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Is Irish an Ethnicity?

With the popularity of 23andMe, there is a renewed interest in our individual ancestry and heritage. Also, government census bureaus are interested in gathering information about the various ethnic groups lying within their jurisdiction. For example, does Irish qualify as an ethnicity?

Yes, Irish is an ethnicity, with the Irish people sharing common history, traditions, and culture that developed on the island of Ireland among the British Isles. The Irish largely share a common ancestry, which many trace to the ancient Celts. The Irish also have considerable ethnic enclaves outside of Ireland, especially in the United States.

We’ll dive into Irish ethnicity, nationality, ancestry, and history, but, first, we’ll try to make clear what we mean by “ethnicity.”

Ethnicity in the UK Census

Not too long ago, the issue of Irish ethnicity emerged when the British government began classifying individuals of Irish descent as a separate ethnic group in the 2001 United Kingdom census, which included the categories “white British,” “white other,” and “white Irish.” 

Those who responded as “white Irish” constituted 1.2% of the UK population (source).

However, the English, Welsh, and Scottish members of the UK were offended that they could not choose their ethnicity on the census.

The government subsequently included tick marks in different areas for  English, Welsh, Scottish, or Northern Irish British and Irish under the white ethnic category on the 2011 census (source). 

While the Republic of Ireland’s population is largely homogenous, ethnic minorities comprise about 12% of the population, with Poles being the largest minority (source).

Defining Ethnicity and Nationalism

We must define what “ethnicity” is since race and ethnicity are often conflated. The term ethnicity ultimately derives from the ancient Greek word “ethnos” for a nation, people, or tribe (source).

An ethnicity or ethnic group is a large social group whose members identify closely with one another on the basis of a common national, tribal, or cultural heritage, such as language (source). 

The term “ethnicity” can be used for any significant cultural group, and it is often used to refer to an ethnic minority. We derive this meaning of the word from the Greek translation of the Hebrew word for gentile, goyim, into ethnos in the Bible.

In Middle English, “ethnic” was used as a noun to describe someone who was a pagan, meaning a non-Christian or non-Jew. 

Religion was a key element in personal identity. However, this began to decline after a series of religious wars between Protestants and Catholics in Continental Europe, culminating in the Peace of Westphalia (1648).

Since that time, international relations recognized the sovereignty of nation-states over religious affiliation and adopted a stance of non-interference or self-determination.

However, this would lead to the tendency of various ethnic groups within those nation-states to form their own government.

Also, just as larger nationalities might trample on the rights of individual tribes or ethnicities, so too those individual tribes or ethnicities could trample on the rights of the individual.

Historians like Hans Kohn link the beginnings of nationalism to the 17th century, with the development of modern nationalism during the French Revolution in the 18th century (source).

During the 19th century, a romantic nationalism emphasizing national unity swept much of Europe, including Ireland.

The principles of national self-determination, the right of a distinct ethnic group or nation to govern itself, often in opposition to imperialism and colonialism, has been an ongoing theme of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Race vs. Ethnicity

The term “race” initially referred to people sharing a common ancestry in the 16th century before becoming an anthropological term in the 18th to divide humanity into groups based on physical characteristics, such as Caucasoid, Negroid, and Mongoloid.

It was also during the 18th century that the non-English peoples and languages of the British Isles were classified into the larger “Celtic” group, and the term was used to refer to the ancient Celtic language or “race.”

However, following the fallacies of Social Darwinism and radical race-based ideologies in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many began to shy away from the term “race” altogether.

Ethnonationalism had also helped to contribute to two World Wars and numerous ethnic conflicts.

In 1950, UNESCO recommended dropping the term “race” in favor of “ethnic groups” because the major national, geographic, religious, linguistic, and cultural groups were not necessarily linked to biology or “race” (source).

Recognizing the harm done by a concept of biological race and emphasizing physical characteristics, the American Association of Physical Anthropologists (AAPA) issued a Statement on Race and Racism, where they denounced the grouping of humanity into races and recognized that we all share 99.9% of DNA (source).

At the same time, they still recognize that we show substantial genetic and phenotypic variation.

Irish Genetic Ancestry

Used with caution, genetic evidence can tell us something about the prehistory of the Irish people. Ireland contains more than 1,300 ancient megalithic tombs, such as at Newgrange, Carrowmore, Knowth, and Poulnabrone (source).

It appears that the Stone Age population responsible for these megaliths in Ireland was predominantly from patrilineal Y-DNA haplogroup I2a (source). 

Recent DNA research has revealed closer links for the inhabitants of the British Isles with Iberia than Central Europe.

Commenting on the study, Dr. Daniel Bradley of Trinity College Dublin said that the Indo-European (Proto-Celtic) ancestors of the Irish might have arrived as early as 4000–1000 BC (source).

Within that timeframe, the genetic record shows that the Irish population underwent an abrupt change.

In a statement to The Guardian, Ian Barnes of the Natural History Museum of London claimed that 90% of Britain’s genetic makeup was replaced by the Beaker Culture from Central Europe around 2500 BC (source).

After this period of upheaval, geneticists observed the Irish population’s relative homogeneity before the Dark Age Viking invasions and subsequent Anglo-Norman invasion (source).

Y-DNA Haplogroup R1b reached Ireland by 2000 BC, and R1b has its highest concentration in Ireland at over 80% of the population. Later influences from La Tene Celts appear to have been largely cultural rather than genetic (source).

Identitarian Pitfalls

An understanding of one’s ancestry has many benefits, but racial and ethnic studies also come with serious hazards, as we can see in debates over whether the Irish were or are considered “white.” 

For example, in an article for the Irish Times in Dublin, Luke Holland remarked on how surprised he was when he spoke to an Asian who did not consider him white because he was Irish (source).

Part of the controversy stems from Noel Ignatiev’s work, How the Irish Became White (1995), where he argued that Irish immigrants were not considered white when they immigrated to the United States in the 19th century. 

However, in a 2017 Washington Post article, George Mason University School of Law Professor and Volokh Conspiracy blog contributor David E. Bernstein refuted this notion (source). 

While, as immigrants, they were certainly treated differently than native-born Americans, it does not appear that they were ever considered as anything other than white by law and custom. Also, Italian, Slavic, and Jewish immigrants had similar experiences.

The era was marked by an obsession with race consciousness with the mention of Italian, Irish, Anglo-Saxon, and Jewish races.

However, these were still lumped under the broad category of “white,” Caucasian,” or “Caucasoid.” Still, various characteristics were assigned to each group, with the Irish receiving a reputation for pugnacity.

Is Irish a Nationality?

Irish is a nationality, whether as a minority group among a larger national entity or as part of an independent nation-state. As an island, Ireland is politically divided into the Republic of Ireland in the south and Northern Ireland. 

Northern Ireland is a country, province, or region of the United Kingdom, while the Republic of Ireland is an independent Irish nation.

A nation is essentially an ethnicity connected to territorial and political boundaries.

Many nations are in one way or another tied to a particular ethnicity, taking the form of ethnonationalism, compared to nations like the United States that build a national identity based on a civic nationalism with a common core of ideals.

Irish nationalism in the Republic of Ireland attempts to find a middle ground through cultural nationalism, basing their national identity on a shared cultural heritage more than ancestry per se or race.

Irish nationalism is strong, even outside of Ireland, and, interestingly, you don’t have to be born in Ireland to qualify as an Irish citizen. 

The Irish government’s Department of Foreign Affairs would consider you an automatic citizen if one of your parents happened to be a citizen when you were born. This also means that you can be a citizen if one of your grandparents was born in Ireland (source).

While the Constitution of Ireland guarantees freedom of religion and does not endorse a particular religion, the Republic of Ireland is predominantly Catholic.

By contrast, Northern Ireland is predominantly Protestant. This fact has been the source of ethnic tension between the two political entities for centuries.

In Northern Ireland, those in favor of the United kingdom refer to themselves as British, while those who wish for a united Ireland refer to themselves as Irish.

For more information on the relationship of the terms British, English, and the United Kingdom, make sure you read our article, “What’s the Difference between ‘British’ and ‘English’?

The Republic of Ireland also has stronger ties to Continental Europe, although the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom both became members of the European Union in 1973 (source). 

However, in 2020, a revived sense of British nationalism led the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland, to decide to leave the EU in what is commonly known as Brexit (source).

Concerns that old ethnic tensions might spark renewed conflict have led to implementing special protocols for a peaceful transition.

Irish Culture

Irish cultural nationalism was a strong driving force in the independence movement through organizations such as the Gaelic League, established in 1893. Irish culture has deep roots in its native language, literature, and religion.

The Celtic Language

Irish is the official language of the Republic of Ireland, although only 39.8% of the population speak Irish. It’s primarily used in administrative work and taught alongside English in the public schools (source).

The Irish language is one of the surviving Celtic language branches — Goidelic and Brythonic.

Goidelic contains Irish, Manx, and Scots Gaelic, while Brythonic includes Welsh, Cornish, and Breton. In contrast, English descends from the Germanic Anglo-Saxon language, introduced in late antiquity.

The first appearance of the English word “Celtic” is as an adjective to describe those Celtic peoples as distinct from the English, and it dates to 1590 (source).

It was first used in a broader sense as a language group, including the languages of Ireland, Brittany, Wales, and the Scottish Highlands in 1739.

The English derived the term from the ancient Greek word Keltoi, originally used to describe the peoples of Europe around the Greek colonies of what is now Antibes and Marseilles in France, founded in the 7th century BC.

Linguists classify the Celtic language group as part of the larger Indo-European language family, and archaeologists, linguists, and geneticists still debate when and from where Indo-Europeans and the Celts arrived in Europe, let alone Ireland.

There is general agreement that Celtic first emerged within Indo-European, and then Gaulish Continental Celtic separated from British Insular Celtic at some point. Insular Celtic next split into Brythonic and Goidelic, also known as P-Celtic and Q-Celtic.

Scholars like Patrick Sims-Williams point out that attempts to date the separation of Goidelic and Brythonic vary widely from 3200 BC to 400 BC and largely reflect glottochronology’s shortcomings (source). 

The most widely accepted theory for the arrival of the Celtic language is that it arrived in Europe from the East with the Late Bronze Age Urnfield Culture or Iron Age Hallstatt Culture by the first millennium BC and that Goidelic or Q-Celtic arrived in Ireland around 1000 BC (source).

While the precise origins of the Celtic language remain obscure, Celtic culture was fully present by the Iron Age.

Iron was known possibly as early as the 8th century BC, but it did not become widespread in Ireland until around 300 BC, associated with the La Tene Celts (450–1 BC) (source). 

The pagan Celtic culture was eventually superseded by Christian culture, and Latin first influenced and then replaced the ancient Irish alphabet of Ogham.

However, Irish monasteries also preserved such pre-Christian epic poems as the Tain Bo Cuailnge or the “The Cattle Raid of Cooley,” written down by the 7th–8th century AD.

Irish Religious & Literary Culture

Image by Adrian Moran via Unsplash

In 1995, Thomas Cahill published his best-selling work, How The Irish Saved Civilization: The Untold Story of Ireland’s Heroic Role from the Fall of Rome to the Rise of Medieval Europe. In it, he highlights the critical role of the Irish in preserving Western Civilization.

Credit for this role begins with St. Patrick (AD 387-483), the patron saint of Ireland and founder of Irish monasticism. 

Born among the Romano-British Celts of Britain and captured by Irish pirates, he later devoted himself to the monastic life at St. Martin’s Monastery of Tours, France. He eventually established a church and monastery in Armagh, Ireland, in AD 445 (source).

Another Irish monk, St. Columba (AD 521-597), founded a monastery on the island of Iona, and the monks of Iona were essential in the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons from paganism and sending missionaries to Continental Europe. 

As Cahill pointed out, the Irish monastics preserved the ancient literary traditions of Continental Europe, preventing their destruction by the Germanic tribes, and eventually bringing those traditions back to the mainland (source).

The Rise of Irish Nationalism

Serious English involvement in Ireland dates back to the Anglo-Norman invasion and the Treaty of Windsor (AD 1175). Originally, English control was largely limited to the area around Dublin known as the English Pale. 

When Henry VIII, King of England, separated from the Catholic Church in AD 1531 and became head of the Church of England during the Protestant Reformation, the inhabitants of Ireland largely remained loyal Catholics.

After an Irish revolt, Henry conquered Ireland and formally became King of Ireland in AD 1542. 

Irish Catholics were prone to revolt against English attempts at enforcing religious conformity. The English crown responded by confiscating the land of rebels and settling it with Protestants, including Scottish Presbyterians later known as the Ulster-Scots.

After the Irish Rebellion of 1798, the Act of Union of 1800 joined the Kingdom of Great Britain and the Kingdom of Ireland under the United Kingdom.

Over time, a strong sense of Irish nationalism developed largely related to resentment over English dominion. Meanwhile, the Irish Potato Famine (1845–1849) forced many to immigrate to the United States.

The English made some concessions, and, for a time, the Irish looked to a parliamentary solution for independent Home Rule.

However, separatists movements like Sinn Fein (est. 1905) promoted a physical-force approach to nationalism that looked to the heroic deeds of the past.

In his book, Genesis of the Rising 1912–1916: A Transformation of Nationalist Opinion (2010), Dr. Christopher Kennedy attempts to trace the shift in public opinion against a parliamentary solution to Home Rule, leading up to the Easter Rising of 1916, occurring as the British were involved in World War I.

Ultimately, Irish public opinion turned against their own representatives in Parliament and in favor of the separatists, whose popularity was boosted by British conscription and the executions following the Easter Rising. 

They elected members of Sinn Fein to Parliament, and they set up a separate Irish Parliament, the First Dail (1919–1921). They also renamed the Irish Volunteers as the Irish Republican Army (IRA), beginning the Irish War of Independence (1919–1921).

After the Government of Ireland Act of 1920 or Fourth Home Rule Bill, Protestant Northern Irland remained part of the United Kingdom while predominantly Catholic Southern Ireland broke away as the Irish Free State (1922–1937). 

The Irish Free State lasted until the Constitution of Ireland (1937) established the Republic of Ireland.

Final Thoughts

Irish is an ethnicity with a long and storied history and vibrant culture extending from the pagan Celts to the Irish monks who preserved Western Culture and the separate political realms of Northern Ireland and the independent Republic of Ireland. 

Even those Irish men and women who settle abroad still retain a strong sense of their Irish heritage, and many even retain Irish citizenship.