Thanks to all who responded to my query re: Black Irish.
Spanish genes seem to be the most popular explanation.
There was some suggestion of genes from the East as well
(of which more later). There was no mention of another
theory that I'd heard. That is, Black Irish were the peat
cutters who, during the day's work, became covered with
dust. There was little support for my theory that the term
referred to Irishmen who tended, in one way or another, to
misbehave. This lifts a cloud from the memory of my
I must warn readers that the following discourse comprises
facts of several types: facts, Irish Facts and perhaps
facts that are not facts at all. For those unfamiliar with
Irish Facts I suggest a review of the chapter "Warning" in
Hugh Kenner's excellent "A Colder Eye", Penguin Books,
Some years ago I travelled extensively in India always
accompanied by a good friend and co-worker, a Bengali
possessed of great knowledge of Indian culture. It
happened that we were in Calcutta and he invited me to his
home to meet his father and his young son. I was delighted
but apprehensive as his father was a great scholar and
philologist of world renown. When I arrived I was greeted
at the door by the male succession all dressed in dhotis,
sometimes called bed sheets by unthinking Westerners. And
the patriarch greeted me warmly and graciously at the door
in Irish! Whether it was Old Irish, Middle Irish or Modern
Irish I cannot for the life of me say, but Irish it was and
I recognized it as such from memories of my paternal
grandmother speaking the language to her sister when I was
a small child. From Galway, mind you, both of them
transported to farms in New Jersey. Strange, strange . .
. dark night, heavy hot Calcutta with its humid human
smell, strange sounds and tinkling bells in the distance .
. . . two men and a boy in dhotis and a long greeting in
Gaelic from the elder whom I did not know! And memories of
my old grandmother gone so many years from ours and yet
Completely taken aback by the sheer implausibility of it .
. . could anyone believe what I was hearing? I managed a
bumbling apology for my inability to respond in the
language of my forebears to which the old dhotied
gentleman responded in perfect soft Dublin-accented Irish
English, "Then you're a hell of an Irishman, sir, but do
come in and have a drink anyway!" Understand that, as
I later learned, this man spoke thirty-four languages, many
of them already dead and Lithuanian for a chaser. Well -
we had a drop or three and then to dinner, Bengali style,
all fish, which they prefer to any other foods, and other
items which I dared not seek to identify and all eaten with
the fingers and rice. You've never seen the like of it.
As you'll learn, if you'll pay a little more attention,
this may explain why the Irish are forever eating boiled
flounder and such.
There was one other guest in addition to me and, of course,
his son. The ladies were off somewhere in the rambling
house being harmonious. The other guest was a real
gentlemen, all dressed in white he was with a colorful
shawl of silk. He was a Bengali poet who had taught a year
or two at a college in New York City. Presumably, in case
they had trouble understanding me, the poet could translate
my primitive American English or otherwise explain why
wooden-tongued Americans couldn't speak five or six
languages, including one or two dead, like everybody else
The old man regaled me with funny stories in Irish and
Scots and English dialects. And sang a song, in Bengali I
think it was, though it might have been any one of thirty
some odd other languages for all I knew.
Now again I beg you to think deeply on the meaning of all
these wonderful things that were happening to me. Then,
like me though not as quickly I'm sure, you can put two and
two together. Loquacious Bengalis speaking Irish with
great facility because the root language is the same as
that of their own mother tongue! And having a whiskey and
telling funny stories and singing songs and forever arguing
with great wit about anything at all!
It is so clear to me now that when my mother spoke of black
Irishmen she was referring to none other than the
Bengalis. How she knew this I'll never know. But by God,
she was right! Do not conclude, as those of hasty
judgement will that Bengalis are Irishmen. Not at
all! Not at all! The simple truth is that all Irishmen
are, in real, true and central fact, Bengalis! Washed out
to a pale color they are for lack of sunshine and a diet
sadly lacking in chilis and mustard oil, but Bengalis
There will be those who doubt the above facts of various
types. But consider the root language shared by those who
speak Irish and those who speak Bengali. Bengali and Irish
are languages at the outermost extremes of the geographic
spread of the Indo-European languages.
I would refer those doubting Thomases to a book by a noted
but alas deceased Irish philologist named Myles Dillon,
name to inspire confidence. He was the Director, Institute
of Advanced Studies and of its School of Celtic Studies in
Dublin. You might not know that the other branches of the
Institute of Advanced Studies deal with Theoretical Physics
and Cosmic Physics all of which is done with pencil, paper
and more talk than you would scarcely believe.
Professor Dillon's book is "Celts and Aryans: Survivals of
Indo-European Speech and Society". This book was published
in 1975 in the Indian hill station of Simla and printed in
Calcutta by the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, facts
which should compel your undivided attention for, say, a
half minute or so.
While it will not be generally available it should be found
in university libraries in Dublin. This book (I quote from
the jacket) ". . . gives us startling exposition of the
similarities in the linguistics of Sanskrit and Celtic and
*in the customs and usages in the life of the people in
ancient India and ancient Ireland* (emphasis added)." Now
you know the facts. Including a few that you'll wish you
didn't know at all. I'll leave it to the scholars to
separate the facts from the Irish facts.
I am happy to make this small contribution to the myths
surrounding the Black Irish.