Wednesday 6 March 2019. Prof Mike Cowan: Topic “A Scotch – Irish Odyssey”
Mr Cowan was introduced by Probian, Eamon Cunningham, as a distinguished American academic and visiting professor at both Trinity and Oxbridge. Rather teasingly Prof Cowan stated that the purpose of his talk was to trace a line from King William of Orange to President Trump. In 1720 four Cowan brothers emigrated from County Down to settle in the Appalachian Mountains along with other Ulster emigres. Proud of their protestant roots and bound by a strong sense of community they called themselves “The Billy Boys of the Hills”. They were the first “Hillbillies”. Whereas Irish Catholics from the same era were keen to become a part of new world society, the “Hillbillies” never really availed of the opportunities which existed to get up, get out and get on. As a result, they languished at the bottom of the economic ladder working in the mines and in the heavy industries drawn to the coalfields. In this situation they acquired any number of unkind nick-names – Rednecks, Honkies, Oakies, Coonasses and Trailer Trash. In a series of slides Prof Cowan illustrated patterns of poverty in Appalachia, which mirrored patterns of ill-health, especially “Black Lung” – a condition resulting from working down the mines and inhaling coal dust. This in turn corelated with other socio-economic indicators which when overlaid with voting patterns in the last Presidential election showed that “hillbillies” voted solidly for Mr Trump. To demonstrate the hillbillies’ contribution to country music Prof Cowan ended his talk by singing a song about coal mining, accompanied by local guitarist Patrick Bradley.