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Irish Presbyterians and the Shaping of Western Pennsylvania

Peter E Gilmore
University of Pittsburgh Press


Breandán Mac Suibhne has written in the Dublin Review of Books on the grim conditions experienced by post-Famine Irish emigrants in the coalmines of Pennsylvannia. http://www.drb.ie/essays/'them-poor-irish-lads'-in-pennsylvania. It is an outstanding piece of writing and one of the most read pieces ever published in the review. It is, however, not the full story of the Irish in that part of the United States.

Peter Gilmore’s Irish Presbyterians and the Shaping of Western Pennsylvania speaks of an earlier era, roughly 1770 to 1830, during which there was considerable Irish Presbyterian emigration to western Pennsylvania. Living under Anglican hegemony, these Irish Calvinists, not unlike the original New England settlers, were keen to escape their second-rate status in Ireland and live on their own terms in Presbyterian communities. Not only were they free from Episcopalian interference in western Pennsylvania but, as one settler explained in a letter to his brother in Monaghan, Roman Catholics were also quite rare.

As dissenters who were discriminated against by the Anglican establishment, eighteenth century Irish Presbyterians tended towards communal self-reliance and developed what Gilmore calls “ a kind of state within a state”. In the Pennsylvanian back country the Ulster Presbyterians ‑ often called the Scotch Irish ‑ were culturally distinctive by virtue of their Irish experience and practices and it seems did not easily gel with Scots and American Presbyterians. They were joined in the US by Irish Presbyterian ministers who brought with them “organisational structures, rituals and theology”.

Gilmore’s interest is the practices, social and religious, which Presbyterian émigrés brought to Pennsylvania from Ulster, practices which distinguished them from other US Presbyterians, including those from Scotland. The term “Scotch Irish” is not one he finds helpful. 

The Trans-Appalachian west of Pennsylvania was and remains the home of a large Presbyterian population. The Irish Presbyterian diaspora emigrated before the evangelical transformation of Irish Protestantism, which occurred in the nineteenth century, and was not concerned with winning converts; they saw themselves as “a covenanted people” and brought this identity with them to the Appalachians.

The individuals who settled this region were not “rugged individuals” but rather committed members of communities whose hallmark was their religion. These communities “understood and shaped their world through the preaching and study of scripture, recitation ... and regular ritual performance”.

Gilmore describes a cohesive society based on subsistence farming which developed and altered over time. His history begins with a pattern of migration which preceded the revolutionary wars and ends during the administration of Andrew Jackson, “the son of Irish Presbyterian emigrants and the first Irish American president”. The later period saw the arrival of large numbers of Catholic Irish into the world described by Mac Suibhne and also schism within mainstream Presbyterianism. These coincided with the increasing advance of the market and capitalist economy, which were in time to dilute the social cohesion of these immigrant Irish Presbyterian communities.

Gilmore points out that that among these Irish Presbyterian communities, matters of divine worship and social integration took precedence over economic activity. Benjamin Franklin’s view that “ time is money” would not have made much sense in these Appalachian communities. Franklin’s adage was used by Max Weber to support the thesis of his famous work The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, a study which relied heavily on American Protestantism. However, it seems the social character of Irish Presbyterianism in Western Pennsylvania would not have offered much support for the speculations of the famous German thinker.

Not all Irish Presbyterians engaged in subsistence farming. Some drifted towards the cities where, according to one commentator their “grim churches dotted the industrialised neighbourhoods”. These dissenting working class communities remained loyal to their religious principles and opposed “fiercely any perceived desecration of the sabbath”.

Not all Irish Presbyterians in Pittsburgh were working class: some were relatively prosperous. One such was Andrew Mellon, who has been described as a “quintessential Scotch-Irish middle class Pittsburgher” possessed of “a Presbyterian ethos [that] was mostly secular”. His son was the famous Thomas Mellon, who found a model for life in Franklin’s autobiography. For Thomas, time was money and he did not hesitate to advocate the Sunday operation of a local railway in which he had shares. Later he made a fortune in banking. The original family home in Co Tyrone is now at the heart of the Mellon-sponsored Ulster American Folk Park Museum, a brilliantly executed museum which interestingly celebrates not the lives of prosperous Pittsburghians such as the Mellons but the rural subsistence farmers whose generation of surplus wealth would not, in a thousand years, have funded their museum.