The land of my fathers

Ronda Rich's picture

The dawn was barely breaking, the morning just beginning to wrestle the new day away from the black night as the train traveled with a jolting purpose from Dublin to Belfast.

As I traveled along the coastline of the Emerald Isle, headed north to the birthplace of my great-grandfather from 10 generations ago, I thought of what Sam Thomas had told me and how true it was. He is a self-styled expert on the Scotch-Irish and the Ulster Plantation area of Northern Ireland that gave birth, breed and purpose to our unique though sometimes curious kinfolk.

“When you see Northern Ireland, you’ll be surprised how much it looks like the Southern Piedmont,” he said. “Then you’ll understand why the Scotch-Irish felt so at home in the Carolinas and Georgia.”

As soon as light illuminated the landscape, I understood completely. It looked remarkably similar to the 12-minute drive I take from my house to church on Sunday mornings – gentle, rolling hills of lush green, large pasture, trees grown old by centuries’ worth of time, wide streams and rich bottom land. The one difference was that the sheep far outnumbered the cattle.

I tried to imagine the Northern Ireland that my grandfather had left behind in the mid-1700s, the wilderness it must have been back then, but it may have seemed like a cosmopolitan area compared to the wild, untamed America he found.

What courage that must have taken for William Bryson, born in 1720 in County Antrim. But, like many Scotch-Irish, he sought to be free from British tyranny. The Scotch-Irish, who left the Ulster Plantation, wanted freedom from an overbearing government and the right to worship as they pleased. But the flight from that land would not end his fight against the English. Eventually, William Bryson would join forces with thousands of other Scotch-Irish and fight to free the fledgling American colonies from British opposition.

See, he, like other Scotch-Irish, were already displeased with the king when they got to this country, so it didn’t take any prodding to get them to join the fight. We Scotch-Irish are always up for a good fight for a good cause. Win or lose.

My grandfather, this nomadic, independent, stubborn, red-headed Scotch-Irish, would become a Revolutionary War hero. From his loins would spring other independent, stubborn, red-headed Scotch-Irish ancestors like, for instance, the one who writes these words. We have often been so stubbornly independent that, as the family saying goes, we cut our noses off to spite our faces.

In Belfast, I met with esteemed historian, Dr. David Hume, who kindly agreed to spend the day with me and answer questions on my ancestors and the land from which our story begins. It took a little while for us to adjust to the other’s accent but since they’re similar – his a faster version of mine – we soon understood each other like old friends.

“Are you offended that we Americans call ourselves ‘Scotch-Irish’ not Scots-Irish?”

I was glad to be sitting across the table from him and could see his absolute nonchalance. He shrugged and shook his head.

“Not at all. It’s not a problem.” He continued on to explain that when the immigrants had first come to America, people routinely referred to them as “Irish” because of their accents. But they weren’t Irish and took umbrage to it by quickly correcting folks, “No, we’re Scotch-Irish.”

So, the term – completely American – was indeed born on American soil.

After a lovely day of learning and delving into my family’s roots in Belfast, I boarded the train and headed back to Dublin. Night had fallen, so there wasn’t much to be seen of the Irish countryside.

But there was plenty of time to think. I thought again of the bravery of William Bryson, of the spunk it took to travel across the dark ocean to start a new life away from his family.

And there in the darkness, thousands of miles from where I live, I felt very proud. I’ve always liked a courageous man.

[Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of “What Southern Women Know About Flirting” and “The Town That Came A-Courtin’.” Her newest book is “What Southern Women Know about Faith.” She lives near Gainesville, Ga. Sign up for her newsletter at]

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