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Black Irish is a traditional term that is commonly used among Irish American communities to describe a dark brown or black hair phenotype appearing in Caucasian people of Irish descent. This can be distinguished in contrast to the (lighter) brown, blond or red hair color variant, the latter stereotypically perceived to personify the look of typical Irish folk. The term itself is rather ambiguous and not frequently used in everyday conversation. As such, the description of those it depicts has been known to vary to a degree in that some have differing views on which physical characteristics (e.g., dark hair, brown eyes, medium skin tone or dark hair, blue eyes, pale skin tone) best define the appearance of the so-called Black Irish. This appearance trait is also common in all Celtic regions including Scotlandmarker and Walesmarker.

Inspired by tales which claim the darker features to be of Iberian derivation, researchers have looked to science for answers, often citing genetic studies pertaining to those with Irish and/or British ancestry. This is seen as a means of determining what genotypic and environmental factors have contributed to the divergence between the more or less prevalent types found among Irish people.


The first clear evidence of human habitation in Irelandmarker has been carbon dated to circa 7000 BCE. Written records authenticating the existence of primordial peoples have yet to be discovered, but legends, such as those described in the Book of Invasions, refer to a number of historical ethnic groups, including the Fomorians, Nemedians, Fir Bolg, Tuatha Dé Danann, and Milesians. Despite the lack of empirical data linking them to the Irish, one or more of these races have been acknowledged in previous and current ancestral studies, such as Dennis O'Mullally's History of O'Mullally and Lally Clan, or The history of an Irish family through the ages entertwined with that of the Irish nation, wherein the author points to the Fir Bolg as "the aboriginal people of Ireland, smaller in stature than the Gaels, with jet-black hair and dark eyes, contrasting with unusually white skin." Likewise, while such observations remain devoid of scientific backing, recent advances in genetics continue to offer more clues.

Spanish Armada

These physical traits are sometimes thought to be the result of an Iberian admixture originating with survivors of the Spanish Armada. However, the genetic contributions of the latter are likely to have been insignificant, as most Armada survivors were killed on the beaches, and many of the remnants eventually escaped from Ireland. Some believe that a group of Spanish soldiers ended up serving as armed retainers to the Irish chiefs Brian O'Rourke, Sorley Boy MacDonnell, and Hugh O'Neill, 2nd Earl of Tyrone. Consequently, these soldiers may have lived in Irelandmarker long enough to father children, although they did not constitute a very large number. The genetic evidence is that the survivors of the Spanish Armada probably left no legacy, as the Irish have only minute amounts of Neolithic Near Eastern Y chromosome genetic markers such as E3b and J, both of which are present in significant levels throughout Spainmarker (with the exception of the Basque Countrymarker).

Iberian connection

The Spanish Armada myth is thought to have been a corruption of a story based on the Milesians (not to be confused with the ancient Greek people of the same name), the purported descendants of Míl Espáine (Latin Miles Hispaniae, "Soldier of Hispania", later pseudo-Latinised as "Milesius"), speculated to represent Celtic-speaking peoples from the western Iberian peninsula who began to migrate to Irelandmarker and Britainmarker in the fifth century B.C.Genetic research also shows a strong similarity between the Y chromosome haplotypes of males from northwestern Spainmarker and northern Portugalmarker and Irish men with Gaelic surnames, with a sizeable difference between the west and the east of Ireland, in that much of those from the west owe less of their DNA to Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian populations. Genetic marker R1b reaches frequencies as high as 98% in northwestern Ireland and 95% in southwestern Ireland, but drops to 73% in northeastern Ireland and 85% in southeastern Ireland. Additionally, R1b averages between 90% and 95% in Y chromosomes of the Basques of northern Spainmarker (and southwestern Francemarker), considerably greater than levels of the same haplogroup found amongst the remaining Spanish genepool, where it varies from region to region in a range from 42% to 75%, but mostly with percentages in the 50s and 60s.

In recently published books (Blood of the Isles by Bryan Sykes and The Origins of the British - A Genetic Detective Story by Stephen Oppenheimer), both authors propose that ancient inhabitants of Ireland can be traced back to the Iberian Peninsulamarker, as a result of a series of migrations that took place during the Mesolithic and to a lesser extent the Neolithic Age. These movements theoretically laid the foundations for present-day populations in the British Islesmarker.According to journalist Nicholas Wade, Oppenheimer maintains there is a great lineal commonality between the Irish and British people, as reported in the March 6, 2007 edition of the New York Times. Oppenheimer also advances the controversial claim that a language closely related to Basque was long ago spoken by their shared ancestors.

A similar theory was examined in the early eighties by Bob Quinn with his trilogy of documentary films entitled "Atlantean ", the author arguing for the existence of a 'West Atlantic continuum' of people, linking the region of Connemara, in Ireland's West, with Iberian and Berber types who supposedly traveled from across the sea over a period spanning several thousand years.

Hair, Skin and Eye Color Statistics in Ireland

In a statistical survey of the Irish carried out by Mr. C. Wesley Dupertuis in the 1940s under the endorsement and guidance of The Division of Anthropology of Harvard Universitymarker, based on some 10,000 adult males, the following information was gathered and so documented.

The hair color of the Irish is predominantly brown. Less than 3% have black or ashen hair; 40% have dark brown hair. Medium brown hues make up another 35%. Persons with blond and light brown hair account for close to 15%, while approximately 10% have auburn or red hair. Both golden and dark brown shades can be seen in the southwestern counties of Irelandmarker, but fairest hair in general is most common in the Central Plain. Ulster has been evidenced to have the highest frequencies of red hair with the lowest found in Wexfordmarker and Waterfordmarker.

In further examining pigmentation characteristics (both as a whole and regionally), studies have indicated the Irish are "almost uniquely pale skinned when unexposed, untanned parts of the body, are observed" and "40% of the entire group are freckled to some extent". Moreover, "in the proportion of pure light eyes", data shows that "Irelandmarker competes successfully with the blondest regions of Scandinavia", as approximately 42% of the Irish population have pure blue eyes. Another 30% have been found to possess light-mixed eyes and "less than 1 half of 1% have pure brown".

The complete results of this survey have been condensed and arranged in the Harvard Anthropometric Laboratory (formerly under the close supervision of Professor Earnest A. Hooton) with the cooperation of both governments in Ireland.

Native Americans and Scots-Irish in the South

In the United States South, the offspring of Scots-Irish or Ulster Irish immigrants who married Native American, African American, or people of other non-white ancestry have historically called themselves "Black Irish," "Black Dutch," or "Black German" as a reflection of their coloring, and to conceal their origins. This was particularly the case during the Trail of Tears era of the 19th century, when the forced removal of the Cherokee nation from their native land to the Indian Territory, accompanied by laws that forbade Natives to own land, and denied them the right to vote, led both Cherokees and their offspring of mixed race to hide their ethnic heritage. This spurious identification as "Black Irish" or "Black Dutch" has persisted among the descendants of these people for over 100 years.

Other uses

A lesser-known point of origin refers to the potato famine of 1845-1851, which turned the blighted potatoes 'black' and as a result drove thousands of Irish people to America's shores.

The term has also been used to denote the offspring of Irish laborers and African slaves in the Caribbeanmarker. Montserratmarker, by far, experienced the highest concentration of Irish immigrants, as it was forcibly settled by the English crown using indentured servants from Ireland. These Irish servants were eventually replaced by West African slaves who took on the surnames of the prior inhabitants, much as African slaves in the United States assumed the names of their owners.

A prominent theme of ethnology in Victorian England largely stemming from social prejudices of the time was that the Irish were racially different from the English people and thus considered inferior. Polygenism was a dominant theory, as was phrenology, and both were employed to 'prove' that Irish people were less developed and more primitive than other 'races' of humanity. Punch cartoons often portrayed them with protruding jaws, alluding to the notion they were closer to apes than men.

John Beddoe (1826-1911), one of the most notable ethnologists in the United Kingdommarker, supported these concepts with his work. In The Races of Britain: A Contribution to the Anthropology of Western Europe (1862), Beddoe wrote that all genuses were orthognathous (having the front of the skull almost vertical, not receding above the jaws), as opposed to the Irish and Welsh who he exaggeratedly described as prognathous. Evasive or ignorant of the pre-Saxon Celtic influence on the English and likely his own forebears, Beddoe claimed that Celts were closely related to the Cro-Magnons, theoretically linking man's recent ancestor to the 'Africanoid'. The Races of Britain was republished in 1885, 1905, and again in 1971.

Fictional references

In the NBC series The Black Donnellys, Joey Ice Cream, narrator and one of the main characters, indirectly refers to himself and unspecified Donnelly brothers as Black Irish. Joey cites a story told by his grandmother which asserted that Ireland was originally inhabited by a "dark haired race of people" whom the invading Celts attacked, but failed to wipe out.

In Sidney Sheldon's Windmills of the Gods, Pete Connors (one of the eponymous antiheroes, codenamed Thor) is referred to as Black Irish.

Ryan O'Reilly, on the HBO series Oz, describes himself as Black Irish, and convinces Sean Murphy, a corrections officer, to befriend him by pointing out that they are both Black Irish. Murphy responds that they are "as black as they come".

In C. E. Murphy's Urban Shaman, heroine Joanne Walker/Sioban Walkingstick, repeatedly refers to herself as 'Black Irish' due to her Cherokee and Irish parentage.

In the Tennessee Williams play The Night of the Iguana, T. Lawrence Shannon, the protagonist of the story, is described as Black Irish.

In Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle, Bosley – played by African-American comedian Bernie Mac – jokes that he is 'Black Irish' when he breaks into an Irish mob's warehouse. (The role of Bosley was played by Irish-American actor David Doyle in the original TV series.)

Black Irish is the colloquial name for a type of high explosive in The Running Man, a 1982 novel by Stephen King written under the pseudonym Richard Bachman.

In the 1949 Orson Welles film, The Lady from Shanghai, the Welles character is repeatedly referred to as "Black Irish".

In the 30 Rock episode "Tracy Does Conan", Conan O'Brien calls Jack Donaghy a "Black Irish bastard," to which Donaghy replies, "Right back at you, Red," before they both storm off in mutual disdain.

In the Novel Fallon Blood by Reagan O'Neal better known as Robert Jordan the title character Michael Fallon describes himself as black Irish with features that came from a long ago Spanish ancestor.

See also


  1. Times Online: Genetic study reveals new data on red hair frequency in persons of British and Irish ancestry
  2. Readers' Comments on The Myth of the Black Irish
  3. The Myth of the Black Irish
  4. Carmel McCaffrey & Leo Eaton, 2002, In Search of Ancient Ireland: the Origins of the Irish From Neolithic Times to the Coming of the English
  5. History of O'Mullally and Lally clan, or, The history of an Irish family through the ages entertwined with that of the Irish nation c1941
  7. The Longue Durée of Genetic Ancestry: Multiple Genetic Marker Systems and Celtic Origins on the Atlantic Facade of Europe October 2004
  8. Haplogroup R1b3 (Atlantic Modal Haplotype) Part I
  9. BBC News | WALES | Genes link Celts to Basques
  10. High-Resolution Phylogenetic Analysis of Southeastern Europe Traces Major Episodes of Paternal Gene Flow Among Slavic Populations - Pericic et al. 22 (10): 1964 - Molecular Biology and Evolution
  12. Special report: 'Myths of British ancestry' by Stephen Oppenheimer | Prospect Magazine October 2006 issue 127
  13. The Scotsman
  14. A United Kingdom? Maybe - New York Times
  16. American Journal of Physical Anthropology Volume 26, Issue 1, 1940
  17. The Physical Landforms and Landscape of Ireland
  18. Native Peoples Magazine: "The Elusive Black Dutch of the South" by Jimmy H. Crane
  19. The Irish Famine: Potato Blight
  20. Culture of Montserrat - History and ethnic relations, Urbanism, architecture, and the use of space
  21. The Races of Britain: A Contribution to the Anthropology of Western Europe, Bristol and London, John Beddoe, J. W. Arrowsmith, Bristol & Trübnermm, London, 1885; republished by Hutchinson, London, 1971, ISBN 0091013704
  22. Racism and Anti-Irish Prejudice in Victorian England
  23. Iii. Eighteenth Century Cultures

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