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Journey # 30: Debunking the Black Irish Myth

Originally published in The Victoria Genealogical Society's Journal Winter 2016 edition. 

I was well into my genealogy research when I heard the term Black Irish for the first time. It came to me through the family grapevine in relation to one of my great-grandmothers. Having not heard the expression before, I asked what it meant. The answer, “from gypsy stock,” implied that my great-grandmother was of a lower caste than other Irish.

Now, I have no delusions of grandeur about my family and would happily add the Black Irish moniker to my great-grandmother if it were true and especially if it came with a good story. So I did what modern genealogists do when confronted with new information—I turned to the Internet. 

My searches brought up numerous articles referencing ‘Black Irish,’ but I was surprised to find that the descriptor was not as straightforward as I had been lead to believe. In fact, its origins and meaning were uncertain and controversial.

One site stated, “The term 'black Irish' refers to Irish people with black/dark hair, generally—but not always—dark eye colour, stout build and complexions that tan, as opposed to freckle/burn in the sun.”1

Some websites I found reported that the label did, indeed, relate to gypsies. But others claimed that the Black Irish were the product of Spanish sailors who landed on the island’s shores after the Armada sinking. Then, to my surprise, I discovered another explanation that insisted Black Irish were descendants of Africans who had made their way to the Emerald Isle centuries ago.

The implication of any of these is that dark colouring had been brought into Ireland by outsiders. Therefore, anyone with dark hair and complexion must be descended from those outsiders and were not truly Irish. It would then follow that those who had lighter hair and complexions must be the true Irish and, by default, superior.
Further research, however, began to cast doubts on all explanations. More than one website described the meaning and origin of Black Irish as “murky.” (At least two sites actually used the word murky.) 

For example, the Spanish Armada connection is quickly debunked by most historians. Apparently records show that so few Spanish sailors survived on Irish shores that it would have been impossible to affect the colouring of a whole group of people. It would also not explain why dark hair was pervasive in Ireland long before the Armada.2

The gypsy connection is also put into doubt with research. While many outside of Ireland use the terms gypsies and travellers interchangeably, Irish travellers have no proven relation to true Romani gypsies outside of living similar nomadic lifestyles. Gypsies originated in India and arrived in Europe in the 15th century. Ireland has had travellers for much longer. 

In 2011, the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin and the University of Edinburgh conducted a study of the DNA of Irish Travellers. The Irish Examiner reported, “The first DNA analysis of the Travelling community has proven that it is a distinct ethnic minority who separated from the settled community between 1,000 and 2,000 years ago...”3 This is hundreds of years before Romani gypsies were known in Europe.

The connection to Africa is also discredited with research done on modern Irish genetics. The results of one DNA study showed “the closest genetic relatives of the Irish in Europe are to be found in the north of Spain in the region known as the Basque Country.” So those who had their hearts set on a Spanish connection can look to Spain even if the Armada story hasn’t panned out as expected. 

But Irish scientists recently studied ancient bones and determined through DNA that, “The ancestors of the Stone Age farmers [in Ireland] began their journey in the Bible lands… They brought with them cattle, cereals, ceramics and a tendency to black hair and brown eyes.”4

Science is proving that those who have dark hair have earlier roots (no pun intended) in Ireland and are truer Irish than those with lighter hair. Fair hair and complexion was likely brought in by the Vikings and other late-comers. 

So how did Black Irish become such an unfavourable appellation? It is perplexing especially since the term is not common in Ireland and has no historical foundation. Browsing dozens of books on Irish history turned up not one reference to ‘Black Irish’ in the indexes. A search of library catalogues and online bookstores shows several books titled Black Irish, but they are all fiction. In fact, the only reference I could find to Black Irish being used in Ireland was that Catholics in Ulster Province employed it as a disparaging way to describe the Protestants.5

This lack of historical reference indicates that the concept of Black Irish is not significant to Irish history nor to a specific group and probably developed outside of the country. Deeper research supports that the expression may have originated in North America. 
One suggestion was that because Irish immigrants were looked down on in America, Scottish immigrants tried to set themselves apart. One way to do this was to convince others that fair-hair and freckles (which the Scots tended to have) was preferred to the darker hair and complexion of many Irish. 

Another explanation is that it had nothing to do with hair or skin colour.

In an essay titled, “The Myth of the Black Irish, the author writes, “…its origin lies in borrowing the color of the reason for the flood of Irish immigrants into the USA in the 19th-century—flight from the Black Blight—the Potato Famine of Black '47…”6

Ireland Calling Back suggests the idea of Black Irish originated in Great Britain links it to Irish immigration. The website proposes the term stems from a general dislike and mistrust by the English of the Irish and suggests, “…the British labelling the Irish ‘Black’ as a description of their supposed sinister and underhand characteristics.”7

One website explained, “The true origin of this term might never be known. Its uses and meanings vary so widely that it might have been created in different places and at different times for different reasons.”8

I am inclined to believe the above statement and to support the Urban Dictionary’s sentiment, “Most of the stories about the black Irish are myths. They are just people of Irish descent. Not all Irishmen have red hair and freckles.”9

End Notes
  1. “Who are the Black Irish?,” Quora, www.quora.com/Who-are-the-Black-Irish (last accessed 1 February 2016)
  2. “Who were the Black Irish?,” Ireland Information www.ireland-information.com/articles/blackirish.htm (last accessed 1 February 2016)
  3. “DNA study: Travellers a distinct ethnicity,” The Irish Examiner, www.irishexaminer.com/ireland/health/dna-study-travellers-a-distinct-ethnicity-156324.html (last accessed 1 February 2016)
  4. “DNA shows Irish people have more complex origins than previously thought,” Sons of the Times, www.sott.net/article/263587-DNA-shows-Irish-people-have-more-complex-origins-than-previously-thought (last accessed 1 February 2016)
  5. “Who were the Black Irish and what is their story?” Irish Central, www.irishcentral.com/roots/history/who-were-the-black-irish-92376439-237784721.html (last accessed 1 February 2016)
  6. “The Myth of the Black Irish,” Dark Fiber, www.darkfiber.com/blackirish/ (last accessed 1 February 2016)
  7. “Who were the Black Irish?,” Ireland Calling Back, ireland-calling.com/black-irish/ (last accessed 1 February 2016)
  8. “What is Black Irish?,” Wise Geek, www.wisegeek.org/what-is-black-irish.htm (last accessed 1 February 2016)
  9. “Black Irish,” Urban Dictionary, www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=Black+irish (last accessed 1 February 2016)

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