Pages

15 October 2010

STEPPING ON TOES: SEMANTICS, POLITICS, AND IRISH GENEALOGY

     Irish genealogy can be fraught with controversial politics and divisive semantics. Two words for one place, for example "Derry" or "Londonderry," can signify the speaker's religious or political affilitations. As someone who conducts genealogy workshops and speaks to various groups about Irish genealogy, I am very aware of my responsibility to tread carefully on the line that separates information and opinion. I often speak to groups containing researchers who are looking for Orange Order ancestors mixed with those who are searching for ancestors who took part in armed struggles to create the Republic. I strive to maintain a neutral gathering where all Irish family historians can learn. For the most part, an atmosphere of education wins over any partisan feelings (although I am sure there are many of tongues bitten and outbursts inwardly extinguished).
     However, sometimes a comment slips and causes a bit of disagreement. But these instances, if approached with learning in mind, can be a source of education.
     One recent evening, I was giving a talk to a group of Irish attorneys. Speaking of the migration of Irish to America in the 1700's and early 1800's, I stated that those waves of Irish immigrants originated in the northern counties. I used the terms "Scots Irish" and "Scotch Irish," stating that those were the labels applied to such immigrants in the USA. These two terms are commonly used in the USA, but they are not used in Ireland, England, or Scotland.
     So I was not surprised when a native Ulster Scot in the audience objected, saying that the only proper term is "Ulster Scots." We had a conversation about semantics (it was a group of lawyers, after all, what could I expect?), and I listened to quite a few new points that I had not considered before that night. As is often the case, I learned much that evening from an audience member. This "give and take" with others is one of the reasons I enjoy giving talks.
     I've since done some thinking, and some additional research, but I have yet to find a term that is both genealogically descriptive yet politically neutral for those ancestors who hailed from Ireland but were of Scottish ancestry or origin themselves. I tend to call a group by whatever name they designate themselves, so until I am corrected again, I will drop the American "Scots Irish" for "Ulster Scots."
    But this incident did remind me of the difficulty of teaching about Irish genealogy research devoid of any historical  or political context. Can't be done! Irish ancestry and Irish history are wound together too tightly to be separated easily. Throw in a need for political correctness these days--and talking about Irish genealogy can be like stepping into a minefield. I am thankful, however, that I invariably find Irish family historians to be sensitive to this political quagmire and to share, instead, the joys of finding an ancestor after years of research, regardless of their own, or their ancestor's, political leanings.