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Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Who were the Black Irish? What is the origin of the Irish with swarthy dark features?

A subject of historical discussion the subject is almost never referred to in Ireland

Irish Emigrants About to Set Sail for America from Liverpool, circa 1847
Irish Emigrants About to Set Sail for America from Liverpool, circa 1847
Photo by Google Images

The term 'Black Irish' has commonly been in circulation among Irish emigrants and their descendants for centuries. As a subject of historical discussion the subject is almost never referred to in Ireland. There are a number of different claims as to the origin of the term, none of which are possible to prove or disprove.
'Black Irish' is often a description of people of Irish origin who had dark features, black hair, dark complexion and eyes.
A quick review of Irish history reveals that the island was subject to a number of influxes of foreign people. The Celts arrived on the island about the year 500 B.C.
Whether or not this was an actual invasion or rather a more gradual migration and assimilation of their culture by the natives is open to conjecture, but there is sufficient evidence to suggest that this later explanation is more likely.

The next great influx came from Northern Europe with Viking raids occurring as early as 795 A.D. The defeat of the Vikings at the Battle of Clontarf in the year 1014 by Brian Boru marked the end of the struggle with the invaders and saw the subsequent integration of the Vikings into Irish society. The migrants became 'Gaelicized' and formed septs (a kind of clan) along Gaelic lines.
The Norman invasions of 1170 and 1172 led by Strongbow saw yet another wave of immigrants settle in the country, many of whom fiercely resisted English dominance of the island in the centuries that followed. The Plantation of Ulster in the seventeenth century saw the arrival of English and Scottish colonists in Ulster after the 'Flight of the Earls'.
Each of these immigrant groups had their own physical characteristics and all, with the exception of the Ulster Planters, assimilated to some degree into Irish society, many claiming to be 'more Irish than the Irish themselves!'
The Vikings were often referred to as the 'dark invaders' or 'black foreigners'. The Gaelic word for foreigner is 'gall' and for black (or dark) is 'dubh'.
Many of the invaders families took Gaelic names that utilized these two descriptive words. The name Doyle is in Irish 'O'Dubhghaill' which literally means 'dark foreigner' which reveals their heritage as an invading force with dark intentions.
The name Gallagher is 'O Gallchobhair' which translates as 'foreign help'. The traditional image of Vikings is of pale-skinned blond-haired invaders but their description as 'dark foreigners' may lead us to conclude that their memory in folklore does not just depend on their physical description.
The Normans were invited into Ireland by Dermot McMurrough and were led by the famous Strongbow. Normans are ultimately of French origin where black haired people are not uncommon. As with the Vikings these were viewed as a people of 'dark intentions' who ultimately colonized much of the Eastern part of the country and several larger towns.
Many families however integrated into Gaelic society and changed their Norman name to Gaelic and then Anglo equivalents: the Powers, the Fitzpatricks, Fitzgeralds, Devereuxs, Redmonds.

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