I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

Who are the Irish?


Brian M Walker writes: St Patrick’s Day once again provided an opportunity for Irish people at home and abroad to celebrate both their national saint and their own links with Ireland. But who exactly are the Irish? The simple answer is that they are the 6 million who live on the island of Ireland, plus another estimated 70 million Irish worldwide, either born in Ireland or their descendants.

When we look more closely, however, the subject is more complicated than this. Over the last half century our knowledge and appreciation of the “Irish” has changed radically. In America fifty years ago it was believed that around 12 million had Irish origins, but today some 35 million claim Irish ancestry, while another 4 million claim Scots Irish ancestry.

In Great Britain two decades ago it was reckoned that some 12-15 million of the population had Irish forebears, but in the 2001 census just under 700,000 chose an Irish ethnic identity. In Northern Ireland in the late 1960s most unionists called themselves British or Ulster. Some 20 per cent, however, described themselves as Irish. Subsequently this figure collapsed. Today, however, many call themselves Northern Irish.

In the 1970s it was commonly understood that 12-15 millions in America had Irish roots. Of these, most were reckoned to be descendants of Irish Catholic emigrants (especially the Famine emigrants), who were called Irish Americans. There was some awareness of earlier Protestant emigration from Ireland, especially by Ulster Presbyterians, whose forebears had been Scottish immigrants in Ireland, and many of whom were sometimes known as Scotch Irish, or Scots Irish. By the 1970s there was little obvious sign of their descendants.

To wide surprise, however, the 1980 census, which for the first time reported ancestry, recorded a total of 40.2 million Irish. Of these, 10.3 million recorded a single Irish ancestry while 29.8 million declared Irish as part of a dual or multiple ancestry. At present some 35 million claim Irish ancestry and another 4 million claim Scots Irish ancestry.

The second great surprise in this period arose from a number of opinion polls that studied the religion of different groups in America. They revealed that over half those with Irish ancestry were Protestant or from a Protestant background. The 2006 NORC survey from the University of Chicago showed that of those who described themselves as Irish, 48 per cent were Protestant, 29 per cent Catholic and 23 per cent other or no religion.

To explain the many millions of Protestant Irish, attention must focus on the first wave of mostly Protestant Irish emigrants, numbering over 200,000, who came in the eighteenth century to America, mainly from Ulster. Because of their early arrival and a multiplier factor, there are now very large numbers of their descendants, and a majority describe their ancestry as Irish, but do not usually call themselves Irish-American (or Scots Irish).

As well, in the nineteenth century many Irish Protestants, such as Barack Obama’s Church of Ireland ancestor, an 18 year old shoemaker, Fulmouth Kearney, from Moneygall, Co Offaly, continued to emigrate to America. Others with a Catholic background became Protestant, such as Ronald Reagan, whose father was an Irish Catholic but who was brought up in the faith of his Scottish Presbyterian mother.

Over the last two centuries there has been extensive emigration of Irish people to Great Britain. In the late 1990s it was reckoned that the number of those with Irish origins in Britain was in the region of 12-15 million. In 2001, for the first time, the census gave people the option to register Irish as their ethnic identity. It turned out, however, that the number who chose to declare an Irish ethnic identity was very low. The 2001 census reported that out of a population of 57,103, 927, only 691,000 (just over 1 per cent), of whom nearly three-quarters were born in Ireland, recorded an Irish ethnic background.

Various explanations have been given for the small numbers to record an Irish ethnic identity. A factor which affected people in their approach to this issue was the impact of Irish republican bombing in Britain over the previous thirty years. Because of such violence, many people with an Irish background chose to identify with Britain rather than Ireland.

The main reason, however, for the low number to declare an Irish ethnic identity is the high degree of integration of Irish-born people and their descendants into British society. By the end of the twentieth century, most people with an Irish background were fully involved and successful in the social, economic and political life of Britain.

This success can be seen in the leadership of the British political system. When prime minister Tony Blair addressed the Houses of the Oireachtas in 1998 he stated: “Ireland . . . is in my blood. My mother was born in the flat above her grandmother’s hardware shop in the main street of Ballyshannon in Donegal.” Other politicians with an Irish background include Michael Fallon, former defence secretary, and Chris Patten, former environment secretary and last governor of Hong Kong.

While the number of those from an Irish background who decided to acclaim an Irish identity in the 2001 census was low, this is not to say that the many others, who did not register, felt no affinity with Ireland or had lost all their Irish identity. Under new circumstances, which have arisen from the peace process in Northern Ireland, more people in Britain are keener to acclaim an Irish identity, although not necessarily on their census returns as part of a minority.

Marianne Elliott has described how “in England it is now fashionable to be Irish, second and third-generation Irish in their teens and twenties displaying none of the sensitivities of those in their fifties and older”. Brexit has caused some to reclaim their Irish links.

In Northern Ireland in recent years as well there have been important changes in how people view Irish identity.  In the late 1960s, before the outbreak of the “troubles”, Richard Rose conducted a survey poll of people’s identities in Northern Ireland. He found that among Protestants (mostly unionists), 20 per cent identified themselves as Irish, 39 per cent as British, 32 per cent as Ulster and 8 per cent as other combinations. Among Catholics, the figures were 76 per cent Irish, 15 per cent British, 5 per cent Ulster and 4 per cent other combinations.

In the course of the “troubles”, however, with violence and stark polarization over national identity, the number of Protestants who described themselves as Irish declined dramatically. By 1989 an opinion poll showed that the figure had fallen to 3 per cent, as had the figure for those who chose an Ulster identity, 10 per cent, while 68 per cent now called themselves British. Among Catholics, those who described themselves as Irish had declined to 60 per cent, while the figures for a British identity stood at 8 per cent and Ulster 2 per cent.

An interesting development at this stage was support for a new Northern Irish identity. In 1989, 16 per cent of Protestants and 25 per cent of Catholics described themselves as Northern Irish, but for different reasons. It seems that for many unionists the name derived from Northern Ireland, part of the UK, while for many nationalists it meant they were Irish living in the north. Nonetheless it is a common form of identity.

For the first time, the UK census in 2011 recorded national identity. It found that of the resident population of Northern Ireland, 40 per cent described their national identity as British only, 25 per cent as Irish only, 21 per cent as Northern Irish only, 6 per cent as British and Northern Irish only, and 8 per cent as other identities, including a combination of the above. The census also revealed that 94 per cent of people with an Irish only national identity were or had been brought up as Catholics, while 81 per cent of those with a British only national identity had been brought up as Protestants. Among those with a Northern Irish identity only, 58 per cent were from a Catholic background while 36 per cent were from a Protestant background.

Clearly, great varieties of Irish identity exist not just among the diaspora in America and Great Britain but also among the population in Northern Ireland. What changes will the next half century bring?


Brian M Walker is professor emeritus of Irish Studies at Queen’s University. The above comes from his book Irish history matters: politics, identities and commemoration, to be published in June by History Press Ireland.

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