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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? Image copyright Ireland Calling

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’.

Vikings arrived in Ireland 795AD. Image copyright Ireland Calling

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.

Give us food or we perish - the cry of the starving in Ireland. Image copyright Ireland Calling

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.

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  1. My mother’s great grandfather Halloren raised horses in Ireland and thought he could do the same in Australia but found climate too arid. Lived in Australia and built a hotel and bakery. The area they lived in was named after him Halloren Hills. We were told we are black Irish

  2. Mark Stanborough

    My family immigrated to Australia in 1791 with the help of the British Empire, I was told I am black Irish yet have heard so many different stories about who the black Irish are, it would be nice to know what the original meaning is

  3. I realize the term Black Irish has various meaning. The one I was told by my maternal Grandmother who immigrated from Ireland to Canada (because the street were paved with gold) indentured to Roman Catholic Nuns at the age of 16 in 1918. Her definition was that the Protestant Irish were the white Irish (W.A.S.P. white Anglo Saxon protestant ) and the Black Irish were the Irish Roman Catholics. This was also the same definition used by my father and his family who were 3rd generation Ottawa Valley Canada) Irish Catholics.

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