Understanding Irish Identity

Who We Are

It can be useful to make a distinction between Irish society, on the one hand, and Irish people, on the other hand. Irish society comprises a rich mix of people born on the island of Ireland as well as their descendants, and people who have moved or immigrated to the island either temporarily or permanently.

Irish people include those born on the island of Ireland and their descendants, regardless of class, culture, creed, ethnic background, or other differences. We also include people, regardless of their background or other identities, who have experienced anti-Irish oppression or its internalised effects. And, we include people born on the island who claim a British heritage or identity and who choose also to claim an Irish identity.

There are other people who have acquired an Irish identity, for example, naturalised Irish citizens, but who may not have experienced the historical Irish oppression or internalised that oppression. They may, however, have struggles around inclusion or assimilation or being accepted by other Irish people. These may include experiences of racism, xenophobia or other hurts and a challenge we face is to create safety and space for them to deal with any feelings connecting to becoming Irish.

Diversity of Our Heritages

We include descendants of the original inhabitants of the island and later arriving groups such as Vikings, Normans, Huguenots, Scottish, English, Welsh, Chinese, African, Vietnamese, Indian, Bosnian, Romanian, Lithuanian, Latvian, Polish, Estonian and other nationalities. 

We also include many different religious heritages including Roman Catholic, Protestant, Presbyterian, Methodist, Quaker, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Baha’i, people of other religions, people who identify as atheists and people with no religious identity.


Irish identity is neither homogeneous nor static. In the past, it has been seen (and stereotyped) as comprising a set of elements that were held to be uniquely and centrally “Irish” (for example, Irish language, traditional Irish music, Roman Catholic religion, and so on). Sometimes, these elements were seen as necessary requirements for the identity. In reality, however, Irish identity is not confined to any one religious, ethnic, or national tradition and includes elements that are contributed by a wide range of our diverse heritages.

Claiming an Irish identity does not preclude any person from claiming other national identities in addition. No Irish person is more or less Irish than any other. It is possible to claim completely an Irish identity and a US identity, or an Irish identity and a British identity, or an Irish identity and a Nigerian identity, or any other combination of identities that are part of a person’s heritage. Similarly, just as Irish people may choose to identify as both Irish and American, there is no inherent conflict when someone chooses to identify as both Irish and British. In this sense, people may be culturally Irish and politically British, for example. True Irishness is open and inclusive. 

What is True Inherently About Irish People

Like all human beings, Irish people are inherently good. We are intelligent, wise, fun-loving, brave, creative, loving, and noble. We have humour and warmth, an ability to connect easily with people and a strong connection to place and to the land. These qualities are reflected in our art, our literature, our music, our language, and our relationships.

We have made, and continue to make, significant contributions to the well-being and liberation of people throughout the world.

We have a clarity about colonialism and imperialism and their effects. We understand that it is the system and not the people that is the problem. And, for this reason, we understand the importance of people from the US and England (or other colonial or imperial powers) acknowledging their oppressor history and dealing with any feelings attached to this, while, at the same time, not losing sight of the inherent goodness of their own peoples.

Our Oppressed and Oppressor Experiences

While recognising and valuing what is rational and good in the contributions to Irish culture and identity by all the peoples who have been part of our history, it is important also to acknowledge the role played by oppression in that history.

This includes recognising the reality of, and the importance of healing, the painful emotion attached to our colonial history and the residue of division and hurt that has ensued. This will require acknowledging the effects of this oppression and also any oppressor role we, or our ancestors, have played, while, once again, not losing sight of the inherent goodness of our people.

While it is possible and even enriching for Irish people to celebrate some aspects of our heritage (for example, Viking Dublin, Norman castles, and so on), it has been difficult for people to know how to incorporate more recent influences on our culture. Because of the unhealed hurt associated with Irish oppression, it has been difficult for many people to adopt a similar, relaxed attitude to the particular British heritage on the island. To get to that point will require us to heal any painful emotion attached to our history of oppression. As we do this, we will be able to separate what was rational and valuable in our history from what was irrational and oppressive. 

History of Colonisation and Plantations

The history of the island cannot be fully understood except in the context of a sustained process of colonisation and its effects. This colonisation itself has to be understood in the context of the development of feudalism and later of capitalism in Europe generally.

The early attacks by Viking raiders and the foundation of Viking settlements along the coasts had a substantial but not overwhelming impact on the native Irish society. Those who settled on the island eventually assimilated into the existing society and culture.

The Norman colonisation of Ireland, beginning in the 12thcentury, was largely a response to the pressures of the feudal system, which required finding new lands with which to reward and occupy the “illegitimate” and landless sons of the Norman aristocracy.

Conflict between native Irish kings provided an opportunity for Normans from Britain to gain a foothold on this island. Their success in this and fears that they might grow in power led to the English King Henry getting the agreement of the Pope to come to Ireland and demand fealty from the Norman and native Irish aristocracy. Over the coming centuries, the English gained more and more power leading to the eventual elimination of the native Irish clan system and the domination of the English throughout the country.

The original clan system was eliminated and colonisation embedded through a variety of processes: 

  • A series of “plantations” where the native and Catholic Irish were dispossessed of the land and replaced by Protestant and Presbyterian people from Scotland and England or by soldiers who had fought in the English armies of conquest
  • The suppression of the Catholic religion and various Penal Laws that severely restricted the rights and powers of Catholics
  • Harsh military conquest and accompanying famine and disease that, at various points, had huge impact on the native population
  • “Transportation” to other colonies and sentencing to bonded servitude of those who resisted and fought against the oppression or who were left vulnerable to exploitation as a result of the oppression
  • The elimination of separate political structures and combining of the two countries into one Union under the English parliament
  • The suppression of the Irish language and culture, and 
  • The oppression of poor peasants through a system of absentee landlords, harsh rents and evictions. 

These were accompanied by high levels of emigration as people attempted to escape the oppression and find a better life for themselves in other countries, primarily England and the United States. Many of the core aspects of traditional native society were largely eliminated by the early 17thcentury.

This colonisation process had a number of effects: 

  • Severe economic oppression with consequent effects on the health and well-being of the population
  • Severe political oppression where the bulk of the population were systematically excluded from power
  • Severe cultural oppression where the Irish language and Catholic religion were harshly suppressed
  • Deep religious divisions that kept the population distracted and unable to come together to create a non-oppressive society
  • The internalisation of the oppression in a variety of forms that included low self-esteem, powerlessness, hopelessness, divisiveness, mistrusting our thinking, and a range of survival behaviours such as alcohol abuse and taking on an oppressor role in relation to other vulnerable groups
  • High levels of emigration and population decline resulting from a combination of war, famine and disease
  • Fleeing their homes to survive, Irish emigrants in the 19thcentury sought refuge in countries where the people refused to acknowledge their humanity. Preceded by the institution of slavery, the Irish immigrants were offered a deal: side with other European-heritage people in refusing to accept the humanity of Native and African-heritage people, become “white,” or continue to be threatened, targeted, and excluded. It was a pragmatic but horrible bargain for the Irish. The roots of the racism of Irish people abroad lie in this desperate fight to survive and be treated as human beings. 

Many of the divisions currently existing in Irish society have their roots in this process of colonisation and reflect the various heritages of coloniser and colonised. 

The eventual partition of the island into a Roman Catholic-dominated, independent Republic and a Protestant-dominated Northern Ireland incorporated into the United Kingdom further institutionalised the divisions between the different traditions.


There is not general agreement that genocide in a legal sense applies to the experience of Irish oppression. However, genocide is a key component of the oppression of indigenous peoples throughout the world. At several points in Irish history the population was severely reduced through a combination of war, disease and famine and their effects. Whatever their intent, over time, these various experiences have been internalised as genocide. The message was that Irish lives are of no value. 

The effects of genocide are reflected among other ways in high levels of violence, suicide, self-harm, mental health issues, and substance abuse. These are seen to exist within various groups of indigenous people who have been subjected to genocide. Like the other effects of oppression, healing from the effects of genocide is an important part of the liberation process.

The Irish Language

Irish, as a spoken language of the people, was the majority language up to 1800 but became a minority language during the 19thcentury. The primary education system introduced at that time prohibited the speaking of Irish and children were punished for speaking the language in school. The Famine in the middle of that century affected a disproportionate number of Irish speakers through death and emigration. During this period also, Irish place names were systematically anglicised with Irish language names being replaced by English names. 

Internalised oppression played a strong part in the decline of the language. Prominent political and church leaders, for example, saw the language as backward and advocated its replacement with English. In the face of the destruction of the language and the ensuing internalised oppression, preserving or reclaiming their language is a central component of the liberation struggle of many indigenous peoples.

A Vision for Ireland

Liberation is a process of healing from the effects of oppression and reconnecting with what we know to be true of people inherently. As we do this, we can move towards a society where all Irish people are committed to each other’s liberation with full respect for the diversity of culture, language, religion, and tradition that characterises our people.

We can recognise that there are no inherent conflicts of interest between any individuals or groups of Irish people. Such differences as exist are the result of the operation of oppression or internalised oppression.

We can create a peaceful society with justice and safety for all without fear of attack or threat to life. The attacking of other Irish people is always rooted in painful emotion and is a reflection of our internalised oppression. There is no rational basis for one Irish person to threaten or attack another Irish person.

We can acknowledge the richness of the diversity that exists among us and aim to have an inclusive, respectful acceptance of all groups that inhabit the island of Ireland or that identify as Irish. This perspective allows “Irishness” to be defined within a pluralist context that incorporates and takes delight and pride in all existing traditions. We can commit to supporting other Irish people with different traditions from our own and to celebrating and reclaiming all that is valuable and rich in our respective heritages.

Drawing on what we have learned from our own struggles, we can aim to be a model to the world of how to deal with all potentially divisive social issues, including racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, gay oppression, disability oppression, ageism, anti-immigrant oppression, and sectarianism. 

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1 Response to Understanding Irish Identity

  1. Noreen Flynn says:

    Superb analysis…..do you think Irish people have a much greater voluntary recognition of their past than other nationalities?Is it because their ‘ conquerors ‘are still intrinsically involved…..just wondering…

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