“Catholic” and “Irish” are so linked in public imagination that the University of Notre Dame, founded by French Catholics, calls its teams “the fighting Irish.” Would it surprise you to learn Protestants outnumber Catholics among Americans with ancestors from Ireland?
Though I heard little about Dominion Day (now Canada Day) during childhood summers in Canada, my grandmother’s friend Mrs. Moise made sure I knew July 12 was Orangemen’s Day. It celebrates a long-ago Protestant battle victory over Catholics. For a few years in grade school I thought it fun to wear orange on Saint Patrick’s Day. Then I learned Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland were killing each other. Not funny.
North America received over a quarter million Irish immigrants in the 1700s, largely Presbyterian with Scottish ancestry. The merchants and tradesmen who formed the Irish Society of Boston organized world’s first recorded Saint Patrick’s Day parade in 1737. Instead of settling in cities, though, most moved to the frontier to farm. Their descendants multiplied to populate much of the South and the Appalachians.
History is written not only by the winners and the literate, but by those with an agenda. When potato famine in the 1840s drove well over a million destitute, starving Catholic Irish to an unwelcoming America, the previous arrivals rebranded themselves “Scots-Irish” to evade prejudice. Back in Ireland by the 1900s, the mostly Catholic independence movement laid claim to marks of traditional Irish culture: Saint Patrick, shamrocks, the color green.
Deciding “orange” Irish weren’t “true” Irish served agendas both green and orange. It’s a short step from there to assuming Americans’ ancestors from Ireland were all potato famine Catholics, even if it isn’t true.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.