Black Irish…Who Were They and What Does it Mean?

If you are like most people, you have heard the expression “Black Irish” more than once. If not, then instead of being curious you get to be one of the lucky ones and say “I know what that means”. Why? Because you were smart enough to read this article. The term “Black Irish” has been around for centuries, although it is almost never used in the country of Ireland itself. There are many stories as to the how the term originated and most are plausible for good reason – none can really be proved or disproved.

What can be asserted with reasonable certainty is that “Black Irish” is as much of an aphorism as it is an axiom. In other words, the label was originally used to describe the general appearance of those Irish with dark hair, dark eyes or a dark complexion. And these features seem to have begun with the Norman invasions of 1170, led by Strongbow. The Normans originated in France and the Franks were known to have black hair.

However, the Vikings were known by the Irish as as “dark invaders” or “black foreigners” and they first raided the Green Isle around 800 A.D. They continued to be a scourge upon Ireland until their ultimate defeat by Brian Boru at the Battle of Clontarf in 1014. Viking survivors integrated into Irish culture and created a clans of their own that were known as “septs”. Interestingly, the Gaelic word for foreigner is “gall” and for black (or dark) is “dubh.” Interestingly, the name Doyle is translated in Irish as “O’Dubhghaill” or, “black foreigner” and Gallagher is “O Gallchobhair”, which means “foreign help”.

Another possibility for “Black Irish” origin is the descendants of Spanish traders who settled in Ireland and perhaps even subsequent generations of the few Spanish sailors who were washed up on the west coast of Ireland after the disaster of the Spanish Armada of 1588.

As mentioned previously, it is most likely a descriptive term rather than a term to describe the descendants of a specific group of people. A good example of this are thousands upon thousands of Irish who immigrated to America during and after the Great Famine of 1845 to 1849. 1847 was so bad it was known as “black 47”.  Also known as the “Potato Famine”, the rot of the potatoes of Ireland destroyed the main source of food for an entire population. Potatoes were turned black and the survivors were known as those who fled the “black death”.

While it was most certainly used originally in a derogatory fashion, the term “Black Irish” is now considered a badge of honor, especially for those who can trace their origins to the immigrants of the year “black 47”.  The truth may never be known for sure, but we can be relatively certain that it did not originate as a designation for an actual class of people, but moreso as a term to describe physical characteristics and perhaps as a nickname for the survivors of a great famine.