In this week’s blog Abigail Wise, an MSc Nationalism Studies student at the University of Edinburgh, discusses how public memorials connect Ulster Scots to the Scots Irish diaspora:
There is something to be said for the fact that so many aspects of American culture can be linked to Ulster Scots immigration. In fact, 2018 marks the 300th anniversary of the first migration of Ulster Scots to New England.[i] With names like Londonderry, Belfast, Antrim, and Dungannon gracing towns up and down the East Coast’s I-95 corridor, it’s easy to acknowledge that Ulster Scots (or Scots Irish as they’re known in America) have been here. But it may be more difficult for Americans to pinpoint what they’ve done. For this, the Scots Irish home community – modern Ulster Scots in Northern Ireland – can fill the gap.
Leading Scots Irish figure and former Senator Jim Webb wrote that around the War of 1812, Scots Irish immigrants in America began to claim an American identity over any “Old World” one, leading many to claim the reason we may not easily see all the contributions of the Ulster Scots/Scots Irish is because they were so good at integrating into American society.[ii] It is understandable though that people in the home nation want to commemorate their countrymen and women for what they brought to the New World, and therefore may have a stronger understanding of their diaspora. What does it mean, however, to commemorate a group whose “accomplishments” include fighting to defend slavery?
The modern Ulster Scots community is unique in that the diaspora in America holds so much importance. The Scots Irish are the “central motif” for Ulster Scots, and much can be gleaned about Ulster Scots themselves from this prioritization.[iii] As the home nation of such an influential migrant community, the homage to their brethren in America is hard to miss.
As the Ulster Scots community gained greater legal legitimacy through the Good Friday Agreement, it set to work making the Ulster Scots presence known through a medium many in Northern Ireland are very familiar with – the mural.[iv] As part of cross-community reconciliation efforts, groups like the Ulster Scots Heritage Council began commissioning cultural murals that they hoped would replace the threatening yet commonplace murals of UVF or UDA gunmen that dotted many a housing estate across Northern Ireland after The Troubles finally ended. These cultural murals intended to highlight the connections between Scotland and Ulster, and the Scots Irish diaspora.
A series of murals about the Scots Irish diaspora known as “Pioneers to Presidents” sprang up across the province in the years after the Good Friday Agreement. In the Glebeside Estate, Ballymoney, the Heritage Council commissioned a mural to famous American pioneer Davy Crockett.[v] In Belfast, there was a mural of 15th President James Buchanan off the Shankill Road, with similar ones of George Washington in the Waterside area of Derry/Londonderry, and of Theodore Roosevelt in the Fountain.[vi] The hope was that these murals might encourage people to think of themselves as something other than exclusively British or Irish – a conundrum at the heart of The Troubles.[vii]
Another “Pioneers to Presidents” mural had appeared by 2005 in the Glenbryn area of North Belfast.[viii] This one linked Confederate Generals of Ulster Scots heritage to those who authored the Ulster Solemn League and Covenant in 1912.[ix] Painted on a long brick wall outside a home not far from a peace line, the mural depicted famous Scots Irish Confederates J.E.B. Stuart, Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee, and Confederate President Jefferson Davis under the heading “The Sons of Ulster Who Led the Confederate Army During the War of Northern Aggression 1861-1865” on one side, and signatories of the 1912 Ulster Solemn League and Covenant rejecting Home Rule under the title “The Sons of Ulster Who Wrote And Signed The Ulster Covenant During the Home Rule Crisis of 1912” on the other. [x]
On the Confederate side, Confederate President Jefferson Davis is depicted at his 1862 inauguration stating, “the government at Washington denying our right to self-government, refused even to listen to any proposals for peaceful separation”.[xi] The two events are depicted together in this mural to show how they are both examples of the Ulster Scots struggle for personal freedom, through a variety of means. But is that really the whole story?
Nothing about the Glenbryn mural acknowledges why Jefferson Davis was speaking about “peaceful separation” at his 1862 inauguration. The Civil War is referenced by the historically Southern moniker, “The War of Northern Aggression”, which clearly implies a specific narrative of the conflict. Similarly, a pamphlet published by the Ulster Scots Community Network about Confederate generals only references slavery once – in a quote from Scots Irish President Woodrow Wilson where he “[paid] loving tribute to the virtues of the leaders of secession”.[xii] What are the consequences of commemorating such a selective narrative of such a divisive history?
Confederate commemoration has been headline news in America since the Charleston AME Church shooting in 2015 and the Charlottesville riots in 2017. Americans have finally begun to recognize the repercussions of continuing to preserve monuments to those who fought to defend slavery, and people have died in this process. America will never erase the Civil War from its collective memory. Today, it is still the country’s bloodiest conflict – over 600,000 people died in just 4 years.[xiii] The narrative may change with the removal of Confederate monuments, but the history will not go away.
Many societies employ selective memory to create a national understanding, and many scholars of nationalism studies have written about this as a major facet of nation-building. This analysis of the Ulster Scots community is not meant to imply that Ulster Scots are racist or have any sort of ulterior agenda. Famed pioneer of nationalism Ernest Renan wrote in 1882 that forgetting was crucial to the development of a nation.[xiv] However in the Ulster Scots community, it is not the Confederate generals who will be forgotten. Instead, what they fought for might be. That’s because their selective narrative doesn’t require a defense of slavery – their identity is not defined by it the way it was for Confederate soldiers and citizens.
Murals in Northern Ireland come and go much more quickly than American monuments to Confederate generals. Today, it does not appear that the Sons of Ulster mural still exists. Ulster Scots have not forgotten this history though, even without such blatantly public reminders. Perhaps America should take note.
[i] Ulster Scots Agency, 2016. “The 1718 Migration from Ulster to New England”.
[ii] Webb, James, 2004. Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America. New York: Broadway Books.
[iii] Gardner, Peter Robert, 2017. “Diaspora, defeatism and dignity: Ulster Protestant reimaginations of the self through Ulster-Scots Americanism”. Ethnic and Racial Studies. Vol. 41 (11).
[iv] Radford, Katie 2001. “Creating an Ulster Scots Revival”. Peace Review. Vol. 13 (1).
[v] Rolston, Bill, 2003. “Writing on wall for old-style of loyalist murals”. The Irish Times. 28 July. [Online] Available: https://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/writing-on-wall-for-the-old-style-of-loyalist-murals-1.367713 [9 August 2018].
[vii] Rolston, Bill, 2004. “The War of the Walls: political murals in Northern Ireland”. Museum International. Vol. 56 (3).
[x] Extramural Activity, 2008. “The War of Northern Aggression”. Extramural Activity. [Online]. Available: https://extramuralactivity.com/2008/06/04/the-war-of-northern-aggression/ [9 August 2018].
[xii] Ulster-Scots Community Network, Confederate Generals.
[xiii] American Battlefield Trust, 2018. “Civil War Casualties”. American Battlefield Trust. [Online]. Available: https://www.battlefields.org/learn/articles/civil-war-casualties [9 August 2018].
[xiv] Renan, Ernest, 1882. “What is a Nation?” La Sorbonne, Paris. 11 March.