The term "Black Irish" is used almost exclusively outside of Ireland in reference to certain groups of people, although there is little agreement over the people to whom it applies and why. In many cases, it refers to people of Irish ancestry who have features that are darker than stereotypical Irish features — blue or green eyes, reddish hair and pale skin. Irish people who have dark hair, brown eyes and dark complexions are often referred to as Black Irish. In some places, at times, immigrants from Ireland have been called this term, often in a derogatory manner. There are even believed to be some people who are not of Irish descent who have used this term to refer to themselves in order to conceal their true ancestry.
Murky Meaning and Origin
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. Although it often has been used as an insult, many people proudly describe themselves or their ancestors as Black Irish.
Throughout its history, the island of Ireland has been the destination for many waves of immigrants or invaders, including the Celts, the Vikings, the English and the Scottish. As these groups were assimilated into Irish society and mixed with the previous inhabitants of the island, different physical characteristics became more common among the Irish. Many people believe that the term "Black Irish" was created to refer to those whose features were darker than those of typical Irish people, possibly because of ancestors who emigrated from Spain or Portugal.
Descendants of Spaniards
One theory about the origin of this term focuses on an event that took place in 1588, when more than 20 ships carrying members of the Spanish Armada wrecked on the coast of Ireland. Many of the men were killed in the wrecks, and many of the survivors were put to death by Irish soldiers. A handful of the survivors fled to Scotland, but it is believed to be unlikely that any of them ever made it past the beaches of Ireland and unlikely that any of them could have made a significant genetic contribution to the people of Ireland. It is considered to be more likely that a group of Spanish soldiers who served under Irish chiefs around the same time stayed in the country long enough to father children.
In the 1800s, many people believed that Irish people who had dark complexions were somehow related to Africans. Africans and people who had dark features were often held in distaste and considered to be inferior. In 1862, John Beddoe, an esteemed ethnologist, published Races of Britain, in which he described people of Celtic descent as having features similar to those of African descent. The term "Black Irish" might have been derived from this viewpoint.
This term also might have social or political origins rather than being based on genetic history or appearance. Some people believe that the word "black," in this case, refers to the "dark" intentions of groups of people who invaded Ireland, so their descendants might be referred to as Black Irish. Another possibility is that poor immigrants from Ireland during the Great Famine of the late 1840s were called this term in their new country. In Ireland, 1847 was called Black '47 because thousands of people died from famine and disease, and people who emigrated from Ireland to escape these conditions might have been referred to as Black Irish. The term also might have originated in the West Indies, where some Catholics are believed to have used it to describe Protestant immigrants from Ireland.
Used by American Indians
Another possible origin of this term is that it was created by people who wanted to hide their true ancestry. For example, it is believed that some American Indians — including Cherokees — described themselves as Black Irish during the early 1800s to avoid being driven off their land. The term "Black Dutch" also is believed to have been used by American Indians for this purpose.