Ireland Ethnic Groups

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

The island of Ireland has an interesting past that is equal parts isolation and invasion. This history has left an impact on Irish ethnicity, which we'll explore in this lesson.


I have a buddy who's Irish and, when asked about his ethnicity, likes to say he's Atlantic Islander. That seems about right for the Irish. Ireland is, of course, a small island nation of the northeast Atlantic Ocean and home to almost 5 million people. I actually like the category of Atlantic Islander because it reminds us that Ireland often has more in common with many island nations around the world than it does with continental Europe. It's been invaded, isolated, re-invaded, and used as a base for ships crossing the world. All of this has had an impact on the Irish people, who, even without hula skirts and tropical beaches, still make up one of the great island cultures in the world.

Ireland has a history similar to many island nations.

The Irish Ethnicity

Within the Irish population, the dominant ethnic group by far is, unsurprisingly, the Irish. In fact, roughly 85% of people in Ireland identify as Irish. But what exactly does that mean? Like many island nations, Ireland has been home to a diverse range of people, all of whom contributed to the Irish ethnicity. The first settlers in Ireland seem to have been Gaelic people who arrived at least 9,000 years ago. The Gaels were a branch of the wider ethnolinguistic group known as the Celts, who inhabited a wider range of Northwestern Europe. These Gaelic people lived in Ireland for millennia, developing metal technology, farming, and sailing techniques. In the 1st century CE, the Roman Empire formally expanded into England, conquering most of the Celtic people there. While the Romans never actually invaded Ireland, or, as they called it, Hibernia, the Irish Gaels and Romans did engage in trade. These trade routes would allow ideas like Christianity to enter the island by the 5th century.

Ireland was influenced by many sailing people.

The next serious impact on Irish ethnicity came in the 12th century, when the island was conquered by Anglo-Normans, a mixture of French, Viking, and English people. From this point on, Ireland was continuously invaded by various combinations of English, Viking, and Norman ships. In the 16th and 17th centuries, England formally re-conquered Ireland, and a great number of English and Scottish people flooded the island. Today, the Irish ethnicity is a collage of its history, containing Celtic genes that bear similarity to people in Southern Europe, distinct Gaelic genes unique to the island, and English genes with various Northern European influences. The Irish Gaelic language itself is formally preserved by the government as an official state language, and about 40% of the population is able to speak it. Many Irish customs, beliefs, and traditions still have roots in the traditional Gaelic culture of the island, as well.

Irish Gaelic language newspaper

The diversity of Irish ethnicity has produced one long-lasting mystery: a population within the Irish ethnic group who don't look like most other Irish. They have more Mediterranean, and many have suggested Spanish, skin tones and features. The term used for this population (mostly by people outside of Ireland) is Black Irish, in reference to their very dark hair and dark eyes. Some scholars propose that these features were from Vikings while others propose that they indicate an ancient trade relationship with Spain or Portugal and possibly even Morocco. Whatever their origin, the existence of this population hints at the number of people who have landed on the island across history, many of whom we may never fully appreciate.

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