Who Were the Black Irish?

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The term ‘Black Irish’ is one that most people will have heard at some point, although it is more commonly used in the US, Britain and Australia than it is in Ireland. But exactly what or who does it refer to?
Who were the Black Irish?
The history of the term ‘Black Irish’ is not clear, although there are numerous theories as to how the term originated.

One explanation is that it’s a description for Irish people with darker features than the pale skinned national stereotype. These would be people with black hair, brown eyes and a darker skin tone.

Ship wrecked Spanish army

It has been suggested that these features arrived in Ireland when members of the Spanish army were shipwrecked on the coast of Ireland in 1588. If they stayed on the island and began families then their genes could have been spread down throughout the generations. However, most historians believe that the majority of these Spanish soldiers were handed over to the British authorities and executed, so it’s unlikely that any did survive could’ve made much of an impact on the country’s gene pool.

Vikings were known as the ‘dark invaders’

Besides which, as an island on the edge of Europe, Ireland has been subject to numerous invasions from several different countries throughout history. The darker genes had probably already been on the island for centuries. When the Vikings invaded Ireland in the 8th and 9th centuries, they were known as the ‘dark invaders’ or ‘black foreigners’.

Who were the Black Irish?

See our series of BITESIZE articles on the Vikings

Irish rebels were transported to the Caribbean

Another possible theory for the definition of Black Irish is people from Ireland, or of Irish origin, who are black. Thousands of Irish rebels were transported to the Caribbean to work as labourers on new British settlements in the 17th century. This was at the same time that people were being taken from Africa and sold to work as slaves on these same settlements. Over time, the two communities integrated and the dark skinned children were of Irish and African origin. Many people from the Caribbean today will have Irish heritage.

British may have used ‘Black’ as a derogatory term

There is a different theory for the origin of the term Black Irish, which has nothing to do with physical appearance. During the 1800s, the relationship between Ireland and Britain was at an all-time low. The ‘Great Famine’ in Ireland caused millions to emigrate or starve, with the British government failing to do enough to help. The tensions were high and this led to a mistrust between the two countries. The term could have been born out of this tension, with the British labelling the Irish ‘Black’ as a description of their supposed sinister and underhand characteristics.

Who were the Black Irish?
See our series of BITESIZE articles on Irish Potato Famine – Ireland’s holocaust

They are a few of several potential origins but there is no universally accepted definition for the term Black Irish. Different people around the world use it in different ways with slightly different meanings

Any of you Black Irish or know people who are?  Gosh. . . I guess this is not politically correct but I think  history is interesting and should not be rewritten to leave out the parts that we might find politically incorrect at another time.   My paternal grandmother was Kate O’Donnell from Ireland but she was light skinned and red haired with blue eyes. My oldest granddaughter has dark hair and big blue eyes.  She has Irish blood on both sides and I heard someone call her black Irish.  I would love to hear your stories! 

About annetbell

I am a retired elementary teacher, well seasoned world traveler,new blogger, grandmother, and a new enthusiastic discoverer of the wonderfully complex country of India. Anne
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2 Responses to Who Were the Black Irish?

  1. Frank Whalen says:

    At an Irish fest in Smithville NJ. my mother bought a vellum with the Maguire clan as I read the small print near the bottom of the page it stated “of the Dark skin” My mother’s clan was from Sligo.
    No other info, I’d appreciate it if any one add to this it would be appreciate……………….Frank

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