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 the old days.
While the term “Black Irish” has been in circulation for centuries, you’re bound to 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,” where the term comes from, and who exactly it is referring to.
A brief history
Like many ancient lands, over centuries, Ireland has seen the arrival of settlers, explorers, ancient tribes, and clans of all different nationalities.
The existence of the Celts (tribes of people that shared similar traditions, customs, language, and culture and dominated Western Europe and the British Isles) can be dated as far back as 1200 BC. Yet, it is often stated 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. The first major invasion—in terms of our subject matter—would have been the Norman invasions in Ireland in 1170 and 1172.
The naming game
As groups of the French invaders landed on Irish shores, with them they brought new customs and characteristics to 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 a foreigner is “gall.”
With this, 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.”
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 and colonise the land.
While Ireland’s history at this point is one of many battles won and lost, we do know that numerous Norman invaders did settle in Ireland and integrate into Irish society.
Although their names would have, at this point, been changed to more Anglicised versions, it is likely that they never lost their status as “dark invaders” or “black foreigners.”
It is with an understanding of the Norman invaders, and their integration into Irish society, that 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 in fact a reference to said invaders’ intentions, all those centuries ago.
Other theories suggest that the term “Black Irish” is a result of immigration. Some sources propose that the term is in reference to Spanish soldiers, who, after the Armada of 1588, married Irish women and integrated into society, welcoming a new wave of dark-complexioned Irish people.
The term has also been used to describe Irish descendants who would have settled in the West Indies or Africa.
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.