Irish or Scots-Irish?

When people in Memphis ask me about my name (which they do frequently; Aisling is the Gaelic word for a dream or vision) and I tell them it’s Gaelic and that I’m a dual U.S.-Irish citizen, I frequently get a response that goes something like, “I’m Irish, too. My family is Scots-Irish.” As a side note to “Irish Stories” on the cover of the St. Patrick’s Day edition of The Memphis News, I’d like to take this opportunity to explain that there’s a difference between “Irish” and “Scots-Irish.”

In a nutshell, they’re two different ethnic and cultural groups with different religious affiliations and typically opposing political views, who share an often volatile history. “Irish” refers to the native Irish Celtic people, who are overwhelmingly Catholic. They are the focus of “Irish Stories” in this week’s issue of The Memphis News.

Many Tennesseans and other Southerners claim Scots-Irish roots. The Scots-Irish are the descendants of Protestant Lowland Scottish and English families who colonized the Northern Irish province of Ulster in the 17th century. When they migrated to North America, mainly during the colonial period, they initially referred to themselves simply as “Irish.” However, after droves of impoverished, Gaelic-speaking Irish Catholics began arriving the U.S. in the mid-19th century following the Great Irish Famine, the Scots-Irish began calling themselves such to differentiate themselves from the newer immigrants from Ireland.

The term “Scots-Irish” is rarely heard outside North America. In Ireland and elsewhere in Europe, the group is generally referred to as “Ulster Scots.”

But however you identify your roots, have a great St. Patrick’s Day weekend in the Bluff City. And if you’re Downtown, check out the festivities at The Brass Door, which will celebrate its first St. Paddy’s Day Saturday.

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