For 38 years, Stone Mountain Park, northeast of Atlanta, Georgia, fills with the sounds of bagpipes, fiddles and harps during the third weekend in October for the Stone Mountain Highland Games and Scottish Festival. Expect thousands of Scots to don their family tartans for this year’s festival October 16-18. Last year the Ulster Scots were there in full force; their pavilion was the festival’s showstopper and offered ways to track Scots-Irish connections to Northern Ireland.
Among the Ulster Scots present was Billy Kennedy, author and editor of The Ulster Scot. “Of all the strains of Irish immigrant heritage in the United States,” says Kennedy, “the Scots-Irish culture is perhaps more distinctive and deeply rooted than many realize. Today’s Scots-Irish or Ulster Scots are direct descendants of those who emigrated from the north of Ireland or the province of Ulster in the 18th century. For over 300 years, Scots-Irish influences have found expression in various ways throughout the United States.
“As early as the 1630s, shortly after the voyage of the Mayflower, the mainly Presbyterian Ulster Scots reached North America in wooden ships that somehow managed to endure the wrath of the Atlantic. The early Scots-Irish settlers, who had originally moved from lowland Scotland to Ulster in the 17th century, assimilated into American life and left an enduring legacy.”
Kennedy has written extensively—including in the Oct./Nov. 2007 issue of Irish America—on the impressive imprint left by three centuries of Scots-Irish immigration. During the 18th century, more than 200,000 Scots-Irish fled economic deprivation and religious persecution by the British to make a new life in America. After crossing mountains, cutting through forests and surviving Native American tribal attacks, they founded frontier townships and forged a civilization on the western frontier. They laid the foundation for a structured society in the cities and towns of 18th-century America that valued home, church and school.
The Scots-Irish have a reputation for being the first to start and the last to quit. Three centuries later, these qualities remain central to the American psyche. According to the 2000 census, 56 percent of the estimated 44 million Americans with Irish heritage can trace roots back to the 18th-century movement from Ulster. Though the Scots-Irish are scattered across America, their influence is most evident in the eastern half of the country. Kennedy catalogues the numbers of Ulster place names in the United States: There are 18 American towns named Belfast; seven Derrys, nine Antrims, 16 Tyrones; four Hillsboroughs. In 12 states there are 12 Milfords—plus Coleraine in Massachusetts and Dungannon in Virginia!
The story is one of greatness as well as sheer numbers. Descendants of these 18th-century Ulster settlers include 17 American presidents. The ancestral cottage of Andrew Jackson is located at Boneybefore, Carrickfergus, Co. Antrim. Chester A. Arthur also hails from County Antrim, while County Tyrone boasts the ancestral residences of Ulysses Grant and Woodrow Wilson. Other presidents with Ulster family links include James Knox Polk, Andrew Johnson, James Buchanan, Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley, Grover Cleveland, Theodore Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter and both Presidents Bush.
Beyond the White House, Scots-Irish heritage is common to Vice-President John C. Calhoun; frontiersmen Davy Crockett and Kit Carson; Texas governor Sam Houston; Samuel Langhorne Clemens (the author Mark Twain); poet Edgar Allan Poe; agricultural inventor Cyrus McCormick; songwriter Stephen Collins Foster; land surveyor William Clark; astronauts Neil Armstrong, James Irwin and Edward H. White, and American Civil War generals Thomas Jonathan ‘Stonewall’ Jackson, J. E. B. Stuart, George Brinton McClellan, Joseph Eggleston Johnston and Ambrose Everett Burnside.
Three of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence were born in the north of Ireland. Others with direct family links included Edward Rutledge and Thomas McKean. John Dunlap, printer of the Declaration of Independence, came from Strabane, Co. Tyrone.
Today, the rich Scots-Irish inheritance is evident in all aspects of American life. Mutual interests in culture and historical research on aspects of the Scots-Irish diaspora are maintained through shared educational programs and projects. Towns in the United States and Northern Ireland which are officially twinned include La Grange (Georgia) with Craigavon (Co. Armagh); Moorhead (Kentucky) with Ballymena (Co. Antrim); Clover (South Carolina) with Larne (Co. Antrim) and Drumore (Pennsylvania) with Dromore (Co. Down). Belfast has also had a capital city twinning arrangement with Nashville (same population of 500,000). Derry, the North’s second largest city, also has close economic and social ties with Boston, as does Newry with Pittsburgh.
Each year, more Americans visit Northern Ireland. Whether they come on business or on vacation, or to do genealogical research, the cordial reception they get inevitably makes them want to return.
The growth of tourism in Northern Ireland is illustrated by the success of the Belle Isle Castle Estate & Cookery School in County Fermanagh. The 400-acre estate on Lough Erne is owned by the 5th Duke of Abercorn, James Hamilton. He was Tourism Ireland-sponsored keynote visitor to the Stone Mountain Games and the keynote speaker at Irish America’s Stars of the South event at the Commerce Club in Atlanta.
The annual Stars of the South dinner celebrates the best and brightest Irish Americans in the Southern U.S. and also hails Northern Ireland’s links to the Scots-Irish. Previous honorees have included philanthropists, artists, business leaders, charity workers and volunteers; members of the service industry and armed forces; members of police and fire departments, and members of academia.
This year over 200 luminaries were in attendance. Don Keough, former president of Coca-Cola and now chairman of Allen and Company, accepted a well-deserved Lifetime Achievement Award. James Hamilton, the Duke of Abercorn – a peerage that dates back to 1603 – said that he was delighted to be keynote speaker at the Stars of the South dinner. “I enjoyed sharing my insights on the extraordinary progress that has been made in Ireland’s hospitality industry in the field of culinary excellence. This splendid event is a sparkling celebration of the bonds of heritage and kinship that Ireland shares with America’s South.”
Joe Byrne, Executive Vice President in the United States for Tourism Ireland based in New York, said “Tourism Ireland is pleased to participate as a sponsor of the Stone Mountain Festival and at Irish America magazine’s Stars of the South Awards Dinner. We know that Ireland has experienced strong growth in visitor numbers from many of the states in the southeast of the U.S. We believe that sponsorships such as this contribute in a meaningful way to building future tourism traffic growth to Ireland from this important region.”