Black Irish: Spaniards of the Armada?

Red Hair or Black?

One stereotype is that of the "Black Irish", individuals of Irish ancestry who have black hair and very white skin. The phrase was probably coined in America. Another stereotype is that the inhabitants of the island have Irish red hair and white skin. Which is true? Well, both are. There is certainly truth in the Irish red hair and white skin stereotype. But there is also truth in the one about the black hair. According to a study done back in the 1930's by Wesley Dupertuis about 3% of the Irish population (in a sample of 10,000 adult males) have black hair and pale white skin. While the study was done in the South, it probably is true of Northern Ireland. The question naturally arises, where do these characteristics come from?

Pre-Celtic Populations?

Some scholars point back to pre-Celtic populations which are assumed to have been of smaller statue that the Celts and to have had black hair and white skin. The theory goes that as the island was conquered, or at least, settled by incoming Celts, the two population groups intermarried. The more populous Celts provided the majority genetic pool in the form of red hair and other characteristics associated with the Irish. But the genes of the original population survived and surface even in the present in the form of the dark black hair. However, as attractive as the theory sounds, scientific evidence to determine the anthropological characteristics of the pre-Celts is lacking. So, while we cannot discount this theory, neither can we confirm it.

Remnants of the Armada?

Another theory points to the Spanish Armada ships. After its defeat in the English Channel it sailed north on the east side of England, between the Shetland Islands and Scotland and then down the west coast of Ireland. On the way it met fierce storms with the result that up to 24 of the Spanish Armada galleons and ships sunk along the Irish coast, the most famous being the Girona which sunk on the Antrim coast off Lacada Point.

Many of the Spanish sailors and marines from such shipwrecks came ashore, and, as the story goes, settled down, married, had children with dark hair and this explains the black Irish. In reality, however, most of the Spanish who landed on Ireland were killed or captured and only a small number might have actually settled, too small to affect the local genetic composition.

Until further evidence comes to light, the origin of the Black Irish will remain a mystery.

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