Irish people

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Total population: 85,000,000
Significant populations in:


Top Ten Places of Irish Diaspora

New Zealand:
South Africa:

Language: Irish, English
Religion: Roman Catholic, Protestant
Related ethnic groups:

  Scottish   Welsh   Manx   Breton

Irish ethnicity is common in many western, especially commonwealth, countries. Many people are descended from Irish emigrants.



On the island of Ireland, most people consider themselves to be descended from a mixture of three broad groups: the nameless, prehistoric indigenous people(s) of the isles; the successive waves from continental Europe who arrived in the centuries BC (incorrectly referred to as the Gael); and subsequent groups (Vikings, Normans, English and Lowland Scots) who either invaded or settled Ireland from the Middle Ages onwards.

The names the ancient peoples of Ireland (creators of the Ceide Fields and Newgrange) used for themselves are not known, nor are their language(s). As late as the middle centuries of the first millennium AD the inhabitants of Ireland did not appear to have a collective name for themselves. Ireland itself was known by a number of different names – Banba, Fódla, Ériu by the islanders; Hibernia to the Romans; Ierne to the Greeks.

Likewise, the terms for people from Ireland – all from Roman sources – in the late Roman era were varied. They included Attacotti, Scoti, and Gael. This last word, derived from the Welsh gwyddell (meaning raiders), was eventually adopted by the Irish for themselves. However as a term it is on a par with Viking, as it describes an activity (raiding, piracy) and its proponents, not their actual ethnic affiliations. The general term Briton was sometimes applied to all the indigenous inhabitants of Britannias and Britanniae (i.e. of the British Isles) by the Romans.

The term Irish and Ireland is derived from the Erainn or Iverni, a people who once lived in what is now central and south Munster. Possibly their proximity to overseas trade with western Britain, Gaul and Hispania led to the name of this one people to be applied to the whole island and its inhabitants.

As may be perceived from the above, there was much ethnic diversity according to the historical inhabitants of Ireland. Or at the very least they perceived the situation as such. They included the Airgialla, Fir Ol nEchmacht, Delbhna, Fir Bolg, Érainn, Éoganacht, Mairtine, Conmaicne, Soghain and Ulaid. However, as the earliest Irish records demonstrate that they all shared a collective language and culture, in most cases these divisions may have being more apparent than real. Doubtless in many cases the divisions were of a purely dynastic or political dynamic.

The shared language and culture of these peoples is one that can be placed within the realm of the Celtic/Indo-European peoples. Yet intriguingly, recent Y-chromosome (male descent) DNA studies have shown that most Irish people (in addition to the Welsh, some Scots and English) are close genetic relatives of the Basque people, setting them all apart from most European peoples (mtDNA, or female descent shows their maternal ancestors to be of broad north European origin). No fully satisfactory explanation for this apparent contradiction between ethnic origins on the one hand, and language/culture on the other, has yet been put forth.

The Vikings were mainly Danes and Norwegians and despite their notorious reputation in Irish history, did not settle in particularly large numbers nor did they significantly alter the Irish polity. The arrival of the Normans brought Welsh, Flemish, Normans, Anglo-Saxons and Bretons, many of whom suffered the same fate as the Vikings, being assimilated in great numbers into Irish culture and polity by the 15th century. The late medieval era saw Scots gallowglass families of mixed Scots-Norse-Pict descent settle, mainly in the north; due to similarities of language and culture they too were assimilated. The Plantation of Ulster in the 17th century introduced great numbers of Scots, English as well as French Huguenots. Despite these divergent backgrounds most of their descendants consider themselves Irish first and last – even where they are aware of such ancestry – mainly due to their lengthy presence in Ireland. Historically, religion has played a more divisive role than ethnicity.

It is thought that the majority of the Irish population is descended from the initial settlers who arrived after the end of the last Ice Age.


See also: Irish name

It is common for some Irish surnames to be anglicised, meaning that they were changed to sound more English. This usually occurred with Irish immigrants arriving in the United States during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

It is also very common for people of Gaelic origin to have surnames beginning with "O" or "Mc" (less frequently "Mac" and occasionally shortened to just "Ma" at the beginning of the name). "O" comes from Ua (originally hUa), which means "grandson", or "descendant" of a named person. For example, the descendants of High King of Ireland Brian Boru were known as the O'Brien clan. "Mc" and "Mac", both Irish and Scottish surname prefixes (the Irish and Highland Scots sharing a similar Gaelic heritage), meant "son of"; many names also begin with this. Some common surnames that begin with O are: O Niell, O Brien, O Leary, O Shaugnessy, O Donnell, O Toole, O Meara, O Malley, O Hara, and O Bradaigh. Some names that begin with Mc are: McGroyn, McGuinty, McStiofain, McDonagh, McDonald, McGuinness, McGonigle, McGuire and many others.

"Fitz" is an Irish version of the Norman word "fis" meaning son. A few names that begin with Fitz are: FitzGerald, FitzSimmons, FitzGibbons, FitzPatrick and FitzHenry. Certain names that begin with Fitz were originally Irish, but were then Normanised through intermarriages and family alliances. For example, FitzSimmons came from MacSioman; Mac Giolla Padhraig became FitzPatrick.

In the late 12th and 13th centuries Norman, Welsh, Flemish and Breton peoples arrived in Ireland at the request of King Diarmait Mac Murchada of Lenister, and took over parts of the island. During the next three hundred years, they intermarried with ruling Irish clans, adopted Irish culture and the Irish language and as the English put it "became more Irish than the Irish themselves".

Viking surnames:

  • Archbold (Asbjorne)
  • Calf? (Hascalf?)
  • Cauley (Mac Olaf)
  • Doyle (Dubh Gall)
  • Harald (Haraldsson)
  • Higgins (h-Uiginn, a Viking)
  • MacCottor (Ottarsson)
  • MacKitterick (Strigsson)
  • Wood (Wode)

Norman/Norman-French surnames:

  • Archdecon (le Ercedekne)
  • Burke (de Burgh)
  • Cheevers (La Chieve)
  • Courcy (de Courcy)
  • Nagle (de Nagle)
  • FitzGerald (fitz Gerald)
  • FitzHenry (fitz Henri)
  • FitzStephen (fitz Stephen)
  • Lacy (de Lacy)
  • Loundon (de Loudon)
  • Marmoin)
  • Plunkett (Blanquet)
  • Wall (de Laval)

Breton surnames:

  • Brett (le Breton)
  • Power (le Poer)

Flemish surnames:

  • Baldwin (Baudoin)
  • Fleming (le Fleming)

Welsh surnames:

  • Breathnach (Welshman)
  • Brannagh (Welshman)
  • Caddell (ap Cadel)
  • Cadogan (ap Cadwgn)
  • Griffin (ap Gruffydd)
  • Joyce (Sais)
  • Merrick (ap Meruig)
  • Penrose (ap Rhys)
  • Rice (ap Rhys)
  • Rerys (ap Rerys)
  • Taffe (Daffydd)


  • Ayleward (Ailwerd)
  • Barrett (Barat)
  • Dolphin (Dolfin)
  • Lawless (laighles)
  • Sherlock (scirlog)
  • Skerrett (Huscarl)
  • White (Fwyte)

Normanised Gaelic surnames:

  • FitzDermot (Mac Gilla Mo-Cholmoc)
  • FitzPatrick (Mac Gilla Padraig)

Gaelicised Norman-era surnames:

  • Mac Oisdealbhaigh (Costello - son of Josclyn de Nangle)
  • Mac Feoris (Bermingham - son of Piers de Bermingham); anglicised as Corish
  • Mac Gibbon (Gibbons - son of Gilbert de Burgh)
  • Mac Seonin (son of John Oge de Burgh); anglicised as Jennings.

Recent history

In Northern Ireland almost half of the population are Protestant, whilst a large minority are Roman Catholic.

After Ireland became subdued by England in 1603 the English – under James I of England (reigned 160325), Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell (term 165358), William III of England (reigned 16891702) and their successors – began the settling of Protestant English and later Scottish colonists into Ireland, where they settled most heavily in the northern province of Ulster. However, they did not intermarry heavily or integrate with the native Irish like the Normans did centuries earlier.

Tens of thousands of native Irish were displaced during the 17th Plantations of Ireland from parts of Ulster and replaced by English and Scottish planters.

It is predominately religion, history and political differences (Irish nationalism versus British unionism) that divide the two communities, as many of the Scotch-Irish settlers are of Gaelic origin themselves and therefore related to their Irish Catholic neighbours. Conversely, most Irish people would have at least some English or Scottish ancestry.

In 1921, with the formation of the Irish Free State, six counties in the northeast remained in the United Kingdom as Northern Ireland.

"Ulster-Irish" surnames tend to differ based on which community families originate from. Ulster Protestants tend to have either English or Scottish surnames while Irish Catholics tend to have Irish surnames, although this is not always the case.

Irish diaspora

The Irish diaspora consists of Irish emigrants and their descendants in countries such as the United States, Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Argentina, South Africa and nations of the Caribbean. The diaspora contains over 80 million people.

There are also large Irish communities in some mainland European countries as well as Japan, Argentina and Brazil. The classic image of an Irish immigrant is led occasionally by racist and anti-Catholic stereotypes. Irish Americans number over 44 million. They are the second largest ethnic group in the U.S., after German Americans. Large numbers of Irish people immigrated to Latin America in the 18th and 19th centuries. Their descendents include Che Guevara and Bernardo O'Higgins.

Notable Irish people (selection)

Richard Harris as Marcus Aurelius in Gladiator.
Richard Harris as Marcus Aurelius in Gladiator.
Oscar Wilde
Oscar Wilde
Sir William Johnson
Sir William Johnson
Statue of Daniel O'Connell
Statue of Daniel O'Connell

Notable people of Irish descent

John Barrymore
John Barrymore
Maureen Dowd
Maureen Dowd
John F. Kennedy
John F. Kennedy
James Cardinal Gibbons
James Cardinal Gibbons
Lindsay Lohan
Lindsay Lohan
Patrice MacMahon
Patrice MacMahon
Brian Mulroney
Brian Mulroney
Bernardo O'Higgins
Bernardo O'Higgins

See also

External links

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