Ulster-American Heritage Symposium Explores ‘Transatlantic Transitions’


Participants in the 2022 Ulster-American Heritage Symposium, hosted by East Tennessee State University June 19-20, visit the Appalachian Trail at Carver's Gap atop Roan Mountain. They are, from left, Patrick Ireland, Jane MacMorran, Abby Arnold-Patti, Liam Campbell, Ron Roach, and David Wilson. (Photos by Appalachian Places staff.)

By Jane MacMorran

More than 30 scholars participated in the 2022 Ulster-American Heritage Symposium at East Tennessee State University, June 19-22, hosted by ETSU’s Department of Appalachian Studies. Dr. Jane MacMorran, director of Appalachian, Scottish, and Irish Studies at ETSU, coordinated the conference. For more than 40 years, the Ulster-American Heritage Symposium, has convened every two years to explore the process of transatlantic emigration and settlement and related historical and cultural links. Its interdisciplinary approach encourages scholarly study and public awareness of the geographical, historical, and cultural connections between Ulster and North America including what is commonly called the Scotch-Irish or Ulster-Scots heritage. The Symposium encourages dialogue between those working in different fields including history, language, literature, geography, archaeology, anthropology, folklife, religion, and music, to name a few.

Liam Campbell delivers the keynote address at the opening banquet for the Symposium.

During the symposium, participants explored the interconnectedness of place by visiting local natural and historic sites, including the Appalachian Trail. This 2,200-mile trail, the world’s longest hiking-only footpath, extends between Georgia’s Springer Mountain and Maine’s Mount Katahdin. Since 2006, the trail has been extended by the formation of the International Appalachian Trail (IAT), which extends across the border between Canada and the United States. The mountains that are home to the trail existed on the supercontinent Pangaea before the formation of the Atlantic Ocean and breaking apart of the continent. The same ancient mountain range on the other side of the Atlantic now includes IAT routes through Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland and 11 other countries.


The 2022 symposium theme, “Transatlantic Transitions: Environment and Society,” offered an opportunity to reflect on the two-way diasporic relationship operating across the Atlantic and featured research that explored this influence in both Ulster and America. With the overarching theme of “Migration,” the symposium offered an opportunity to learn from each other by looking at both the past and present. 


Liam Campbell with fellow Symposium participant Meg Guy, Tennessee State Parks Regional Interpretive Specialist.

“It is a perfect example of what I think a conference should be,” Liam Campbell, director of the Mellon Centre for Migration Studies (co-sponsor of the symposium), said. “It reinforces the deep connections between our two places — from the geological connections of the Sperrins to the Appalachians.”


The story of movement on a changing planet is intimately tied with themes of home, family and diaspora. A better understanding of our migration past is also central to meeting the environmental challenges that we all face, and to building a shared future on our common home. The symposium further offered an opportunity to study and compare the complexities of mountainous regions and the interplay between humans and landscape. Thirty participants from Ireland, Scotland, Canada, and the United States shared their research on topics as diverse as genetics, mapping, literature, interpretation, education, history, environment, legacy, music, and dance, inviting new conversations and opening lines of collaborative research.


“Indeed, it was a bit of a gamble to explore ‘Transatlantic Transitions: Environment and Society,’ which was a new departure, and it was truly interdisciplinary and connected,” Campbell said. “It hoped to broaden out the Scots Irish debate, which I think it did.”


“I am delighted that we were able to once again host the Ulster-American Heritage Symposium at ETSU.” Ron Roach, chair of Appalachian Studies at ETSU, who also participated in the conference, said. “It is important that we continue to acknowledge and study the historic and cultural ties between Appalachia and Ulster and to study the powerful forces of migration that are a part of everyone’s story,”


Since its founding in 1998, the Mellon Centre for Migration Studies (MCMS) has developed into a leading academic research library related to the history of the peoples of Ireland worldwide. Part of the Libraries Ni Heritage service, MCMS is the primary project of the Scotch-Irish Trust of Ulster. The Mellon Centre is located at the Ulster American Folk Park, which tells the story of three centuries of Irish emigration, particularly through interpretation of its open-air site in Omagh, County Tyrone. The Symposium has been closely associated with the Ulster-American Folk Park since it met for the first time in 1976, and with MCMS since 1996

Musicians perform at the weekly ETSU-led jam session at Yee-Haw Brewing Co. in Johnson City.

Participants in the 2022 symposium took part in a range of fieldtrips and events that highlighted the legacy of Scots Irish settlement in East Tennessee, including tours of Sycamore Shoals State Historic Park and Miller Homestead at Roan Mountain State Park. Activities included old-time music at Yee-Haw Brewing Co. in the old East Tennessee and Western North Carolina Railroad (Tweetsie) depot, Scottish country dancing at Tennessee Hills Brewstillery, and hiking the Appalachian Trail (Carver's Gap) on Roan Mountain.

The 2024 Symposium will take place in Ireland, again hosted by the Mellon Centre for Migration Studies.

Jane MacMorran is director of Appalachian, Scottish, and Irish Studies at ETSU.

The Department of Appalachian Studies at ETSU includes a range of academic programs as well as the Center of Excellence in Appalachian Studies and Services. The Department includes the Bachelor of Arts in Bluegrass, Old-Time, and Roots Music Studies along with a range of minors. The Department’s Appalachia, Scottish, and Irish Studies program offers a summer study abroad experience and exchange programs in Scotland and Ireland. The summer study abroad program enjoys a strong partnership with the Mellon Centre for Migration Studies.