Irish America

20 January 2021

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It appears that America now has an ‘Irish’ president, which makes one wonder on whose behalf he is going to govern America for, or whose Ireland he represents. Consequently it is worthwhile recalling for President Biden just what America’s Irish heritage really is. If America has an Irish heritage it is fundamentally that of Ulster-Scots (Protestant Dissenters) who, like their fellows from England and Wales, established the American colonies to be free from Episcopalian (clerical hierarchy) rule. They sought freedom from the religious intolerance of Anglican and Roman Catholic hierarchies, the liberty to worship in their own way, something that Anglican and Catholic Episcopalian persecution denied them in Europe. It was this ‘dissenting’ tradition that became the basis for modern liberal democracy, something opposed by Rome in particular. And it was these Dissenters who fought for American independence, whilst Catholics and Germans fought for the Crown. Indeed, in 18th century Ireland the government twice seriously considered arming Catholics to help put down Ulster Dissenters and their libertarian creed, leading many to flee to America.

Further, the Universities of Harvard, Yale and Princeton were all Dissenter foundations, whose graduates played a major role in the American Revolution, Declaration of Independence and Constitution. All their ideals were heavily inspired by the Ulster Dissenter and philosopher Francis Hutcheson -‘Father of the Scottish Enlightenment’ and teacher of Adam Smith. Hutcheson’s works were core reading at American universities and for America’s founding fathers. It was Hutcheson who taught the right to rebel against unjust government and advocated the separation of Church and State. For Hutcheson, religion should become a purely private affair, excluded from the public realm and discourse (as adopted by America)and advocated in Ireland (a prophet in his own land?).

These Dissenters constituted one of the three legally defined religious groups in 18th century Ireland and Britain. Protestant only referred to Anglicans, Dissenters were non-Anglican Reformation Churches (in Ireland mostly Presbyterian), whilst Roman Catholics constituted their own legal category. The latter two both suffered similar legal, economic and political disabilities (Penal Laws for Catholics, Test Acts for Dissenters). This gave Dissenters a fear of episcopacy, since they were mostly tenant farmers under Anglican/Protestant landlords and aristocrats, just like Catholics, whose Episcopalian hierarchy had also persecuted Dissenters. This, unlike the Catholics, gave them a burning desire for non-hierarchical (aristocratic or ecclesiastical) self-government, individual freedom of conscience and religion - the cornerstone of liberal democracy.

Consequently, ‘Irish’ American Dissenters fought against the British and Irish Catholics for Britain. In the 1770’s the burning issue in America was the fear of episcopacy, after Westminster had recognised a Catholic episcopacy in Canada (French Quebec) and George III sought to introduce an Anglican episcopacy into the American colonies. This was the dominating public debate behind the revolution, with Ulster Dissenters to the fore in creating a liberal democratic America that Irish Catholics fought against. What America is and made her so successful was the fulfilment of Dissenter ideals. If President Biden wishes to recognise America’s true ‘Irish’ roots he should visit Hutcheson’s home town of Saintfield, Co Down.

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