Who were the Black Irish? Full history explained

The term ‘Black Irish’ gets thrown around from time to time. But have you ever wondered where it comes from?

In a generation where so much information is consumed via hearsay or processed by means of social media, oftentimes, we can forget to dig into research like in the old days.

The term ‘Black Irish’ has been in circulation for centuries, with Irish whiskey’s such as Mariah Carey’s Black Irish cream liqueur and Northern Ireland-based Darker Still Spirits Company Black Irish Whiskey even naming their products after the term. Still, you probably ask your colleague or friend its meaning, and they’re likely to draw a blank.

So, to put the record straight, find out below about the ‘Black Irish’. We’re revealing where the term comes from and who exactly the term is referring to.

A brief history – the movements of Celts across Europe

A brief history of the term Black Irish.
Credit: commons.wikimedia.org

Like many ancient lands, Ireland has seen the arrival of settlers, explorers, ancient tribes, and clans of all different nationalities over centuries.

The existence of the Celts (tribes of people that shared similar traditions, customs, language, and culture and dominated Western Europe and Ireland and Britain) can be dated as far back as 1200 BC.

Yet, many often state that the first Celts arrived on the island of Ireland around 500 BC.

Over centuries, as groups arrived and fled, ancient Ireland began to take shape. In terms of our subject matter, the first major invasion would have been the Norman invasions from European countries in Ireland in 1170 and 1172.

The naming game – where did the term ‘Black Irish’ come from?

Black Irish is said to refer to invaders of Ireland.
Credit: Flickr / Steven Zucker, Smarthistory co-founder

Groups of the French invaders landed on Irish shores, bringing with them new customs and characteristics to native Irish people and Ireland’s culture. The Vikings bestowed upon themselves the title of the ‘dark invaders’ or ‘black foreigners’.

The intention of this was to divulge their cultural stance and tell of their intentions to bring force and darkness upon Ireland.

In fact, many Norman invasion families grew to amend their family names (surnames) to reflect this. In Gaelic, the Irish native language, the word for black (or dark) is ‘dubh’, and foreigner is ‘gall’.

With this, Irish people and families began to associate with the collective surname of O’Dubhghaill. In fact, O’Dubhghaill is the Gaelic version of the very popular Irish surname O’Doyle.

And it seems that this strategy to retitle oneself to reveal one’s stance or clan was a popular thing to do. Another name, O’Gallchobhair, which is the Irish version of the popular name Gallagher, means ‘foreign help’.

The Normans – another group to invade Ireland

The marriage of Strongbow and Aoife.
Credit: commons.wikimedia.org

Originating from France, the Normans were a primitive, powerful group of fighters who were first welcomed to the Emerald Isle, led by Dermot McMurrough, a king of Leinster (one of the island’s four provinces) in Ireland.

The assembly was led by Strongbow, a Norman lord from Wales. The Normans were dark in complexion, often with dark hair and eyes. Like the Vikings, they shared similar ‘dark intentions’ to rule the country, the native Irish people, and colonise the land.

Irish heritage at this point is one of many battles won and lost. However, we do know that numerous Norman invaders did settle in Ireland and integrate into Irish society.

Their names would have, at this point, been changed to more Anglicised versions. However, it is likely that they never lost their status as ‘dark invaders’ or ‘black foreigners’.

Theories – working with what we know

Another theory suggests the term Black Irish was used to refer to Spanish soldiers.
Credit: commons.wikimedia.org

With an understanding of the Norman invaders and their integration into Irish society, we can deduce that this is, in fact, where the term ‘Black Irish’ spawned from.

If this is the case, contrary to what may often be thought (that the term refers to an Irish person with dark skin, hair, and complexion), the label is actually a reference to said invaders’ intentions, all those centuries ago.

Other theories suggest that the term ‘Black Irish’ results from Irish immigrants. Some sources propose that the term is in reference to Spanish soldiers.

After the Armada of 1588, Spanish soldiers married Irish women and integrated into society. Thus, welcoming a new wave of dark-complexioned Irish people. Many have also used the term to describe Irish immigrants who settled in the West Indies or African countries.

Nevertheless, from research, it appears the most likely reason for this term in Irish culture is to describe an intent as ‘dark invaders’ or ‘black foreigners’ of the Irish country.

FAQS about the Black Irish

What does the term ‘black Irish’ mean?

There is much debate over the original meaning of the term ‘black Irish’. However it is thought to refer to invaders throughout Irish history.

Who are the Black Irish?

It is widely believed that the Norman invaders of Ireland are who is commonly referred to as the ‘black Irish’.

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