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The Irish Character – What Does it Mean to you to be Irish?

 Are you proud to have Irish heritage? When I asked my readers “What do you love most about your Irish Heritage?” I wasn’t surprised by the replies such as a love of music, a closeness to family and of course a fondness for a party! Read on to hear some opinions on what makes the Irish character, leave a comment and let me know what being Irish means to you!

Irish character

Céad Míle Fáilte – and welcome to your Letter from Ireland for this week. If this is your first time here you’re very welcome, I hope you enjoy reading this Letters from Ireland (if you would like to start receiving a FREE Letter from Ireland  straight to your inbox every week click here).

What is the Irish character? What does it mean to you?

We’ve just been through that time of year again – a time that’s hard to ignore if you have a drop of Irish blood in you – Saint Patrick’s Day. So, today I’d like to have a look at the question: “What does it mean to be Irish?”.

Think of what makes up the Irish “character”.  When I ask our readers: “What do you Love most about Your Irish Heritage” – I get replies like: an ability and love of music; closeness of family; a sense of justice; ambition; a fondness for a party; a love of words and learning and a keenness for all things spiritual.

These seem to be timeless qualities that most people would see in Irish people. Maybe you would like to add some extra qualities to this list?

We Irish have always listened with great interest to the opinion other nations and outsiders have when observing our character. One of my own favourite stories is the source of the word “Gael” or “Gaelic” which did not come into use among the Irish until around the 7th century. It came from a Welsh word – “gwyddel” – which means “marauder” – and was the name given to the Irish raiders on the coast of Wales.

The Irish of the time – with their value of daring and glory – quite liked that label and it worked its way into everyday use.

The Irish character – Some Opinions.

In more recent times, a famous psycho-analyst commented:

“This is one race of people for whom psychoanalysis is of no use whatsoever.”― Sigmund Freud

I doubt if there is an Irish man or woman who would not take pride in such a description – our preference not to be pigeon-holed or labeled – and our love of individual self-expression.

This Irish novelist captures the Irish character in the 20th century – emerging from hundreds of years of colonisation, forced migration, famine and repression of religion, culture and language:

“When anyone asks me about the Irish character, I say look at the trees. Maimed, stark and misshapen, but ferociously tenacious.”― Edna O’Brien

Rolling back another few hundred years – to a time before colonisation, we come across this description by the Englishman Richard Stanihurst:

“The [Irish] people are thus inclined: religious, frank, amorous, ireful, sufferable of infinite pains, vain-glorious, with many sorcerers, excellent horsemen, delighted with warring, great almes-givers and surpassing in hospitality. The lewder sort (both clerics and lay people alike) are sensual and loose in living. They are sharp-witted, lovers of learning, adventurous, kind-hearted and secret in displeasure.”

“Thank you very much” – might be the reply of many Irish people, even today.

Gerald of Wales.

For our final view of the Irish from the outside, we go all the way back to 1180AD – to the observations of Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales) – who observed the Irish as part of the first English royal party in the late 12th century.

Gerald was son of William FitzOdo de Barri, (common ancestor of the Irish Barry families), nephew of Maurice fitzGerald (common ancestor of the Irish Fitzgerald families)and grandson of Gerald de Windsor (alias FitzWalter – common ancestor of the Irish Butler families).

He saw the native Irish as heathen savages – justifying any action that was taken by his noble superiors. So, it is then interesting to examine his biased comments on the Irish appearance, character and values:

On appearance and health:

“[Nature] gives growth and proportions to these people, until they arrive at perfect vigour, tall and handsome in person, and with agreeable and ruddy countenances. The islanders have little need of physicians as there are few sick people – except those at the point of death.”

On Fighting:

“they go into battle without armour, considering it a burthen (burden) and esteeming it brave and honourable to fight without it.”

 On Attitude to Work and Learning:

“The Irish are a rude people, subsisting on the produce of their cattle only, and living themselves like beasts – a people that has not yet departed from the primitive habits of pastoral life. [They] lead the same life their fathers did in the woods and open pastures, neither willing to abandon their old habits or learn anything new.“

“They neither employ themselves in the manufacture of flax or wool or in any kind of trade or mechanical art; but abandoning themselves to idleness, and immersed, in sloth, their greatest delight is to be exempt from toil, their richest possession, the enjoyment of liberty. Whatever natural gifts they possess are excellent, in whatever requires industry they are worthless.”

On Music:

“It is only in the case of musical instruments that I find any commendable diligence in the [Irish] people. They seem to me to be incomparably more skilled in these than any other people that I have seen. ”

A quick and not completely inaccurate summary of Gerald’s view would be that – the Irish are barbarous, savage, and lazy with no clear system of power and authority – on the other hand they are very healthy and their music and musicians are very good.But Gerald was of his time and class – while there is a certain truth in what he observes and notes – there is much that Gerald also left out from his observations as he considered the existing Anglo-Norman systems to be superior and more civilised.

He chose to ignore the intricacies of Irish culture and law as captured by the Brehon texts, the Irish love of spirituality and land (often the two meaning the same thing), the respect for societal status, the love of language and learning – and finally, a love of hospitality and extended celebrating!

I’m not sure how Gerald would have enjoyed the fact that the descendants of his relatives – the Anglo-Norman families of Ireland – were mostly “hibernicised” by the fourteenth century. They took on the wives, customs, dress, law and language of this “barbarous people” in a way the Normans who invaded England could never adopt to the Anglo-Saxon customs and traits.

So, I hope that you let the Irish side of your character shine for all to see at this time of year – and together let’s give the world something to talk about!

If you’ve enjoyed this article you may also enjoy our letter Is there such a thing as Irish DNA?

Question: What does being Irish mean to you? Do leave a comment below.

  • Cynthia Marler says:

    I have a love for Ireland that go’s to my soul. I am Irish by blood, though I have never been. I feel a longing to go home. Have sense I was 12 years old. You have a sadness for the loss, but not the battles. You carry the pride of your name and heritage. A wanting to make people feel welcome and the wit to tell them off. Lol The Irish are a great and a fantastic people.

    • Mike says:

      Sounds like it might be time to make some travel plans Cynthia 🙂

    • Connie Snyder says:

      Amazing. I just went to Ireland in April of 2015. Never have I been to a place where I felt more like I was home.
      It’s time for you to go. Lots of good special deals. Take a look.

    • debs says:

      I’m the same as you. I have never (although I really want to go) but I have Irish blood (my grandmother was full Irish & still have decent relatives that live there) and I find it so strange that even though I’m only 25% Irish and have never been over there I have all of the traits & personality of an Irish girl eg… Im very pale in complexion & blonde (naturally), I also share their witty humour, laid back attitude & compassion. Although I was born & raised in the UK, I am more close to being an Irish lass then English which I love! I’m very proud of my roots and hope to go there and find my family one day!

    • john haughney says:

      I hope you have visited the magical country of your heritage by now ….. Irishman living in france

  • Julie says:

    My mother was “full-blooded” Irish. These descriptions in your piece are so accurate regarding her family. Though my siblings & I are only half-Irish, (sad face), many of these same qualities were passed down to us. Thoroughly enjoyed this. Much of it made me laugh!

  • Caithleen says:

    Being Irish means to me that its in my soul that no matter what life throws at me bad or good I will have the fight to get through it, the love to over come it and humor to laugh at it!

  • Terri Whitt Vickers says:

    My grandparents names were McClendon from Contin Ireland . My other set of grandparents were the O’Fosters. I dream of a vacation someday to Ireland…

  • Debra Strehle-Burns says:

    My father’s mother was Irish on her mother’s side MacCloon, unsure of spelling. Mary Ann. She married Elmer Zephaniah Wright, their children were Paul , Helen, Inas. Paul died in plane crash, World War I. Wish grandmother and my dad would have talked to me about our Irish people. My dad was also half German, he fought in World War two. Last name is Strehle, Robert A. Dad was captured at the Battle of the Bulge. I know more about the war apparently. Debby Strehle-Burns

  • Sandra says:

    I very much enjoyed this thank you! Ware do I start what it means to be Irish to me?

    I have always had a fire in my heart and spirituality in my soul and the fight when ever it is needed! Laughter comes easily and the love of music and dance too!

    To be Irish is to be different and many people don’t understand you,you look at things differently. I was always taught to say good morning to those who passed me by and to give a hand when needed. I know the meaning of a good joke and can laugh at my self too! I know how to pass it on, heck the Irish may have started it! It doesn’t really matter what matters is the Irish are kind! Friendship is given truly no expectation on it! We are open and can talk to anyone anywhere and always say what we mean. These are some of the reasons I am proud to be Irish!

    I never really fit in being different and all. When I went to Ireland this year I knew I went home, yes I say home! I had this Irish fellow ask me ware are you from girl and I said Canada. He said you are in the wrong country your Irish, I said with a smile on my face yes I am, I am a Kennedy! He then said that red in your face that is Irish, the way you engage that is a Irishmen talking to me not a tourist and the lithe in your voice, your family is from Wicklow! It was the first time I fit in and ever ware in Ireland I went I was welcome as one of there own!

    That is what it means to be Irish and may the Irish keep putting the candle in the window so others can come home and know what it truly is to be Irish!

    Sandra Kennedy

    • Sandy LaFerriere says:

      Hello Sandra! Just read your post! I loved it! So many of my own thoughts and sentiments there. I am also from the Kennedy clan. My great great grandfather emigrated from Muff , Ireland to St John, New Brunswick in 1853 with a wife and 7 children. The youngest, Alexqnder was 7 months old , grew up, married a Canadian girl, Elizabeth Buckingham and was my great grandfather. His father was Thomas Kennedy married to Elizabeth Reid. I haven’t found any connections before them. I know I must have many connections in Canada too but haven’t found them yet. Thanks for sharing your story. Who knows, maybe we are distant cousins!

      Warm regards,

      Sandra Doore LaFerriere

      My Mum was Eliza Kennedy, daughter of Mancle Kennedy, who was a son of Alexander, who was the youngest son of Thomas and Elizabeth Reid Lennedy.

  • Mary Barry says:

    My Irish grandmother brought me up on Irish tales and she lived in Boston for awhile so she had many stories to pass on to me regarding Irish traditions. I have inherited her reddish hair, freckles and her love for her faith. My mother’s side passed on superstitions and an Irish dialect in their singsong way of speaking. My Irish surnames are Ahearn, Barry, Collins, Cosgrove, Costin, Mansfield, Murphy, Mihan or Nihan, Quinn, Reilly and Sullivan. The Sullivans came from County Antrim but I think the majority of my Irish ancestors came from County Cork and Waterford and maybe Peter A’hearn/Heron was from Wexford. They all emigrated to North America, some landing first at Newfoundland and later making their way south to the Atlantic provinces where most of them settled in Prince Edward Island, where I live. We have a great deal of Irish descendants in PEI and are known for our great fiddle music, the bagpipes, ceiliahs, and our redheads. Looking to connect with any of those Irish names. We are taking a trip to Ireland and Scotland for 16 days from August 25th and I just can’t wait to set foot on Irish soil.

    • Don’t have any of your surnames but most of my ancestors on both my parents sides of the family are from County Antrim: McCrory, Finney, Jackson.

      My family came over in the early 1600s to 1775. My McCrory family, Thomas I McCrory came over in 1775 and fought in the American Revolution. My grandfather still had a heavy Irish accent when he died in 1919. My husbands James family is from Ireland; but we don’t know which part. His 2 greats grandfather, William I James came over from Ireland to Canada and migrated to Michigan USA.

      We would love to go visit Ireland.

  • Evan O'Connor says:

    What does it mean to be Irish to me? Well one is my family name im an O’Connor my family is from the O’Connor Kerry clan in Irland. ( Sorry for the spelling) Im American by birth but that dont matter I hope to go visit Irland. I dont know what it is but I have always danced to celtic music and got up to dance. I may stink at dancing but when bagpipes start i cant help but get up and dance. No matter what im proud to show it. People dont understand the love we have for are heritage. To me family is everything to me I dont let anyone talk bad about them or my heritage ive been suspended for beating up a guy for talking bad about irish people. Im not scared to get up and fight for my beliefs. What my Father told me was it was the irish in my blood. He said we are hot heads , it’s true. Sorry I wen’t off topic I think, but irish people are made fun of and called drunks, it makes me laugh because every where there are drunks. (Srry this is long) I dont know if any one else does this but when my grandmother past each year on St. Patricks Day me and my uncle visit her and we pour her a glass of Jamison whiskey. We take a drink for her. No matter what be happy of your heritage. We irish are friendly, “haha I love how i can talk to anyone.” I grow up saying good morning to anyone I saw that morning the same goes for the evening, the biggest was no matter how hard life is for you, was never to give up because every rainbow is a pot of gold. Fight through the hard times. You got to know how to laugh at your self but don’t let anyone talk about your family. Never forget your Irish Pride show it off I just got my family crest tattooed on my arm. Be proud

  • Patty says:

    Unconditional Acceptance
    and safe harbor – from all life brings

  • Mary O. Leidner says:

    My Irish inheritance is my ability to rebound from any situation with a smile on my face. It is to see humor everywhere I travel. I am a dreamer who always sees the best side of the situation. My husband has commented that I ” could read a book in the middle of a world war battle” any only see the sunny day around me. I have a love of music and poetry. I still hear my Irish Grandma playing music and singing silly little childrens’ songs. They still give me a smile. I will always fight for my family and love them no matter what. I’m proud to be Irish.

  • Laurie Archer Haramis says:

    Though I am first generation Hungarian from my moms side, it’s the Irish from my Dad that has grabbed my soul from a very young age. Since I am most like him in personality, the above definitions fit us both pretty much to the tee. Gregarious, love of singing and music, boisterous, happy attitude , etc! On my first visit to Ireland in 2003, I felt a chill of goosebumps when we landed and I swear I felt I was coming HOME! I even wrote that in my journal! Felt it again in 2013 when I returned, and didn’t want to leave!
    I don’t know exactly when the Archer’s made their way to the USA, only that we probably came from Kilkenny!
    I’m not one for mysticism but there’s no denying that there is SOMETHING that Ireland has that I’ve felt no where else!

  • Frannie Alexson says:

    I, literally wear my Irish with Pride. I, have a 2 inch tattoo of a Celtic Cross on my right wrist. Many folks have questioned me as to why I wear it. My answer is simple…Proudly, I tell them I am an Irish Catholic . My Mum’s family hails from Galway and my Dad immigrated to the U.S. from St.John’s NFLD . His parents , being the Mullowneys and the Treacys. From what little I have discovered regarding my Dad’s family….they were from Northern Ireland, most likely Derry. I, have always loved the story of How St.John’s Basillica in St.John’s , NFLD . took 20 years to build as the Irish immigrants build it by bringing all the stone from Ireland . The Church stands majestically in the center of the city. , bidding a welcome to all who sail into the port of St.John’s . The population is still predominately Irish to this day. I, grew up in Irish Boston where the Irish reine supreme ..To be able to say I am Irish means the world to me .

  • i love reading the stories on this website im welsh born but have like so many people got irish ancestry. my great grandfather and grandmother came from a place called clonagam in waterford his name was daniel kearney and my grandmother was ellen doolan on my mothers side of the family they were the lambes fom a place called fermoy in cork i went to ireland in 2013 and had a lovely time i had a sense of belonging and will be going again this year cant wait!

  • Linda Blackmoore says:

    Both my grandparents were Irish. Arrived in New Zealand as children, met and married. My grandmother told my Dad about Ireland, his Irish cousins but my grand dad never spoke of his family or Ireland.
    Being Irish has that yearning to return. it gets into the soul and heart. I was lucky to go to Ireland in 2013. I got to feel the Irish. I got to experience the love of Ireland. Feel and smell the Irish breeze. Oh yes I fell in love Thank you my long gone grandparents for the bits of Ireland you both gave me.
    I need to return. Need to go home need to feel that pride again.

    • Mike says:

      Nice one Linda – thanks for sharing and sounds like it’s time to plan that return trip alright! Mike.

  • Judy.Gonder@gmail.com says:

    So many interesting comments about what it means to be Irish. To me, it means the spirituality and ties to the land. The family farm is where I’ve always wanted to be. The love of the wildlife and nature along with God’s guidance has allowed me to establish a conservation center on the farm.
    While I’m a bit reserved in sharing my opinions, I am always quick with a comeback when necessary. I really like a quip I came across that stated that Irish diplomacy was the ability to tell someone to go to hell and have them look forward to the trip!
    Sabina

    • Mike says:

      Thanks for sharing those thoughts Sabina – I like your last line! Mike.

    • john haughney says:

      I like your last line too ….. it’s so true, the ability to insult someone ever so politely …. Tied to the land with a loving knot …
      Irishman living in France

  • Lynne Walters says:

    I am Australian. My great great grandparents were from Co Mayo and Co Roscommon. I also have ancestors from Co Cork and Co Meath. I have had several trips to Ireland over the past five years and to me Ireland feels like home, it fits me like a glove. My first trip felt like arriving home.

  • Berenice Holmes says:

    I am Australian and I am a descendant from Thomas McKenna a leader in the 1798 rebellion and Jane Ffoulkes (the Yeoman’s daughter) referred to in the ballad “The Boys of Wexford ” they are buried in Kilsynan Cemetery near Listowel. My Great Grandmother Mary McKenna, my Mum’s grandmother on her mothers’ side of the family is from that McKenna family and born in Listowel in County Kerry. Her nephew John McKenna was involved in the 1916 uprising and was jailed in Belfast for supplying guns. His Grandson Jack McKenna still lives in Listowel and is my Mum’s 2nd cousin. Their family business still operates in Listowel. Mary McKenna came to Australia about 1871 and married here. I am also a descendant from the McAuliffe’s of Newmarket in County Cork. My G. G. Grandfather John McAuliffe was born in Newmarket, County Cork in 1836. He was Mum’s Great Grandfather on her dad’s side. He was married in Dublin and he also emigrated to Australia. It was only last week that I found his grave , the grave of his son ( John my Great Grandfather) and his son (John my Grandfather McAuliffe) all in the same cemetery here in Brisbane Queensland. All my life my Mum told me how her grandmother came from County Kerry the most beautiful place in Ireland. My son and I have always been people to stand up for our rights and that of freedom. I guess we have inherited this from our Irish ancestors. For many years I have had a longing to go to Ireland but have never been able up to this time. I am always drawn to Irish people and their history. Well my time has come with my mother’s passing last November at the age of 94yrs my husband and I will have our first visit to Ireland this September. We will be visiting Listowel and Newmarket in our Trip. I have ancestry on my dad’s side from Belfast but that does not draw me like the McKenna’s and the McAuliffe’s do. It is like they are calling me. I am hoping that when I get to Ireland I will find I have come home.

    • Mike says:

      County Kerry is beautiful indeed Berenice – we go there as much as we can! Thanks for sharing that perspective, sounds like you will really enjoy your trip – Mike.

  • Colleen Garske says:

    I realize that I’m a bit late to the party here, however after seeing this link on Facebook today, I decided to give your question some thought.
    I have been, as long as I can remember, infatuated with Ireland and all things Irish.
    As a small child I loved to visit my maternal grandparents (I know, who doesn’t?) but part of it was, when we’d go to church on Sunday, I adored listening Father Dougherty say mass with his lilting Irish voice, I was captivated by it and always a little sad when it ended.
    My grandma also had very cool old pictures of her parents and grandparents (which I now proudly own) it was fascinating to look into those faces and imagine what they were like and how they sounded when they talked and laughed. Then getting a bit older and finding out how they came to North America on a very long journey by ship. One family traveled in 1846 to Canada their youngest was my great, great grandma and she was 4 years old. They made it to just off the coast of New Brunswick and then her mother died, her father died within the year and she and her siblings were separated and sent to other families to be raised. She married in 1864 and moved to the United States and had 6 children, was widowed at the age of 38 with the youngest child being only a few months old. She finished raising her children while keeping their farm going and taking in others who needed help, I guess she didn’t forget those who helped her. Her oldest son (my great grandpa) also took in others less fortunate while raising his children as have other family members through the generations.
    I guess to me being Irish is :
    Appreciating what you have and the beauty around you. Believing in things, even if they are unbelievable. Caring, for all God’s creatures and creations. Humor and the ability to find it in the darkest of situations (you were afaid I was going through the whole alphabet the way I started). Perservering no matter what life deals you. And last but not least Pride in family, heritage and self.

  • McCauley says:

    Spuds good love to go back for a meal of mash

  • Tom Groark says:

    This I read once somewhere and is always in the back of my mind.
    ” Being Irish means that sooner or later the world is going to break your heart “

  • Camille says:

    Being Irish, for me, was the stories of my great-grandparents coming to the Us from Ireland. My great-grandfather, Thomas O’Reagan Tarpy from county Mayo came at age ten with his parents. My great-grandmother Mary Morris Tarpy came from county Sligo at age eighteen with her best friend whose last name was Kyle. That was my grandmother’s side. Then on my grandfather’s side we have the Sullivans from county Cork. As far back as I can remember there has been song and music in my family. My grandmother was the organist at our local church and my mother and her sisters would sing in five part harmony at every family gathering. My family has always stressed pride in being Irish and the struggles of our ancestors in getting to the US. St. Patrick’s Day in my house is about celebrating tradition, eating delicious Irish food, remembering family that are now gone, listening to Irish music (I especially like Irish pipes and Davey Spillane is the master) and enjoying family. I have not been “home” but would love to go. My mother and one of her sisters went to Ireland and said it was a wonderful experience and they didn’t want to come back.

  • James Shannon says:

    I’m blessed to be a Texan of Scot-Irish lineage, and I’m humbled by the sacrifices of my ancestors that came to this continent. I don’t know the exact day, so I’ve decided St. Patrick’s day was as good as any to celebrate their arrival in 1717. Given this is their 300th anniversary of sailing to the British Colony of Pennsylvania, I went to a local Irish Pub fr a pint..

  • Mary O'Neill Leidner says:

    Being Irish to me means I have inherited the gifts of gab(unable to tell a story in two sentences), the gift of poetry, kindness , love of art, music, love of nature and people. No matter where I travel I find someone who is either Irish or knows someone who is. Because of these gifts,I have friends all over the world.

  • Benjamin Reynolds says:

    Hello, all!
    I was raised to believe that we were off the English Reynolds family – however, I would look at the Coat of Arms and think NO.
    Recently? I used Ancestry. Com to trace my lineage back.
    Much Scottish on my mother’s side. However, I found (much to my glee) that my father’s side descends from Ireland 🙂
    My ancestor did a Census at St Mary’s in Meath.
    I cannot explain it.
    As a young un, I always felt that I just KNEW it.
    I remember one of my favourite shirts having knot work on it.
    Irish music fires my blood.
    And I’m making plans to head over, starting at Dublin.
    Always been a spiritual person and the legends, etc held a fascination for me (Tuatha De Danaan, etc)……
    I understand also, that the Irish Reynolds people may have descended further back from the Vikings?
    Nevertheless, my love for Ireland takes precedence over thoughts of Scandinavian ancestry.
    Even though I found some ancestors from Denmark / Norway area.
    Stories of Kathleen Mavourneen and wanting to explore the Shee.
    But mostly? I find myself curious about what it MEANS to have this lineage.
    Are there other traits I possess that are inherently Irish, but I am yet to discover?
    The only way for me to find out?
    Would be to go there 🙂
    I certainly have the kindness of spirit and the fiery temper.
    And being a gay man? I get a kick out of Catherine Tate’s skits about having a gay son (I’m a gay man now, mammy). Her pride marching with her son through an estate holding a sign which points at her son, saying “I’m with the woofter” lolz
    The show Mrs Browns Boys is one of my favourites 🙂
    What else can I say?
    Oh! Since I was a tot? My favourite music was The Nolans.
    And my favourite drinking song is “The Town of Ballybay” 🙂
    Anyway…..
    I hope everyone is doing well 🙂

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