Even though it’s a small island with a small population in the corner of Europe, Ireland has gained quite a global reputation. People from all over the world are aware of us, even if they don’t quite know a lot about us.
Our global reputation is likely due to factors like our presence in TV and film from the US and the UK, or because of our history of immigration to other English-speaking nations like the US, Australia, and South Africa. Because of this, 70 million people from around the world claim to have Irish heritage. This is quite a lot for an island with only 6 million people.
As Tommy Tiernan says: ‘We Irish don’t invade countries, we infest.’
However, for a country that is seemingly so present in the global consciousness, there are a lot of things that people get wrong.
When the Romans invaded the majority of Europe, they stopped short of Ireland, calling it Hibernia, meaning ‘the land of winter,’ and believed it was cursed. Maybe we’ve never really shaken that air of mystery in the eyes of the world?
Whatever the case, we likely see ourselves as the center of the world, but there are so many misconceptions about Ireland and Irish people that need to be rectified.
So, here are 15 common misconceptions about Ireland.
1. Ireland is a nation of drunks
I’m starting with this one because.. Well because there’s a little truth to it.
I’m not really sure how far back this reputation goes, but the whole world seems to feel this way. Any Irish person who has done some travelling knows the feeling of having the weight of a nation on their shoulders while being expected to drink a bar in the middle of Thailand completely dry, or of watching a Japanese tour guide make the “drinky-drinky” motion in your direction as soon as you mention your nationality.
We did invent whiskey after all, at which point we stopped inventing altogether for around 300 years.
In the present day however, we are not by any means the heaviest drinkers in the world, or even in Europe. In fact, we consistently fall behind countries like Belarus, Lithuania, the Czech Republic, Russia, and even France. There are many lists out there however, and we usually feature in the top 10.
I’m not going to sit here and try to convince anyone that Ireland is a land of sober saints, because it’s simply not true. Calling us drunks though? It’s a bit harsh.
2. All Irish have red hair
This is another one that has a grain of truth to it.
To be pedantic, of course all Irish people aren’t ginger. In fact, not even most of them are. Ireland does have the highest percentage of red-haired people in the world, with 10% of it’s population being blessed with it. In second place is our celtic neighbour Scotland, with 6%. The Scots also own the red-head capital of the world, Edinburgh being the city with the highest concentration.
Even though the stats say that 10% of Irish have red hair, we likely all carry the gene, some of us with thick brown locks may discover a ‘ginge-tinge’ in our beards. The gene is recessive however, so the numbers are unlikely to grow. But it will always pop up here and there, so those fiery locks are going nowhere.
Some say that red hair evolved in places with low sunlight, in order to absorb as much vitamin D as possible. Which makes sense for Ireland and Scotland.
Another fun fact about red hair: Some believe that it originated in the steppes of central Asia, with one account of Mongol leader Genghis Khan claiming that he had red hair – which is honestly hilarious.
3. Ireland is very religious
Up until relatively recently, this was very true. Catholicism used to be synonymous with Irish identity, which made a lot of sense, as it was used by the Irish as a way to resist assimilation into the dominantly protestant British Empire.
Nowadays however, that isn’t really necessary, and the youth of Ireland are abandoning religion rapidly. In fact, Ireland is abandoning religion faster than any other country on earth, besides Vietnam.
This is due to a few factors, including less of a reliance on religious education, more channels for open discussion about religion over the internet, and the desire for young people not to be bound to any religious institutions any longer.
The biggest factor however, is the dark history of child abuse commited by the Catholic church in Ireland. This, and the refusal of The Vatican to apologise to the victims has led to a huge portion of the Irish population to turn their backs on religion altogether.
Since 1979, when Pope John Paul II visited Ireland, mass attendance has dropped from 80% to 35%.
4. Ireland is part of the United Kingdom
This is the big one. The Irish are pretty good at taking a joke and can brush off most things easily. This however, is one misconception about Ireland that never fails to piss people off.
This is not just an identity thing either. Ireland is a completely separate country from the UK. In every way.
People likely make this mistake due Ireland’s geographical proximity to the UK, as well as the fact that we share a similar culture, and of course, the same language. But Ireland has been an independent country for almost 100 years. We’re a part of the EU and we use the Euro, not the Pound.
The history is long and complex, so I won’t go too deep into it, but the British conquest of Ireland started in 1169 and the island was fully conquered in the 16th and 17th century. Ireland was fully absolved as part of the UK in 1801 after the American revolution, and remained part of it until 1922.
Ireland was occupied by Britain for a huge portion of its history, and having to hear people make that mistake is tough to take for the Irish – as deep down we’re a sensitive bunch.
Ireland is to the UK what Canada is to the US, and what New Zealand is to Australia – their more liberal, less problematic, and honestly, more liked neighbour.
You could see the UK as Ireland’s abusive ex, and after a messy divorce, they’re both left being partially responsible for their thoroughly traumatised and extremely neglected child – Northern Ireland.
Which brings us to…
5. Ireland and Northern Ireland are the same
This is so complicated, and is also probably part of the reason why many people keep holding on to the misconception mentioned above.
Basically, after Ireland gained independence in 1922, the island was split in two, with 6 of the 32 counties in Ireland remaining as part of the UK, and the remaining 26 forming the Republic of Ireland. Those six counties became Northern Ireland, and were controlled by the protestant, unionist population loyal to the English crown.
This led to a very complicated and violent number of decades which was ended by the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Which put an end to the violence and allowed the people of Northern Ireland to vote to join the rest of Ireland if they wanted to.
As this is yet to happen, Northern Ireland is still part of the UK, and therefore a separate country from the Republic of Ireland.
In the wake of Brexit, tensions have risen in the region again due to many in Northern Ireland feeling abandoned by Britain, and many believe this may lead to the unification of the island in our lifetimes.
6. There is only one Irish accent
For such a small country, there is a huge wealth of accents in Ireland, but many foreigners seem to be deaf to the differences. Some separate Irish accents into ‘ones I can understand and ones that I can’t’. This is not too far off the mark to be fair.
There are 32 counties in Ireland and each one has its own unique accent (some even have more). This video explaining Irish accents is just the tip of the iceberg.
With such a range of accents to choose from, you think people from other countries would be able to do a few right?
The Irish accent is notoriously difficult for actors to do. But that doesn’t stop Hollywood from trying. And failing. Repeatedly. Seriously, you probably couldn’t count the number of actors who can pull off a convincing Irish accent on one hand.
You may be thinking ‘I can do one!’ I promise you you can’t.
7. The Irish are dumb
Of all the misconceptions about Ireland on this list, this is the only one that’s downright insulting, but it seems to be the opinion of more that you’d think.
We’ve all heard some ‘Paddy Irishman’ jokes or at least some joke where the Irish guy’s intelligence is the punchline. Luckily Irish people are able to laugh this off pretty easily nowadays and we’re well able to laugh at ourselves.
I don’t really know for sure where this misconception came from. But it’s possible because Irish children were denied education under British rule, and the Irish who fled to the US and Australia during and after the famine tended to be completely uneducated, hence a bad reputation that still persists.
But Ireland has turned this around, and is now the world’s fifth most educated country, as well as being home to many famous academics, and the birthplace of dozens of modern inventions.
8. All Irish people know each other
‘Ireland is one giant village.’ This one of the most annoying misconceptions about Ireland, and the Americans are the worst offenders here. There is some truth to it though. In Ireland, being a small country that is very much focused on community, we tend to get to know our neighbours quite well.
However, one of the biggest running jokes amongst Irish people is American tourists approaching us and asking if we know their cousin Darren.
“There’s 5 million people in this country. Why the fuck would I know your cousin Darre- oh Darren Byrne? Yeah I do know him actually.”
9. Ireland is traditional and non industrialised
This misconception probably comes from the romanticised view of Ireland portrayed in cinema. From classics like The Quiet Man to more modern entries like Leap Year, Ireland is often shown as a completely rural, agricultural nation.
I don’t really blame filmmakers for this though, as rural Ireland is Ireland at its most beautiful, and it’s the side of Ireland that audiences like to see. One would hope however, that people would be able to remove themselves from this fantasy when thinking about modern Ireland.
We still travel by horse and carriage, spend our days smoking a pipe under a tree, and jayis we love wearing tweed jackets and flat caps.
10. Irish people say “top of the mornin’ to ya”
Don’t be ridiculous. I do hope people don’t actually think this, but I can’t be sure.
Maybe people just like this romanticized image of Irish people where we wear green suits, tip our big hats dramatically at passers by, express our excitement with a high-pitched “Ho-Tee-To”, and can’t resist a good ol’ jig and a song every now and then. But I’m sorry to burst that bubble.
Admittedly we do have a sometimes peculiar way of speaking, but leprechauns aren’t real.
11. The famine was just because of potatoes
This is a complex one, but still mostly untrue. The Irish diet did mainly consist of potatoes back then because of how easy they were to grow, but other types of food were grown too.
Potatoes didn’t arrive in Ireland until 1589. What do you think we did before that? Drink muddy water and chew on tree bark? Ireland was desperately poor, but there was food.
The failure of the potato crop was of course a contributing factor to the Great Hunger, but it wasn’t only that. Since Ireland was a British colony at the time (you may be noticing a trend here), all of the land was owned by wealthy landlords, and a lot of the food produced was exported back to Britain. Since the rest of the food was sent away, the Irish were left with nothing after the potato blight struck.
The British didn’t cause the famine, but they didn’t do much to help. But in 1999, Tony Blair apologised for the UK not doing enough to help, so that’s nice. Water under the bridge Tony!
12. It’s always raining in Ireland
I’m being pedantic again – but it’s not strictly true.
Ireland is located on the western edge of Europe, right on the Atlantic Ocean, and therefore acts as a sort of rain shield for the rest of Europe. Despite this, Ireland is not the most rainy country in Europe.
Countries like Iceland, Norway, the UK, Slovenia, Switzerland, and Albania all have more yearly rainfall than Ireland.
That said, it does rain a lot, receiving from 750 – 2000mm of rain per year depending on the region. The east and southeast gets 151 days of rain a year, and the west gets around 225.
So you still need to bring a coat.
13. Ireland is really expensive
Ireland, like any western European country, is expensive. But it’s not completely unaffordable. Rents are constantly rising, and it is difficult for young people to continue to afford to rent in the cities.
For tourists however, Ireland is reasonably priced as long as you stay away from tourist traps like Temple Bar.
Even though it’s not going to be your cheapest holiday, it’s still cheaper than other western European countries like France and the UK.
14. The Irish love to fight
This is an understandable misconception. The term “The Fighting Irish” was coined because of a regiment of Irish immigrant soldiers who fought for the union during the US civil war, and became known for their grit and determination. This slogan has since been adopted by the University of Notre Dame.
This reputation could also be due to the numerous failed rebellions against British rule over years. More recently, Ireland has produced some world class fighters, Conor McGregor being the most famous, and even some Olympic Boxing gold medalists.
Outside of sports, war, and rebellion however, the Irish aren’t a particularly combative bunch, and besides Mr McGregor, we don’t tend to start fights with old men at pubs.
The culture of men going on a night out just to look for fights doesn’t happen in Ireland any more than any other country.
15. We love corned beef and cabbage
Seriously, what the fuck is corned beef, and why do people think we love to eat it?
It’s likely an American misunderstanding of Irish cuisine – mistaking it for bacon and cabbage, which many of us still enjoy on occasion.
The Irish palette has evolved quite a bit in the last century, extending to food from all over the world. We still enjoy meat and two veg though.
The misconceptions mentioned above are only a few that people seem to believe. Even though the biggest ones have been covered here, I’ll leave with some honorable mentions:
- We don’t use the “Irish Goodbye” – yes we very much do.
- We’re not that charming – we really are
- We’re broke – see no.13
- All of us can sing – listen to the Republic of Ireland team sing the national anthem
- We’re inbred – no more than you
- We’re always friendly
- We all speak Irish – not even close
This was the most informative news I have ever read,in one reading,thank you so much for posting.
Thanks so much Norma!
Great informative article. I’ve grown tired of setting people straight on many of these issues. A week ago someone told me they believed the Irish language was just English spoken with an Irish accent,…..go figure.
That is ridiculous!
This was all informative. Thank you
I really enjoyed this information. I actually heard an acquaintance call people from Kerry dumb! My paternal grandmother hailed from there so I wasn’t happy about that statement!
Yeah that is a bit of a running joke here, but I don’t think people genuinely believe that people from Kerry are dumb!
That was a lovely read, very interesting..so thank you for that and it only leaves me to say “top of the morning to you” now where did I leave my horse and cart … 🧚♂️😊
Good stuff, made me laugh! ha ha
Well done! This is an easy-to-read, concise, encapsulation of the story of the Irish. I plan to share it with my friends and non-Irish relatives. One note to add, the corned beef and cabbage was an American adaptation because corned beef was cheap and readily available to Irish immigrants. Cabbage was on poor people’s table in many cultures.
Or smoked but
Thanks for the kind words Richard. I had presumed that corned beef and cabbage was an American take!
The Irish are mostly college educated,in demand worldwide.You forget to highlight this important part,
The Irish descended into the pit of despair after the Third Irish Holocaust 1845-50. They abandoned their native culture and language. Having been socially destroyed they took to drink, fighting and the English language and law.
This phase lasted about two generations but they pulled out of it by their own efforts and set about recovering their ancestral land and culture, just as the survivors of another Holocaust did a century later. This took another fifty years. In recent years they have pulled ahead of their British neighbours in per capita production and wealth. Today they are happy to leave the unhappy past behind them and look to the future in Europe.
From one Cleary to another well said in the written version . Very true and funny
Thanks a lot Maria!
Item 3. I was there. Pope John Paul’s visit inspired us young ones in every way imaginable . He was a hero to us and we found ourselves back at mass more than ever. His visit brought light and hope to us all. Unless you lived it, please retract that statement. Thank you in advance.
Well written and informative article which can be referred to for any non Irish enquirer wishing to find out what makes us what we are. I did not go the Phoenix Park when Pope John Paul arrived but went with my wife to Rosslare that morning for a weeks Holiday .Things were different then. Your assertion that religion has been rejected since then is completely correct, we a far more secular and open society now, and have emerged from the repressive days of the Faith of our Fathers.