy alike.

Presbyterians here also were strong opponents of working on the Sabbath, which is one reason why the "blue laws" that closed most stores on Sunday lasted so long in Pennsylvania.

Because of their sheer numbers, the Scots-Irish in Pittsburgh occupied all social classes, from laborers to shopkeepers to tycoons like the Mellons.

But today, their descendants often don't remember the Irish part of their heritage, Mr. Gilmore said.

"When there are founders' day celebrations in local Presbyterian churches," he said, "the references are almost always to the Scottish past, and the Irish connection is overlooked."

That is unfortunate, he said, because the long years in Anglican-dominated northern Ireland gave Scots-Irish Presbyterians a stronger sense of independence and dissent than among the Scots themselves, where Presbyterianism was the state religion.

And when they emigrated to America, "they came in response to conditions in Ireland. They did not live in hermetically sealed exclusive Scottish communities in Ireland. They interacted with the people who were already there."

If he had his druthers, Mr. Gilmore said, he would restore local Presbyterians' connection to their Scots-Irish heritage by replacing that term with the one he prefers -- Irish Presbyterians.

Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette
Peter Gilmore is a retired labor journalist working on his Ph.D. at Carnegie Mellon University on the Scots-Irish immigration into Pittsburgh.

Name: Peter Gilmore

Age: 55

Position: Doctoral student in history, Carnegie Mellon University.

Education: Bachelor's degree, University of Bridgeport, 1972; master's in social history, Carnegie Mellon University, 2002.

Previous positions: Newspaper reporter, Bridgeport (Conn.) Telegram, 1972-77; staff writer and managing editor, UE News, United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America, 1977-January 2006; Irish language teacher, Community College of Allegheny County and Gaelic League, 1992-present.

Publications: Various academic papers, including " 'Minister of the devil': Thomas Ledlie Birch, Presbyterian rebel in Exile," in "Transatlantic Perspectives on Ulster Presbyterianism," 2006; and "Presbyterianism as Cultural Marker: Covenanters and the Scotch-Irish," in "Journal of Scotch-Irish Studies," Fall 2005.

The Series
Click here to view other installments in this continuing series.
Listen In:

Hear exerpts from Peter Gilmore's conversation with the PG's Mark Roth about the Scots Irish and their immigration to Western Pennsylvania:

Restrictions on Presbyterian ministers played a part in motivating the Scots Irish to leave for America.

The immigrant's motivation: to get land and become independent

He explains why modern Scots Irish descendants have lost their Irish identity.

Some Presbyterians were slow to embrace the temperance movement. He describes one such situation in Plum.

Mark Roth can be reached at or at 412-263-1130.


Create a free PG account.
Already have an account?