Appalachian Celts And Their Music

By Charles H. Ball

Part I: Who Are the Appalachian Celts?

When the Celtic people settled the Appalachian region they had their hands full: Indians, bears, wilderness, weather, topography name it. They were not inclined to worry much about their roots, except the ones they planted in the ground. They were not impressed, nor even much conscious, of their ethnic origins. All they knew was that they had escaped tyranny, poverty, and oppression of one kind or another and were now planted in a new world, a world they had yet to conquer. And this conquest would be a full-time job. They had little time to think of such things as ethnicity and national origins. And besides, they had left Europe and come to America for good reasons. They weren't inclined to look back Within a generation most lost all sense of their origins and were simply free people in America. Today, three centuries later, most of their descendants have no sense of being Irish, or Scots-Irish, or Welsh, or Scottish. (Those who do think about it tend to think about it too much, I think.) Many Appalachian people of Celtic descent have a vague and, perhaps, romanticized view of the Celtic world from which they sprang. So, in the next few paragraphs, let's take a look at that world and see how it affected the music that would come to be known as Appalachian.

We don't know much about the people who inhabited the island of Ireland before the Gaels conquered the natives and became dominant in the island. By the time the Irish began to emigrate to America, Ireland was not by any means a nation of purely Celtic people. After years of entertaining the conquering Danes, Ard Righ Brian Boru may have thought he had run all the Norsemen away, but he had not. Many had intermarried with the Irish, adopted the Irish language, and blended in with the native population. Ireland was home to Mr. O'Neil, but it was also home to Mr. Langstrom! With the coming of the Normans from England, Norman names such as Butler, Burke, and many "Fitz" names quickly became accepted as Irish. Several centuries of "cross-breeding" had elapsed before the exodus to America.

Most people think of the Irish as having emigrated mainly in the nineteenth century, beginning with the potato famine. In fact many came much earlier. Irishmen were living in Appalachia before the days of the American Revolution. These Catholic Irish found a difficult problem in their new land. The absence of priests and of churches made the active practice of Catholicism impossible in many cases. Rather than abandoning the religious life, many became protestants. Some became Presbyterians, as were their Scots-Irish neighbors. Some became Methodists. Most became Baptists. That is the reason that, to this very day, it is not difficult in Appalachia to find Baptist church rolls including such names as Murphy, Mullins, and O'Brien.

The history of the Scots-Irish is complex and is widely misunderstood. To understand it, we need to know a little about the settlement of Scotland in the remote past. Highland Scotland was settled by Gaelic immigrants from Ireland. In those days what is now Scotland was called Alba and what is now Ireland was known as Scotia. The inhabitants of Scotia were called Scots. So the Gaelic Scots went to the highlands of Alba, and as a result Alba eventually became known as Scotland. These highlanders spoke Gaelic and were very different from the lowland Scots who spoke a dialect of English. Most of our Scottish images are drawn from the highlanders, with their clans and their plaids and their bagpipes and their wars. We don't seem to think of the lowlanders, who were more similar to the people of the northern counties of England. They had their own traditions, their own bagpipes (quite unlike the pipes of the highlanders), their own songs (in their own language), and their own dances. It is this group of lowlanders who were ultimately to have the greatest influence in Appalachia.

In Ireland, the English government (which had gained ascendancy in Ireland) tried every ploy to de-Gaelicize the country. Part of that effort was the so-called plantation of Ulster. The English government confiscated land in the northern counties of Ireland and settled it with immigrants from Scotland.The land was not given to the unruly (and anti-English) highlanders, but to the Scots of the lowlands, as well as some English. These people became known as Ulster Scots or, in America, Scots-Irish. This distinction of the Scots-Irish from both the Gaelic Irish and the highland Scots is important.

The early settlement of Appalachia by the Celts included Irish, Scots-Irish, and lowland Scots, as well as many Welsh. Few highlanders came into Appalachia. Strangely, the highlanders found their home in the coastal areas of North Carolina in such places as Wilimington and other settlements along the Cape Fear River. They got as far as the Piedmont, but few ventured farther into the Appalachian highlands.

All this, of course, affected the music of Appalachia. The immigrants brought with them the music they knew in their homelands. What this music was, and what is would become, will be the topics of future articles in this Newsletter.