Characteristics of Irish Ancestry

by Dianne Laguerta
Irish is an ethnic and national identity, with its origins in Ireland.

Irish is an ethnic and national identity, with its origins in Ireland.

Those who identify as Irish or as having Irish ancestry usually refer to family lines that originate in Ireland, an island nation in the Atlantic ocean, off the coasts of England and Scotland. Irish ancestry can be characterized by family name or ancestral place, language, and even religion or historical customs. Many Irish immigrants who live in the diaspora, such as Irish Americans, can identify with their Irish heritage through cultural practices and traditions.

Irish Identity

Celtic heritage is commonly represented by the Celtic cross.

In Ireland, about 93 percent of the country identifies as ethnic Irish. The Irish trace their ancestry to the Celts, who came to Ireland in the first century. Irish ancestry also includes the influence of the Vikings, French Normans, Anglo-Saxons, the Scots, and the British throughout history. Today, the ethnic Irish traditionally include the Gaelic Irish and Irish Travelers. The Gaels speak Gaelic Irish and are considered to be the culture carriers, or origin, of ethnic Irish today. Irish Travelers are characterized by their nomadic lifestyle and speak Cant or Shelta. Many people with Irish ancestry trace a relationship to ethic Irish groups such as the Gaels. In addition to ethnic Irish in Ireland, there is a small British population who have intermarried with ethnic Irish and share in Irish ancestry that way.

Irish Ancestral Surnames

Irish ancestral surnames are often characterized by a "Mc/Mac" or "O'" at the beginning of a last name, though there are many Irish surnames that do not include such prefixes. Common Irish names are typically derived from Gaelic, though many other Irish surnames are also Scottish and English. Many names were derived from the Bible, such as Adamson from Adam, or from Irish saints, such as McBride from the popular Irish saint, St. Brigid. Many other names are "single ancestor" names, meaning that they come from a family line. Examples of these names include McNulty, O'Regan and Ryan. Ancestry lines based on surnames are also commonly traced to a particular town or region in Ireland.

Religious Identities

Historically, ethnic Irish were strongly associated with Roman Catholicism, though many are also Protestant (commonly a part of Anglican and Presbyterian churches). A history of English colonization of Ireland has stressed a divide between Irish Catholics and Protestants, but that divide does not exist as strongly today as it once did, especially in the Irish Diaspora. In Northern Ireland, however, many Irish see their identity as Catholics important to their ethnic and national identity. This is due to the history of Northern Ireland's partition from the Republic of Ireland in 1920, when Ulster Protestants (whose ancestry stems from British Protestant setter colonists) split from the rest of Ireland to remain under control of the United Kingdom.

Irish Culture and Arts

U2 is a celebrated Irish band.

The Irish celebrate a great history of artists, writers, music and dance. Famous Irish writers -- who wrote in English and Gaelic -- are James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Sean O Faolain, Frank O'Connor and George Bernard Shaw. Modern rock bands such as U2 and Van Morrison also come from Irish background, with their music inspired by Irish culture. Many dancers with Irish ancestry celebrate and learn the traditional step-dancing featured in the internationally acclaimed Riverdance show. Irish art itself is inspired by Irish culture, with motifs of Celtic crosses a common design and emblem for Irish ancestry.

About the Author

Dianne Laguerta is a graduate of Mount Holyoke College with a bachelor's degree in history and Middle Eastern studies. She studied and conducted research in Cairo, Egypt during the 2012 Egyptian elections, and has traveled throughout the Middle East.

Photo Credits

  • MiroNovak/iStock/Getty Images