irish people

Total population
85,000,000 (est.)
Regions with significant populations
   5,182,875 Ireland-born
 United States:[2]   
  • Irish Ancestry: 34,487,790
  • Scots-Irish Ancestry: 5,323,888.)
Great Britain:[3]   
  • Irish Born: 794,000
  • An estimated 6,000,000 have at least one Irish grandparent:[4]   
 Argentina: [7]:
 New Zealand:
   1,000,000 est.
 United Arab Emirates:
   3,000 [10]
Irish, English, Ulster Scots, Shelta
Roman Catholic (majority), Protestantism, and other Christian faiths.
Related ethnic groups
Bretons, Anglo-Irish, Cornish, English, Icelandic, Manx, Scottish, Ulster-Scots, Welsh, Galicians and other Europeans

The Irish people (Irish: Muintir na hÉireann, na hÉireannaigh, na Gaeil) are a European ethnic group who originated in Ireland, in north western Europe. People of Irish ethnicity outside of Ireland are common in many western countries, particularly in English-speaking countries.


For an analysis of the genetics of the Irish and their origins see Prehistoric settlement of Great Britain and Ireland.

During the past 9,000 years of inhabitation, Ireland has witnessed many different peoples arrive on its shores. Legendary early arrivals included the Nemedians, the Fomorians, the Firbolgs, and the Tuatha Dé Danann, though with the exception of the Firbolgs, they are now treated as deities rather than actual human incursions.

The ancient peoples of Ireland—such as the creators of the Ceide Fields and Newgrange—are almost unknown. Neither their language(s?) nor terms they used to describe themselves have survived. As late as the middle centuries of the 1st 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, including Banba, Scotia, Fódla, Ériu by the islanders, Hibernia and Scotia to the Romans, and 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 gwyddel (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 term Irish and Ireland is derived from the Érainn, 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.

A variety of historical ethnic groups have inhabited the island, including the Airgialla, Fir Ol nEchmacht, Delbhna, Fir Bolg, Érainn, Eóganachta, Mairtine, Conmaicne, Soghain and Ulaid.

One legend states that the Irish were descended from Míl Espáine (coined Milesius, from Latin "Miles Hispaniae", meaning "Soldier of Hispania"). The character is almost certainly a mere personification of a supposed migration by a group or groups from Hispania to Ireland, but it is supported by the fact that the Celtiberian language is more closely related to insular Celtic than to any other. This legend is the source of the term "Milesian" in reference to the Irish. If this invasion was as large as the mythology would suggest, it would account for the genetic similarity of the Northern Iberian populations and the Irish.

The Vikings were mainly 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, most of whom became assimilated into Irish culture and polity by the 15th century, particularly the Welsh-Normans who settled into the Pale area due to the close proximity of Ireland to Wales. The late medieval era saw Scottish gallowglass families of mixed Gaelic-Norse-Pict descent settle, mainly in the north; due to similarities of language and culture they too were assimilated. The Plantations of Ireland and in particular the Plantation of Ulster in the 17th century introduced great numbers of Scottish, English as well as French Huguenots as colonists. Despite these divergent backgrounds most of their descendants consider themselves Irish—even where they are aware of such ancestry—mainly due to their lengthy presence in Ireland.

Historically, religion, politics and ethnicity became intertwined in Ireland, with Protestants generally identifying as British and Irish and most Roman Catholics as exclusively Irish. This is less true today, although connections between ethnicity and religion can still be observed - especially in Northern Ireland. Four polls taken between 1989 and 1994 revealed that when asked to state their national identity, over 79% of Northern Ireland Protestants replied "British" or "Ulster" with 3% or less replying "Irish", while over 60% of Northern Ireland Catholics replied "Irish" with 13% or less replying "British" or "Ulster".[11] A survey in 1999 showed that 72% of Northern Ireland Protestants considered themselves "British" and 2% "Irish", with 68% of Northern Ireland Catholics considering themselves "Irish" and 9% "British".[12] The survey also revealed that 78% of Protestants and 48% of all respondents felt "Strongly British", while 77% of Catholics and 35% of all respondents felt "Strongly Irish". 51% of Protestants and 33% of all respondents felt "Not at all Irish", while 62% of Catholics and 28% of all respondents felt "Not at all British".[13][14]


See also: Irish names
It is common for some Irish surnames to be anglicised, meaning that they were changed to sound more Hiberno-English. This usually occurred with Irish immigrants arriving in the United States during the 19th century and the early 20th century, and when British settlers arrived in Ireland.

It is also very common for people of Gaelic origin to have surnames beginning with " Ó" or "Mc" (less frequently "Mac" and occasionally shortened to just "Ma" at the beginning of the name). "O" was originally Ó which in turn came 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 Ua Brian (O'Brien) clan. The prefix is most commonly written as O’. Kimberly Powell explains that "[the] apostrophe that usually follows the O ... comes from a misunderstanding by English-speaking clerks in Elizabethan time, who interpreted it as a form of the word of."[15]

"Mac" or "Mc" means "son of"; many names also begin with this. There is no basis in fact for the claim that Mac is Scottish and Mc is Irish: Mc is simply an abbreviation of Mac. However, while both Mac and Ó prefixes are Gaelic in origin, Mc is more common in Ulster and Ó is far less common in Scotland than it is in Ireland. Some common surnames that begin with Ó are: Ó Ceallaigh (Kelly), Ó Gallchobhair (O'Gallagher), Ó Gradaigh (O' Grady), Ó Raghallaigh (O'Reilly), Ó Laoidheach (Lee), Ó Néill (O'Neill), Ó Briain (O'Brien), Ó Conchúir (O'Connor), Ó hÍcidhe, Ó Laoire (O'Leary), Ó Seachnasaigh (O'Shaughnessy),Ó Greaney (O'Greaney), Ó Dónaill (O'Donnell), Ó Dubhda (O'Dowd), Ó Tuathail (O'Toole), Ó Meadhra(O'Meara), Ó Mealaigh (O'Malley), Ó hEadhra (O'Hara), Ó Bradaigh (O'Brady), and Ó Seanacháin (O'Shanahan). Some names that begin with Mac are: Mac Diarmada (MacDermott), Mac Cárthaigh (MacCarthy), Mac Donnachadha (MacDonough), Mac Dómhnaill (MacDonnell),Mac Conmara (McNamara), McElligott, Mac Coileáin (MacQuillan), Mac Aonghusa (MacGuinness, Magennis), Mac Lochlainn (MacLaughlin), Mac Uidhir (MacGuire), Mac Mathúna (MacMahon) Mac Gadhra (McGeary) and Mac Cormaic (MacCormack). However, the two are not exclusive, so, for example, MacCarthy and McCarthy are both used.

There are a number of Irish surnames derived from Norse personal names, including Sweeney from Swein and Mc Auliffe from Olaf. The local Cork name Cotter, derives from the Norse personal name Ottir. Though these names were of Viking derivation most of the families who bear them appear to have had native origins.

"Fitz" is a corruption of the French phrase fils de, used by the Normans, meaning son of. The Normans were ultimately descendents of Vikings who settled in Normandy and had thoroughly adopted French ways and language.

A few names that begin with Fitz are: FitzGerald (Mac Gearailt), FitzSimons (Mac Síomóin), FitzGibbons (Mac Giobúin), Fitzpatrick (Mac Giolla Phádraig) and FitzHenry (Mac Anraí), most of whom descend from the initial Norman settlers. Exceptions occur in a small number of Irish families of Gaelic origin who came to use a Norman form of their original surname - witness Mac Giolla Phádraig becoming FitzPatrick - while some assimilated so well that the Gaelic name was dropped in favor of a new, Hiberno-Norman form. Cases in this category include Mac Gilla Mo-Cholomoc of Dublin becoming FitzDermot (after Dermot or Diarmaid Mac Gilla Mo-Cholomoc).

Other Norman families derived their name from places or people in Ireland. This was the case of the family of Athy (see Tribes of Galway) who took their surname, de Athy, from the town of that name in Leinster. More common, however, was that the Normans became 'Hiberniores Hibernis ipsis' and in this process the Fitzmaurices became Mac Muiris, the Fitzsimons became Mac Síomóin and Mac an Ridire, Fitzgerald became Mac Gearailt, Bermingham became Mac Fheorais, Nangle became Mac Coisdealbha, Staunton became Mac an Mhíleadha, and so forth.

In the late 12th century and 13th century Norman, Welsh, English, Flemish and Breton peoples arrived in Ireland at the request of Diarmait Mac Murchada, King of Leinster, 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". Another common Irish surname of Norman Irish origin is the 'de' habitational prefix, meaning 'of the' and originally signifying prestige and land ownership. Many Irish surnames share this: de Búrca (Burke), de Brún, de Barra, de Stac, de Tiúit, de Faoite(White), de Paor (Power), and so forth.

It should be emphasised, especially with Gaelic surnames, there may be two or more unrelated families bearing the same or similar surnames. For example, there were at least nine separate Ó Ceallaigh septs, all unrelated. The Mac Lochlainn, Ó Mael Sechlainn, Ó Mael Sechnaill, Ó Conchobair Mac Loughlin and Mac Diarmata Mac Loughlin families, all distinct, are now all subsumed together as MacLoughlin. The full surname usually indicated which family was in question, something that has being diminished with the loss of prefixes such as Ó and Mac. In addition, in Classical Irish when a Mac surname was followed by a name which began with a vowel, the Mac became Mag. This explains why one will still see the older spelling of Mac Aonghusa (McGuinness) as Mag Aonghusa, Mac Uidhir (Maguire) as Mag Uidhir, and so forth.

Furthermore, different branches of a family with the same surname sometimes used distinguishing epithets, which sometimes became surnames in their own right. Hence the chief of the clan Ó Cearnaigh (Kearney) was referred to as An Sionnach (Fox), which his descendants use to this day.

Similar surnames are often found in Scotland for many reasons, such as the use of a common language and mass Irish immigration to Scotland in the late 19th and early to mid-20th centuries. Also Scottish surnames are noticeable in some Catholics in Ireland, particularly in Ulster, due to intermarriage and pre-Reformation immigration.

Personal names (forenames)

Some personal names in modern Ireland are derived from traditional Irish Names, and anglicised Irish names, although English names remain popular.

The recent years have seen a major decline in most Irish names for babies being born in the Republic of Ireland. While in the past names such as Patrick (a name of Roman origin), Séamus (the Irish form of James) and others were almost ubiquitous in any family, today they are among the rarer names for children and the same goes for most other Irish names, although there are a few notable exceptions. Conor remains very popular, having topped the Most Popular new names for babies list many years running. The name Jack, which is an Irish diminutive of John, James and Jacob, has grown in popularity. Seán, also derived from the Hebrew root John, remains one of the most popular Irish names. Male names from North America have become more popular in recent times. There are many other Anglicised Irish names which remain popular, such as Ryan, Neil and others remaining on the Names List. Biblical names also form a large composition, such as Matthew, Philip and Paul.

Aside from Seán other male names from the Norman-Irish tradition include Gearóid (Gerard), Piaras (Peirce), Éamonn (Edward), Liam (William) and indeed the very use of the name Pádraig (Patrick) is a Norman tradition. Prior to the Normans the Gaeil, out of reverence to Saint Patrick, named their children Giolla Phádraig, the servant of Patrick. Piaras is an interesting example of how both Norman and English traditions collided. Piaras is from the Norman-French Piers which itself is derived from the Latin, Petrus. Peirce/Piers was a common name in late medieval and early modern Ireland. However, with the expansion of British rule the English name Peter, which shares the same Latin root, began to replace it. Today, the Irish version (Peadar) of the English name (Peter), tends to be more common than the Irish version (Piaras) of the older Norman name (Piers). Thus, families with Norman surnames where Piaras has been a traditional name have broken the link to their historic tradition. An exception to this would be in the Gaeltachtaí where, for example, Piaras would still be very common, especially in the Corca Dhuibhne area of County Kerry due to the legacy of Piaras Feiritéar, where Piaras remains a very common name in the Feiritéar family. The maintenance of such traditions in personal names outside the Gaeltachtaí would generally be a sign of more educated parents. In an analogous way to Piaras, Irish families of patrilineal Gaelic descent sometimes use the Irish version (Séarlas) of the English name, Charles, rather than the names with a much longer vintage in their families, such as An Calvach and Cathal. Where Cathal is used it is often wrongly termed "the Irish for Charles" in a similar way to which the ancient Irish personal name, Áine, is wrongly said to be an Irish version of the English word, Anne. Rather, both Cathal and Áine are two very ancient Irish names with no etymological link whatsoever to the above English names.

For females, the traditional Irish names are far more popular, although their spellings are not always uniform. Names such as Mary, Ann, and Eileen which were hugely common in the past have now declined, although there was always much more variety in female names than in male. Today Aoife, Aisling, Ciara, Sinéad, and Órla are more popular as traditional Irish names, while foreign names such as Ella, Emma, Lisa, Rachel and Isabelle have become more common. Some older names have maintained their popularity, such as Sarah, Kate, Catherine and Louise. Female names from the Norman-Irish tradition are widespread and among the most traditional of Irish personal names. In a similar way to the name Pádraig (Patrick), in the pre-Norman tradition Máire did not exist but rather Maol Muire, devotee of the virgin Mary, was the normal Irish usage. Other common Irish female names of Norman origin (with their anglicised form) are Caitríona (Catherine, Katrina), Síle (Sheila), Caitlín (Kathleen), Cáit (Kate), Sinéad (Jane, Janet etc) and Siobhán (Joan, Jane etc) But also, Siobhán can be spelt Siubhán, which, translated into English, can mean Hannah, but Siubhán can be translated into English as Joan, or Jane, alongside Siobhán. ? English names such as Victoria, Elizabeth, and Rebecca, while never hugely popular have also seen a decline in popularity, while some Irish names such as Bridget, Una and Maureen have dropped off the list altogether.

There can be major differentiations between regions. A personal name can still often indicate where a person, more precisely a man, is from. This is accounted for chiefly in the sainthood cults which have been traditional throughout the island. For instance, Fionnbharr is more common in Cork, Finnian in Meath and Donegal, Fionán in Kerry, and so forth, where these particular saints are institutionalised in local tradition. Seaghan remains the Ulster Irish spelling of Seán, though Séan, with the fada over the E, is also common. Páidí is more common in the Kerry Gaeltacht than elsewhere, and so forth. Jarlath is the patron saint of Tuam and the name is thus quite common in that region. As in the Feiritéar family above, the first name can also often indicate a family tradition as well as place.

See Irish names

Recent history

Enlarge picture
Statue of Irish Musician Phil Lynott, Dublin
In the Republic of Ireland about 86.82% [1] of the population are Roman Catholic. In Northern Ireland about 53.1% of the population are Protestant (21.1% Presbyterian, 15.5% Church of Ireland, 3.6% Methodist, 6.1% Other Christian) whilst a large minority are Roman Catholic at approximately 43.8%, as of 2001.

After Ireland became subdued by England in 1603 the English – under James I of England (reigned 1603 – 1625) who was also James VI of Scotland (1566 – 1625), Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell (term 1653 – 1658), William III of England who was also William II of Scotland (reigned 1689 – 1702) and their successors – began the settling of English in Leinster (the English Pale), and later Protestant English and Scottish colonists into Ireland, where they settled most heavily in the northern province of Ulster. However, while there is evidence (linguistic, surname, and genetic) that the English in the earlier settlements in Leinster, especially those in the lower classes who never really gave up Catholicism, disappeared into the broader Irish population, the staunchly Presbyterian Scots in Ulster 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 century Plantations of Ireland from parts of Ulster, and were replaced by English and Scottish planters. Only in the major part of Ulster did the plantations prove long-lived; the other three provinces (Connacht, Leinster, and Munster) remained heavily Catholic, and eventually, the Protestant populations of those three provinces would decrease drastically as a result of the political developments in the early 20th century in Ireland.

It is predominately religion, history and political differences (Irish nationalism versus British unionism) that divide the two communities, as many of the Scots-Irish settlers are in part of Celtic origin themselves and therefore related to their Irish Catholic neighbours.

Conversely, some Irish people would have at least some degree of English or Scottish (gallowglass families from the Highlands) 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 Catholics tend to have Irish surnames, although this is not always the case. There are many Catholics in Northern Ireland with surnames such as Emerson, Whitson, Livingstone, Hardy, Tennyson, MacDonald (however this surname is also common with Highland Roman Catholics in Scotland), Dunbar, Groves, Legge, Scott, Gray, Page, Stewart, Rowntree, Henderson, et al; almost certainly due to intermarriage. According to Lecky, conversions also occurred to a lesser extent, which were mostly class-based; Catholics sometimes become Protestant to keep their lands and titles or to gain advantages, while some Protestants who were from the lower classes or who had fallen on hard times would become Catholic.

Irish diaspora

Main article: Irish diaspora
The Irish diaspora consists of Irish emigrants and their descendants in countries such as the United States, Great Britain, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and nations of the Caribbean such as Barbados. These countries, known as the Anglosphere, all have large minorities of Irish descent, who in addition form the core of the Catholic Church in those countries. The diaspora contains over 80 million people; it is believed that roughly one third of the Presidents of the United States of America had at least some Irish descent, while Charles Carroll of Carrollton (whose Irish born grandfather Daniel had left Britain to escape Catholic persecution) was the sole Catholic signatory of the American Declaration of Independence. [2]

There are also large Irish communities in some mainland European countries, notably in France and Germany, as well as Brazil, Argentina and Chile.

There are over 40 million Irish Americans and 4 million Irish Canadians. They are the second largest self-reported ethnic group in the United States, after German Americans. Also, large numbers of Irish people emigrated to Argentina in the 18th and 19th centuries. Irish-Argentinians number over 500,000. Some famous Argentinians of Irish descendent include Che Guevara, ex-president Edelmiro Farrell and national hero William Brown.

One important Irish group in the history of the Americas are the "Patricios", or Saint Patrick's Battalion, a group of European Catholic immigrants, mostly Irish, who left the American side during the Mexican-American War and joined the Mexican Army. Although many of them were caught and executed by the American government, some escaped and remained in Mexico. The battalion is commemorated in Mexico on Saint Patricks's day and on September 12, the anniversary of the first executions.

Notable Irish people

Main article: List of Irish people

See also


Brendan Gaine- aka The Cowboy


1. ^ The Republic of Ireland 2006 census reports 3,609,556 people who were born on the island of Ireland. The 2001 UK census, in Northern Ireland, reports 1,573,319 people born on the island of Ireland. The combined total is 5,182,875. However, the total population of Ireland is much higher (approx. 6 million), due to recent large influx of immigrants.
2. ^ The [3] American Community Survey 2004 by the United States Census Bureau estimates 34,487,790 persons claiming Irish ancestry and 5,323,888 people claiming Scots-Irish ancestry. These figures are likely to be an underestimate of the true number with Irish and Scots-Irish ancestry as some people will not have been aware of their Irish and Scots-Irish ancestry, or will have chosen not to mention it. Both figures represent an increase from the previous census in 2000. The figure for Irish ancestry increased by approximately 4 million from the 2000 census, but decreased by approximately 4 million from the 1990 census. It should be mentioned that Irish was provided as one of the example responses on the 1990 census form, but not the 2000 census form[4]. This could be a partial explanation for the decrease in the number of those citing Irish ancestry in the censuses.
3. ^ The UK 2001 census shows 750,657 people living in Britain who were born in Ireland [5][6]. The census also reports 691,232 people living in Britain who identified themselves as belonging to the Irish ethnic group. [7]
4. ^ The article "More Britons applying for Irish passports" states that 6 million Britons have either an Irish grandfather or grandmother and are thus able to apply for Irish citizenship. [8].
5. ^ 2001 Canadian Census gives 496,865 respondents stating their ethnic origin as Irish as a single response, and 3,325,800 including multiple responses, giving a combined total of 3,822,665. The introduction of a "Canadian" ethnic origin category and the large numbers of responses to this category will again alter the data.
6. ^ The Australian Bureau of Statistics reports 1.9 million people of Irish ancestry in the 2001 Census. Up to two ancestries could be chosen. Recent increases in the number who identify as Australian suggest that this number is an underestimate of the true number with Irish ancestry. With that being said, the number claiming Irish ancestry from the previous census actually more than doubled. One reason, an improved image of what it means to be Irish according to the census experts, making Australians more proud to state their Irish ancestry.[9].
7. ^ Flying the Irish flag in Argentina - Western People
8. ^ 2001 New Zealand Census: Ethnic Groups
9. ^ See Demographics of Germany
10. ^ RTÉ News - 1st Dublin-Abu Dhabi flight takes off (mentions 3,000 Irish in UAE)
11. ^ in, Social Attitudes in Northern Ireland: The Fifth Report
12. ^ Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey
13. ^ Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey
14. ^ Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey
15. ^ Kimberly Powell, Common Surnames of Ireland, accessed 09/03/07 11:03 (UCT)
11. Lehmann, Winfred P., 1997. 'Early Celtic among the Indo-European Dialects'. Zeitschrift für Celtische Philologie 49-50. 440-454. 12. [10]

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