Everything about the Irish

March 17th is a day set aside to celebrate St. Patrick where many will don green attire and enjoy traditional Irish food and beverages.  In America, most likely in elementary school, children learned of this patron saint of “ridding snakes” out of the country of Ireland. We created construction paper shamrocks and leprechauns, got pinched for not wearing green, consumed interesting and creative green food. Today, these traditions carry on! But, what do we really know about the Irish and the country from whence they came?

Corned beef and cabbage?  How about beef, potatoes and beer.  The land in Ireland was not suitable for grain agriculture until the introduction of modern machinery and fertilizers in the 20th century. This is the main reason why the potato became the staple food from the early 17th century onwards. Before that, the Irish relied mostly on stockbreeding such as the Black Kerry cattle, thought to be descended from the Celtic Shorthorn. The Irish do consume on average 131.1 liters of beer per year – the 2nd highest per-capita consumption after the Czech Republic. One of the most successful beer brands worldwide, Guinness was once the largest brewery in the world (from 1914), and remains the largest brewer of stout in the world. Ireland’s oldest pub is Sean’s Bar in Athlone. It was founded some 900 years ago. The country’s oldest licensed pub, though, is Grace Neills Bar in Donaghadee, established in 1611. To date there are 7,000 pubs in Ireland which doesn’t sound like a large number, until you know the size of the country. (That is roughly 5 pubs per square mile…)

Ireland truly is a “wee” country.  On a good day it takes just under 8 hours to drive from the south to the north of Ireland.  In comparison, the island is about the size of the State of Indiana (U.S.). Indiana is 35,910 square miles. Ireland is 32,599 square miles – 174 miles wide and 302 miles long. And the legend about the snakes, true.  It is a snake-free island due to its isolation from the European mainland.  It also lacks several species common elsewhere in Europe, such as moles, weasels, polecats or roe deer. Another story about the many of the Irish people having red hair, not so true.

There is an assumption that the typical Irish person has red hair, blue eyes, freckles and pale skin.  Studies at Harvard show that approximately 40% of the Irish have dark brown hair, while under 10% have red hair and even blondes are more common at about 15%.  Their outward appearance generally consists of blue eyes (rarely brown depending on who exactly they descend from), dark hair, striking fair skin with pink undertones, and the women are usually about or just under 5’6. Also, It is so noted many Irish family names start with “Mac” or “O’…”, which means respectively “son of …” and “grandson of …” in Gaelic. During the periods of immigration, the ‘Mac’ and ‘O’ were dropped coming through the logs of Ellis Island. It is estimated that as many as 4.5 million Irish arrived in America between 1820 and 1930.


Between 1820 and  1860, the Irish constituted over one third of all immigrants to the United States. In the 1840s, they comprised nearly half of all immigrants to this nation. It is estimated that over 80 million people of Irish descent live outside Ireland, in countries such as the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Argentina, New Zealand, Mexico, South Africa and states of the Caribbean and continental Europe. This is 14 times more than the population of Ireland (including Northern Ireland) itself ! 3 million of these emigrants still hold Irish nationality.

Roughly 34 million Americans reported Irish ancestry in the 2000 US Census, which makes it the second largest ethnic group after the German Americans. The highest concentration of Irish Americans is in the North-East (New York and New England). The lingua franca of Irish people is Irish Gaelic. Today there are 1.6 million people who claim a self-reported competence in Irish, but only 380,000 fluent speakers remain.

On Friday many will claim to be Irish, which is not too far off from the statistics.  We can thank the accomplishments of these Irish men and women who shared their knowledge and ingenuity, and talent throughout history.  This list is by no means conclusive or exclusive – the people vary from writers, inventors, scientists, actors, and politicians. Here is a sampling of Irish heritage at its best;

Noted authors ~ Jonathan Swift, “Gulliver’s Travels,’ Bram Stoker, “Dracula,” Oscar Wilde, “The Picture of Dorian Gray’ and ‘The Importance of Being Ernest,” George Bernard Shaw-the only person to have been awarded both a Nobel Prize in Literature and an Oscar, and many more.

Noted scientists and inventors ~ Robert Boyle, the “father of modern chemistry”, and is also one of the pioneers of the modern experimental scientific method, John Tyndall, first to prove the Greenhouse Effect, and the first to discover why the sky is blue (Tyndall effect),  John Philip Holland  invented the first functional self-propelled submarine in 1877, William Edward Wilson an astronomer who took some of the earliest photographs of the stars, the moon, the sun, and solar eclipse,  James Hoban,immigrated to America, where he was chosen to design the White House in Washington, D.C.,  and James Gamble, soapmaker, industrialist and co-founder of the Procter & Gamble Company.

Noted Actors and Musicians ~ Maureen O’Sullivan, Richard Harris, Peter O’Toole, Colm Meaney, Pierce Brosnan, Kenneth Branagh, Colin Farrell , U2, Van Morrison,Gilbert O’Sullivan, and Enya to mention only a few on a long list of entertainers.

Noted Politicians ~ Constance Markievicz was the first woman elected to the British House of Commons . She was also one of the first women in the world to hold a cabinet position, Chaim Herzog, 6th President of Israel. He was born in Belfast as the son of the Chief Rabbi of Ireland, Charles Thomson was a Patriot leader during the American Revolution, Michael Collins revolutionary leader who served as Director of Intelligence for the IRA, Richard Martin , was a politician and one of the earliest animal rights activists. In 1824 he founded the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA), and 15 of the United States Presidents have their ancestral roots in the Emerald Isle, including Bill Clinton.  Knowing Irish people includes a few interesting facts about what defines them.

Symbols unite a country and the three most famous symbols of Ireland are the green Shamrock, the harp, and the Celtic cross.

Ireland has had its own Olympics since the Bronze Age. The Tailteann Games (Aonach Tailteann), as they were known, were athletic contests held in honor of the deceased goddess Tailtiu, Lugh’s wife. Although historically attested games were held from the 6th to the 12th century CE, it is claimed that the origins of the Tailteann Games go back to 632 BCE, or even as far as 1600 BCE (against 776 BCE for the ancient Greek Olympic Games). Modern revival of the games have been held since 1924.

Halloween traces back its origins to the Gaelic festival of Samhain, a harvest festival held on 31 October to mark the end of summer. Samhain became associated with All Saints (1 November) from the early Middle Ages and the two progressively merged over the centuries, creating Halloween. Londonderry Banks of the Foyle Halloween Carnival is the oldest Halloween celebration in Ireland, as well as Ireland’s largest street party.

The term ‘boycott’ comes from Captain Charles Boycott (1832-1897), the land agent of an absentee landlord from Ulster. In 1880, after refusing to reduce the rents of his employer’s tenants, the Irish Land League decided to stop dealing with him. The whole community began to ostracise him to the point where even shops refused to serve him. The Times of London quickly came to use his name as a term for organized isolation, and the word entered the English language. Just a few more….

Hook Lighthouse in County Wexford is thought to be the oldest working lighthouses in Europe, or possibly in the world.

Dublin-born pilot Captain James FitzMaurice flew from Dublin to Newfoundland, in what was the first Trans-Atlantic aircraft flight from East to West.

Owing to its strategic position at the western fringe of Europe, Ireland played a decisive role in early long-distance communications with North America. In 1907, Irish-Italian inventor Marconi set up the world’s first permanent transatlantic radio station in Derrygimlagh Bog in County Galway. It operated until 1918. The next year, John Alcock and Arthur Whitten completed the first non-stop flight across the Atlantic. They took off on 14th June 1919 from St John’s in Newfoundland and landed the next day right next to Marconi’s station, bringing with them the first transatlantic mail in April 1928.

Phoenix Park in Dublin is the third largest walled city parks in Europe after La Mandria in Venaria Reale (Turin) and Richmond Park in London. It covers (1,750 acres).

And The Tara Mine near Navan, County Meath, is the largest zinc mine in Europe, and the fifth largest in the world. The history, the stories, the rich heritage of the Irish goes forth.

So much to know and share as we raise our glass of green beer this  St. Patrick’s Day, not only to toast the good saint, but the Irish people as well. Erin Go Braugh!