The historical events of Spanish Armada of 1588, Spain’s great naval effort to conquer Protestant England, and devastating consequences off Irish coast have been well documented. In Armada’s attempt to return home through North Atlantic they were driven off-course by bad weather and close on 24 ships were wrecked off Irish coast from Antrim in north to Kerry in the south. 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.
Over the course of history, and in different parts of the Irish diaspora throughout the world, it has been subject to several unique but somewhat overlapping meanings encompassing physical appearance, religious affiliation, ethnicity, subculture and poverty. Modern traditionalists, however, maintain the term to be synonymous with a dark-haired phenotype exhibited by certain individuals originally descended from Ireland. Opinions vary in regard to what is perceived as the usual physical characteristics of the so-called Black Irish: e.g., dark hair, brown eyes and medium skin tone; or dark hair, blue or green eyes and fair skin tone. Dark hair in people of Irish descent is extremely common (15% of the population), although darker skin complexions appear less frequently (1% of the population).
One story based on the Milesians, the purported descendants of Míl Espáine (Latin Miles Hispaniae, “Soldier of Hispania”, later pseudo-Latinised as “Milesius”), speculated to represent Celtic-speaking peoples from the western Iberian peninsula who began to migrate to Ireland and Britain in the fifth century B.C. Genetic research shows a strong similarity between the Y chromosome haplotypes of males from north-western Spain and northern Portugal and Irish men with Gaelic surnames.
Studies have indicated the Irish are “almost uniquely pale skinned when unexposed, untanned parts of the body, are observed” and “40% of the entire group are freckled to some extent”. Moreover, “in the proportion of pure light eyes”, data shows that “Ireland competes successfully with the blondest regions of Scandinavia”, as approximately 42% of the Irish population have pure blue eyes. Another 30% have been found to possess light-mixed eyes and “less than 1 half of 1% have pure brown”.
In the 1800s, many people believed that Irish people who had dark complexions were somehow related to Africans. Africans and people who had dark features were often held in distaste and considered to be inferior. In 1862, John Beddoe, an esteemed ethnologist, published Races of Britain, in which he described people of Celtic descent as having features similar to those of African descent. The term “Black Irish” might have been derived from this viewpoint.
Since the mid-16th century there have been small numbers of Black people resident in Ireland, mainly concentrated in the major towns, especially Dublin. Many of those in the 18th century were servants of wealthy families. There were other Africans in Ireland who were not slaves, notably Olaudah Equiano (also spelled Olauda Ikwuano), who not only lived in Belfast, but wrote and self-published best selling accounts of his experience in and with slavery.
Lord Edward FitzGerald was saved in 1781 by Tony Small, a freed slave, after the Battle of Eutaw Springs. Small returned with Lord Edward to Ireland, and in 1786 his portrait was painted by John Roberts.
Black slavery was rare in Ireland at this date, although the legal position remained unclear until a judgement in England in 1772, the Somersett’s Case. Others were tradesmen, soldiers, travelling artists or musicians. Never very numerous, most of them were assimilated into the larger population by the second third of the 19th century.
Another theory for the definition of “Black Irish” is people from Ireland, or of Irish origin, who are black or admixed. Thousands of Irish rebels were transported to the Caribbean to work as laborers on new British settlements in the 17th century. This was at the same time that people were being taken from Africa and sold to work as slaves on these same settlements. Over time, the two communities integrated and the dark skinned children were of Irish and African origin. Many people from the Caribbean today have Irish heritage.
The Fomors most likely were based on the indigenous early Caucasoid Mediterranean (Iberian) swarthy types to settle in Ireland, and may have had a racial affinity with the Berbers of North Africa. Professor Grafton Elliot Smith (1913) proposed that the dolmen originated in Libya or Egypt and was taken to Europe by those of the Iberian racial type. That the Fomors are described as dark skinned “giants” is explained in the sense that they were primitive and crude stone builders, not giants in size, but in their enormous impiety.