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Pittsburgh’s ‘Other’ Irish: Before the Robber Barons

Saturday, August 17, 2019 @ 1:30 pm


The phrase “Scotch-Irish Presbyterian” might seem synonymous with self-righteous robber barons. But take a further look back to a Western PA of farms and artisans’ workshop—when Pittsburgh’s Irish were mostly Presbyterians whose religious beliefs discouraged them from the pursuit of wealth for its own sake.  Come hear Dr. Peter Gilmore discuss his recent books Irish Presbyterians and the Shaping of Western Pennsylvania 1770-1830, and Exiles of ’98: Ulster Presbyterians in the US.


Irish Presbyterians and the Shaping of Western Pennsylvania 1770-1830 is the story of Irish immigrants who sought to recreate an old-world ethnoreligious culture and in so doing, established Presbyterianism in western Pennsylvania. This study attempts to understand their translation of religious belief and practice from the north of Ireland to western Pennsylvania, how it functioned, and how and why change occurred.

Although there have been numerous books on “Scotch-Irish Presbyterians” (variously styled), this is the first sustained examination of Irish Presbyterian religious culture in the Early National Period, and in a region which saw a heavy concentration of Presbyterians from Ireland. Such a book is long overdue.

This is both an historical study of an American region transitioning from the Colonial to the Early Republic eras and an examination of an Irish diaspora. The Presbyterians who contributed the making of western Pennsylvania at the turn of the nineteenth century largely understood their faith through the prism of Irish experience.

Who, exactly, were these Presbyterians, and what did they want? Andrew Holmes, in his definitive study of Ulster Presbyterianism, suggests that “[b]eing a Presbyterian for some people had little to do with attendance at meeting. Their identity signified attachment to certain cultural, ethnic, and political ideals that were informed but not necessarily beholden to the peculiar
doctrines of Presbyterianism.” 10 Something similar seems true for western Pennsylvania and its Presbyterian-dominated Irish diaspora. But if formal membership mattered less than a shared sense of peoplehood, ministers, elders, and communicants—with all their hopes, pieties, and anxieties—provided a collective sense of meaning and direction. Some migrants had arrived in the region seeking to create a new, godlier Ireland and a more perfect Ulster, a place where humble social origins and simple faith could be exalted, and material and spiritual existence uplifted. For Joseph and Mary McClorg, living in the near-wilderness of the Shenango Valley in the 1820s, western Pennsylvania seemed “a land of liberty and Gospel Light.”

West of the Alleghenies, a constellation of factors—rebellion, economic dislocation, weekly prayer meetings, electrifying sermons, conviction of sin, yearning for “right relations” with God—repeatedly triggered a more heightened sense of connection to a Presbyterian tradition informed by Irish experience.

Exiles of ’98: Ulster Presbyterians in the US.

Irish Presbyterian immigrants with a connection to the political tumult in Ireland during the 1790s, including and especially the 1798 Rebellion, had a disproportionate role in the formation of the American political system. They contributed to the organization, leadership and ideology both of oppositional partisanship and governance during a crucial and defining stage of American political development, particularly the two decades between 1795 and 1815. In these years the United States experienced internal contention for power in the form of political parties, the first peaceful transfer of government from one party to another, difficult manoeuvring between major European nations at war, and eventually conflict with the world’s foremost imperial power.

Based on a broad canvas of archival and documentary sources, this essay considers institutional and ceremonial expressions of the diasporic community, careers of notable figures both in the Rebellion and in American life, and the particular case-studies of more theologically conservative Presbyterians in this transatlantic movement.

Presbyterians from Ulster who arrived in the United States during the 1790s entered a new nation governed federally according to the terms of a Constitution written and adopted less than ten years earlier. A two-party political system emerged in this decade in the convergence of lingering divisions over the proper configuration of national government, disagreements over budgetary and taxing issues, and the proper relationship with Great Britain. In this process the political outlooks and interests of earlier, pre-revolutionary cohorts of Irish Presbyterian immigrants merged with those of more recently arrived immigrants. Thus, Irish Presbyterians came to form a significant segment of the coalition which became the oppositional Democratic-Republican Party.


Books will be available for purchase and signing!

Free and open to the public
wheelchair accessible.



Saturday, August 17, 2019
1:30 pm
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