Ireland’s Global Influence: How a Tiny Nation Changed the World

ireland's global influence

For the majority of our lives, and the majority of history for that matter, a small group of countries have been the major influences on the people, society, and culture of the planet.

This has changed through the ages of course, with civilizations from different parts of the world having their time in the sun, before falling into obscurity. 

Some countries and civilizations have more influence than others of course. The Mongol Empire of the middle-ages for example, influenced the world by conquering most of Asia, and aiding the spread of the bubonic plague into Europe – fairly major.

More recently, the British Empire conquered most of the world, spreading their own laws and religion across the globe, and popularising the global slave trade, the repercussions of which are being felt hundreds of years into the future – again, not a small deal, but hey, the Royals gotta eat.

In modern times, it’s hard to argue with the fact that the United States has the most influence on the world, not only due to their military power, but by having the world’s most dominant culture.

Global influence isn’t something that’s only achieved by superpowers however. Smaller countries, even those with no real military power, have managed to creep their way to global relevance. Some countries, like Greece and Denmark, have done it through their long-past history of warfare and exploration. (I know that’s not all they’ve done) While others, like the Netherlands, have influenced the world through their artistic history, producing famed artists like Vincent Van Gogh and Rembrandt.

However, there are very few small countries that have successfully influenced the world as well as Ireland.

Even though it is a tiny country with a tiny population, Ireland’s global influence has impacted every continent on earth, and help shape the world into what it is today. 

Inventions and discoveries

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Not really seen as much of a nation of inventors, and instead being seen as more of a non-industrialized, rural country, many people (Irish people included) may be surprised to learn that Ireland has produced some of the most influential inventions on earth over the last few centuries. 

Not only that, but Irish people have also been responsible for some massively important global discoveries that have changed the way we exist in the world today.

Here are just some of the inventions and discoveries we can thank Ireland for.

Whiskey

Ok, this is the only invention on this list that will surprise exactly no-one. It is slightly contentious however, with the Scots also claiming that they invented this glorious liquid. 

Much to the disappointment of our Celtic brethren, a more recent discovery of some tanned reindeer hide with carved writing that dates back to pre-Christian times suggests that a man named Pah-Dee (no I’m not joking – Paddy) was brewing and drinking it. The writing roughly translates to: 

“Resumed heating the murky bubbly mixture of grain and water, and collected a fiery liquid through worm and reed pipe. Tastes bad. Made me dizzy and sick and I had to lie down” 

Good old “Pah-Dee” then continues to refer to it as “Fire-water.”

Whiskey is mentioned again in the Annals of Connacht, which contains a footnote on it for the year 1405. After that, Ireland’s inventions halted for three hundred years. I’m sure that’s unrelated though.

Irish whiskey has since influenced countries around the world from America, to Georgia, to Japan, and many countries in between to produce their own whiskey versions.

Induction Coil

The induction coil was the first type of transformer, and was used in x-ray machines and radio transmitters from the 1880’s until the 1920’s. It was also unfortunately used in electro-shock therapy, but we’ll just breeze right past that. 

If you are or have ever been a physics student, you may have seen one being used to demonstrate induction in class. Other than that, it’s only modern use is in internal combustion engines.

The induction coil proved to be an important invention, and was used to demonstrate the existence of electromagnetic waves, and the man responsible was a priest from Louth called Nicholas Callan.

Seismology

Even though seismology, or the study of earthquakes, can be dated as far back as ancient Greece, the term was coined by Irishman Robert Mallet in the 19th century. Mallet laid the foundation of modern seismology by conducting seismological experiments using explosives.

Obviously, seismology is an incredibly important field of study which we still use to learn more about, and try to prepare for earthquakes.

Boycotting

This form of protest in which people, instead of resorting to violence, collectively refuse to use a service or deal with a particular person, was most famously used in Louisiana during the American civil rights movement. However, the concept actually originated in the west of Ireland in 1880, which is fairly on-brand for a historic nation of troublemakers.

Boycotting was actually named after its original victim, English land agent Charles Boycott, who was subjected to total social ostracism as a result of a rental dispute. It was successful and cost Boycott a lot of money. Before long, Boycott’s name was everywhere, including the New York Tribune – and so, the term stuck and it’s still used to this day.

 Maybe we should try it again on Ireland’s scumbag landlords.

The Submarine

Even though the idea had existed for quite a while before, Irish inventor John Phillip Holland was the one who came up with the original design, and is known as ‘The father of the modern submarine.’.

An invention which, if you weren’t aware, had a big enough impact on warfare in the 20th century.

The list of Irish inventions and discoveries really does go on and on. Some other notable example include:

  • Radiology
  • The “standard drop” method of hanging (you’re welcome)
  • Croquet (we’re sorry)
  • Discovery of the Antarctic mainland
  • Steam turbine
  • Concept of the greenhouse effect
  • Milk of magnesia

Mass emigration

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Without going into too much detail, historically the Irish are pretty well travelled. We’ve been emigrating since the middle ages, and from around the year 1700, an estimated 9 – 10 million people have left the country in search for a better life abroad.

Whether it was because of the famine, the brutality under the British Empire, being sent to Australia and South Africa as prisoners, or just leaving in search of adventure, nations all over the world have been impacted by the Irish diaspora.

Some have been affected more than others of course, here are just some of the countries that have been influenced by Irish emigration in some way.

Argentina

In the 18th century, thousands of Irish people from the midlands, Wexford, and other counties in the south east crossed the Atlantic in search of a new home for the reasons mentioned above.

Many settled on the east coast of North America, but some decided to go further afield, it is thought that as many as 50,000 thousand Irish people arrived in Buenos Aires, mostly between 1850 and 1870 to work as farmers and ranchers.

The scale of this exodus was so great that the number of ‘Irish Argentines’ is today said to be between 500,000 and 1,000,000 people. One of these Irish Argentines was revolutionary Che Guevara, whose grandmother was Irish, and great-grandmother was from Galway.

One of the most influential of these immigrants was Clare doctor Miguel O’Gorman, who in 1801 set up Argentina’s first medical school, and is still known as the father of modern Argentine medicine.

Paraguay

Paraguay wasn’t influenced by Irish emigration to the same scale as other countries. In fact, the main influence was by a single girl from Cork named Eliza Lynch who fled to Paris during the famine.

While there, she caught the eye of Paraguayan prince Francisco Solano Lopez, with whom she travelled to Paraguay and eventually became the unofficial queen of the South American country.

Today, she is seen as an iconic figure in Paraguay. 

Jamaica

Irish influence in Jamaica dates back over 400 years to the British occupation of the Carribean island.

After the occupation, the British shipped petty criminals from Ireland to Jamaica and forced them into labour. Unsurprisingly, the delicate Irish skin wasn’t able for the Jamaican sun, and many people died of heat-related illnesses.

These Irish people stayed and eventually became fully integrated in Jamaican culture, and today, 25% of Jamaicans claim Irish ancestry. Also, many Jamaican towns have Irish names – examples being Sligoville and Dublin Castle. 

Weirdly enough, the accents are also similar, with certain accents from Dublin having some similarities with Jamaican. 

South Africa

Even though they’re almost as far away as two countries can get, Ireland and South Africa have a close bond. This began in the 1800’s when Irish missionaries travelled to South Africa to help with education and health services.

Ireland was also one of the world’s strongest critics of apartheid, and in 1988, even gifted Nelson Mandela with the freedom of the city of Dublin while he was still imprisoned.

This close bond still exists today, with Ireland being the only EU country which allows South Africans to travel on a free visa.

England

Unsurprisingly, Ireland’s closest neighbour has also been impacted by Irish emigration. Despite a turbulent history, the two countries are now close allies and share many of the same traits, customs, and heritage.

Of all the countries on earth, England has the highest number of Irish emigrants, and people have travelled between the two countries for hundreds if not thousands of years. 

United States of America 

Probably the country that has been impacted most of all by Irish emigration, and is the main reason why modern Ireland has such a powerful diplomatic standing on the world stage, the US and Ireland have an incredibly close bond.

Millions of Irish have emigrated to America since the 18th century, and even though they weren’t initially treated particularly well, they eventually became an integral part of US society. They served as police, fought in wars, and built a huge portion of the trans-continental railroad, and even designed the White House.

Irish Americans have since been massively influential, and many US presidents have traced their ancestry directly to specific Irish towns. Most notably, John F. Kennedy, Joe Biden, and Barack Obama. There are many, many others however.

Influential people

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Ireland has been given the nickname The Land of Saints and Scholars due to its history of Catholicism and major contributions to the world of literature. The inventors and famous migrants mentioned above are only the tip of the iceberg. Ireland has also been producing writers, poets, and artists of note for centuries.

Here are some Irish people that have influenced the world through their art.

W.B Yeats

William Butler Yeats was one of the most influential scholars of the 19th and 20th centuries. His poems and prose have been hugely influential on modern literature and they even won him a Nobel prize in 1923.

Other notable achievements include, helping to found the abbey theatre, serving two terms as a senator in the Irish Free State, and most importantly, kicking a wizard down a flight of stairs.

James Joyce

Another hugely influential writer in the 20th century, known mostly for his experimental use of language and exploration of new literary methods.

He contributed to the modern avant-garde movement, and his controversial novel Uylesses earned him ire from both the church and state, but turned out to be a major contributor to the development of 20th-century modernist literature.

He also married a woman named Nora Barnacle.

Oscar Wilde

Producing most of his works in the late 19th century, Oscar Wilde is known for his many poems and plays, as well as his novels The Picture of Dorian Gray, Lady Windermere’s Fan, and The Importance of Being Earnest.

Personally, his was known for his witty and flamboyant nature, as well as his homosexuality, which unfortunately led to him being imprisoned for two years. 

Less enlightened times.

Bram Stoker

Known globally as the author of Dracula, Bram Stoker’s novel has had a huge influence on the horror genre and vampire mythology in general. This Gothic horror has influenced the entire horror genre, from the movie adaptation starring Christopher Lee, to modern film, television, and video game adaptations of vampires like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Twilight. Although we don’t take the blame for that last one.

Many believe that the story of Dracula was based on real-life tyrant Vlad the Impaler, but more recent theories suggest the inspiration may have come from the Celtic myth of the Abhartach.

Jim Fitzpatrick

Artist Jim Fitzpatrick is certainly a much less familiar name than Yeats, Joyce, Wilde, and Stoker, but he has by no means had a small influence on the world. 

Fitzpatrick is known for his famous two-tone portrait of Argentine revolutionary Che Guevara. You know, the one that literally everyone had on a t-shirt as teenagers?

You too. Yes, you did.

This portrait, based on the picture by Alberto Korda, has become a symbol of revolutionary thought, with Che Guevara murals appearing in conflict-stricken areas like Belfast.

Ireland’s diplomatic power

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In a 2020 article The Economist dubbed Ireland ‘an unlikely diplomatic superpower,’, which, even though has proved to be a contentious article for many, including but not limited to Eurosceptics, it correctly highlights how much diplomatic Ireland has (at least relative to its size). Ireland has used this influence to land some major positions within the EU, as well as a seat on the United Nations Security Council.

Whether or not Ireland is making the right decisions with this power is something that should be left up to more clued in people than me, but how exactly has Ireland managed to get into this position?

Close ties with the United States

As mentioned above, a huge number of American citizens claim Irish ancestry, and have an infatuation with Ireland as a result. Irish culture and heritage is deeply woven into the fabric of American society due to the mass exodus of Irish people to the Americas over the centuries. 

Having the world’s most powerful country as a close ally is always going to work in Ireland’s favour. With the election of Joe Biden, a very pro-Irish president, Ireland has America’s full support in issues like the Brexit negotiations for example.

It could be because the UK still sees Ireland as their property, or just as a weak, powerless country. But attempts by Westminster to bully Ireland over the Northern Ireland issue have so far not been successful, and this thanks in part to this closeness to the US.

Playwright Bonnie Greer sums this up well in this clip.

EU membership

It’s hard to argue against the fact that Ireland’s membership in the EU has done wonders, not only for the economy, but also for its global standing. The majority of Irish citizens agree with this, with 90% of people wanting to remain part of the union.

Membership has also given Irish politicians the opportunity to have a high standing in politics outside of the Republic of Ireland, allowing influence on European policy and laws.

Ireland’s size

Ireland is a small country, which has actually worked to our advantage on the world stage. 

For example, Paschal Donoghue, now president of the Euro Group, won this position by convincing other small nations in Europe that he would be more empathetic towards their issues than his opposing candidate and hot favourite to win the nomination, Nadia Calvino of Spain.

These countries see Ireland and by extension, Donoghue, as one of their own.

Playing up on stereotypes

Most people are aware of the many stereotypes about Ireland and Irish people. As much as they annoy and frustrate us at times, they have worked in our favour when improving diplomatic relations.

The most well- known example of this is the tradition where the Taoíseach travels to the US on St. Patrick’s day to give the president a bowl of shamrocks. This isn’t the only St. Patrick’s Day trip that’s taken by Irish politicians however, with other ministers and cabinet members travelling as far as South Korea to meet world leaders.

History of poverty and recovery

Ireland’s difficult history has actually proved to be a powerful diplomatic tool, and its past as an impoverished vessel of the British empire has actually endeared it to some of Europe’s poorest countries.

On the other hand, Ireland’s quick economic recovery from the crash over a decade ago has endeared it to Europe’s more powerful nations. 

Ireland’s global influence through charity and aid work

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Ireland is one of the few countries in the world that has transformed from a destitute nation to a wealthy one, and the people have not forgotten this.

Since Ireland’s wealth has been growing, numerous charity organisations have been founded that aim to help people who are living in difficult conditions around the world. In fact Ireland was found to be the “goodest” country in the world, according to the Good Country Index in 2014, meaning that Ireland has done more than any country on Earth to help people from around the world.

Since then, other countries have overtaken Ireland on this index, but for such a small country it still contributes a huge amount to foreign aid.

Aside from charity, Ireland uses its position as a formerly oppressed nation to speak out against oppression in other parts of the world. Being outspoken against apartied in South Africa, the treatment of indigenous peoples in North America, and more recently and controversially, the actions of the Israeli government in occupied Palestine. 

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Ireland’s global influence really cannot be understated. Over the course of history we have managed to inspire revolution, influence modern film, music, and literature, and even sit in the oval office.

We of course have many issues of our own, racism and homophobia is just as big a part of our history as anything else, but steps are being made in the right direction. But our impact, for good and bad, has been truly global.

Many Irish people may remember this advert for the opening of Dublin Airport’s terminal 2, which sums up Ireland’s influence quite well with: 

“it’s a small island in a big ocean, but we’ve reached the world from here.”

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Thomas Cleary

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