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Redheads and Rebels? The Truth Behind Irish Stereotypes

The Irish are often stereotyped as having red hair.

The Irish are often stereotyped as having red hair.

Where do Irish Stereotypes come from?

The Irish must be one of the most stereotyped groups of people on the planet. There are the semi-positive ones: leprechauns, red heads and being great storytellers. Then there are the negative ones: heavy drinking, tendency to violence and being stupid. But where have these stereotypes come from?

Like most groups, the Irish have been stereotyped by others, not themselves. Believe it or not, we don't think of ourselves as cheery, guiness-guzzling leprechauns - that's how other people have protrayed us. Both the England and the USA have seen heavy Irish immigration over the years, and it is in these countries that many of the stereotypical ideas of the Irish have been formed.

But how true are Irish stereotypes really? Read on to find out.

Leprechauns have become the most stereotyped of Irish fairies

Leprechauns have become the most stereotyped of Irish fairies

1. The Irish are heavy drinkers. Truth rating: 8

Historical records of the Irish love of alcohol date from ancient times, when Roman historians noted the Celtic people's particular love of wine. And there is unfortunately a notable genetic tendency towards alcoholism among the Irish, in common with other groups such as the Scottish, Scandanavians and Native American peoples. So there may in fact be a sad grain of truth to the stereotype that the Irish don't know when to stop drinking. Added to that is the strong pub culture in Ireland which continues to this day - this results partly from our famously wet weather which discourages healthy outdoor activities, and partly from a strong cultural idea that drinking alcolhol is an essential part of socialising.However, there are Irish people who don't touch alcohol, and others who drink lightly (like myself!). So it doesn't do to generalise.

Overall this stereotype gets a truth-rating of 8 out of 10. I've travelled a lot and my native Ireland is definitely one of the stronger drinking cultures I've encountered. However I've knocked a couple of points off because plenty of other people drink a lot but don't get stereotyped!

2. The Irish are all red-heads. Truth rating: 2

I'm not completely sure where this stereotype started, but I reckon Maureen O'Hara playing a feisty red-head in 'The Quiet Man' embedded it in popular consciousness. Irish tourism videos continue to hire red-headed models despite the fact than the vast majority of Irish people have dark hair. Red hair comes from Scandinavia, and was not originally native to the island.

I have given this stereotype a truth-rating of 2, not zero, because there are some Irish redheads due to Viking settlement on the island in the Middle Ages. So although there aren't redheads everywhere you look in Ireland, we do have more than many other European countries.

3. The Irish are hot-tempered and quick to fight. Truth rating: 4

Most of the Irish people I know are the friendliest, mildest people you could ever hope to meet. The stereotype of the fighting Irish seems to have arisen in response to a wave of Irish immigrants into America in the later nineteenth century. On almost the bottom rung of society, the Irish gained a reputation of fighting fiercely to keep any advantage they had managed to gain. Added to that most likely was the British impression of their 'rebellious Irish' subjects. Britain ruled Ireland for seven centuries and there were indeed various rebellions against a rule that the native Irish saw as illegitimate and unfair.

So this stereotype gets a 4; the Irish are certainly capable of fighting - they are not buddhist monks - but not are not necessarily more inclined to violence than any other group.

4. Irish have 'the gift of the gab'. Truth-rating: 9

The 'gift of the gab' means the ability to spin a great story - regardless of factual truth. In my experience living here, the Irish are great at this. Everyone on this island is a natural storyteller. There is a rich tradition of myth and legend in Ireland, and it often seems we prefer a good story to factual accuracy. What you need to understand if you are not from Ireland, is that this is not the same as lying - in Ireland everyone knows when someone is 'spinning a yarn' (telling a good story that isn't true). It is considered good entertainment, not an attempt to deceive anyone - though it can confuse visitors!

This gets a truth-rathing of 9 because in all my travels I have never met storytellers like the Irish. Added to this is Ireland's great literary tradition - Ireland has four Nobel-winning writers. Not bad for a small island!

5. The Irish are stupid. Truth rating: 0

This is probably the most racist myth spread about the Irish. In the nineteenth century and continuing into the twentieth, the Irish were caricatured as a lesser race than other Europeans, and as ape-like and stupid. In the past, through poverty the Irish struggled to have access to education, but they were perfectly intelligent. Today Irish graduates are employed all over the world and many international companies are based in Ireland because of the highly-educated hard-working population.

6. The Irish love potatoes. Truth rating: 7

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This is pretty true of older generations, who grew up on potatoes as a staple food, and who like to eat them every day. As one person I was chatting to recently put it: "The Irish talk about potatoes the way other people talk about wine. We are potato connoisseurs!" Older folk in Ireland can discuss at length the best potato-growing areas and the best season for certain varieties. Potatoes became the staple food of the Irish because they grew easily in our wet climate and because a small plot of potatoes could feed a family for a year.

However, I have given this stereotype a truth rating of 7 because it is going out of date. The Irish have embraced world food culture and our supermarkets are full of Asian, Italian and Spanish foods nowadays.

7. Ireland is the land of Leprechauns. Truth rating: 3

There are many stories about a whole range of supernatural beings in Ireland. I have no idea why Leprechauns have become world famous, while almost no one has heard of the 'Tuath de Danaan', the 'pooka', the 'fir dearg' or any of the others. Maybe the Lucky Charms advertisments had something to do with it! Truth rating is 3 because while there are various Irish stories about Leprechauns, there are many other Irish fairies who deserve not to be forgotten!

What I have learned from exploring the stereotypes about the Irish is that stereotypes can be based on a small grain of truth which is exaggerated, or they can also be based on racist ideas which have no truth at all. Because I know how many Irish stereotypes aren't true, it helps me to remember not to stereotype other people. At the end of the day, I firmly believe that it is best to treat everyone as an individual. As an Irish person,in my experience, a lot of people in other countries find it hard to believe I'm not a big drinker. "But you're Irish!" they protest. I just shrug my shoulders and order another mineral water....

Irish movies for realism

How the Irish have been portrayed in movies

Movies have played a big role in creating and re-inforcing stereotypes about the Irish. Since The Quiet Man was released in the 1950s, Ireland has provided a steady stream of stereotypical characters for movies.

There is the loveble alcoholic, encompassing most of the extras in The Quiet Man, Waking Ned and Leap Year. The red-haired firebrand imortalised by Maureen O'Hara in The Quiet Man. The bare-knuckle fighter as seen in Far and Away, Snatch and The Quiet Man. Hollywood thrillers have frequently cast actors doing poor imitations of an Irish accent in the role of terrorist bad guy - though the peace process has put a stop to that. And then there is the long-suffering mother such as in Angela's Ashes or Brenda Fricker in My Left Foot (and just about every other role she's ever been offered since).

However, there are also some movies about Ireland, whether made by the Irish or others, which offer a less stereotypical vision of Irish life. They are simply good movies with strong scripts, that happen to have Ireland and Irish history as their dramatic backdrop. Examples of good Irish dramas include The Wind that Shakes the Barley, In the Name of the Father,  My Left Foot, Hunger and the Crying Game. For warm-hearted comedy try Inside I'm Dancing or Mickeybo and Me.

The Quiet Man: Story of a Redhead and a Rebel

Fun movies about Ireland


John Galve from Manila on March 01, 2016:

Good read!

FlourishAnyway from USA on February 24, 2014:

I enjoyed this, as my grandfather was Irish. We called him "Johnny Leprechaun" because he was short and had a magic way of spinning a tall tale that was always entertaining.

Charles Dawson from Bartow, FL on February 24, 2014:

Great article. Voted up and sharing.

Bond1224 on July 19, 2013:

Not so sure of some of your numbers. I am an American of English Irish and Prussian descent . The latter no longer is a country. The red heads are more like 6-7. There are more there than than most countries . ...Stupid- That gets a 2 . Ireland has an average IQ rating of 93 . America 98, england 100 germany 98 ,Israel 95. Ireland rate a 2 because most countries outside of east asia and Western Europe are in the 80s and 70s but a zero goes to Japan at 105- not Ireland . Hot tempered-? Nope -that walks hand in hand with the booze. Irishmen rate less when not liquored up-. If you liquor up a Russian , Pole, African , Englishman and many more your just as likely to get violent behavior- in fact more so. and with deadlier results. Irish rank with these guys because of the booze. Making them a 5 . Anyway. Interesting article.

tastiger04 on July 03, 2013:

Awesome, I love your number rating system! Being half Irish myself, I can appreciate the background information too. Voted up!

Marie McKeown (author) from Ireland on February 12, 2013:

Thanks - glad you enjoyed!

FullOfLoveSites from United States on February 12, 2013:

I like your rating system. Thanks for explaining out the Irish stereotypes, especially about the red heads (and blondes), I thought most Irish have them (I'm also thinking about Lindsay Lohan, who has Irish roots -- still liking her natural red hair then). Up and interesting. :)

Marie McKeown (author) from Ireland on February 08, 2013:

Good luck with your article.

Triggerdebate on February 04, 2013:

you are very wrong and have a lot of reading to do,they did have families broken up mothers and fathers were either killed or sold to different continents children were sold into slavery.Monsteraat was far from the only case of Irish slavery.The first recorded sale of Irish slaves was in 1612 to a settelment on the amazon river.Argentina,Guiana,Antigua in fact most of south America and Australia have records of Irish slavery.The story of the Irish slave was brushed under the carpet by the British.they tried to whitewash it by calling them indentured servants. just like the records and deeds of the land owners before the plantation of Ulster.They know who owns the land but refuse to give up the paper work.Between 1640 1651 there were more than 300,000 Irish slaves sold.Im gona do an article on this

Marie McKeown (author) from Ireland on February 04, 2013:

I agree, but the difference is that while Irish peasants (my ancestors) were kept in extreme poverty in Ireland the only case of slavery of Irish was in Monserrat and it didn't last for two reasons. One was the fair skin of the Irish meant they weren't very useful for working outside in hot climates, the other was that racism came to be the justification for slavery and so while the Irish in Ireland were often treated as inferior they were never locked in cages like African slaves in the south, and they did not have their families broken up by owners who sold their children to other parts of the country. While the Irish have suffered a lot historically, it is also important to remember that some peoples have suffered even more. Hopefully, in future, we will have equality for everyone around the world.

Triggerdebate on February 03, 2013:

Slavery is slavery where it happens makes no difference

Marie McKeown (author) from Ireland on February 03, 2013:

I know about Monserrat but I also know that slavery in the US was worse than being a member of the Irish peasantry.

Triggerdebate on February 03, 2013:

Most of the stereotyping came from british propaganda, trying to justify taking land from us savages.

Some good point made by brianoh,although we wernt treated worse than slaves we were slaves too,they tried to justify that too.Read about monsteraat

Marie McKeown (author) from Ireland on September 20, 2012:

I agree there was a lot of stereotyping of the Irish, especially in the 19th century. It should make us aware of how others today still face negative stereotypes...

brianoh on September 19, 2012:

Many of the stereotypes result from centuries of subjugation, starvation and deprivation caused by the English invasions of Ireland starting c. 1169. The Irish were treated worse than slaves for centuries and that caused lack of nutrition, lack of education, lack of infrastructure and desperate poverty. Finally, some very brave people overcame enormous odds to gain independence and a new start for Ireland c. 1920.

Marie McKeown (author) from Ireland on June 04, 2012:

Agreed there have been many stereotypes of the Irish - but probably associating all Irish people with the political violence has been one of the most damaging.... at least now we are known also for our peace process!

Suzanne Ridgeway from Dublin, Ireland on June 04, 2012:

Great article Marie, For me it was bang on the money. As a Dubliner who has lived abroad, I even remember being asked if I could show my gun . . .presumming all Irish carried weapons! That was in the 1980's . . I'm also one of the light drinking brigade, but do enjoy the crack in the pub! Voted up and all the rest!!

Marie McKeown (author) from Ireland on May 14, 2012:

Fair enough Aoife! I have just found some people who really know exactly what type of potatoes they like... and what is the best time of year to get them... maybe its not on the level of wine connoisseurs but it is still more than people in other countries think about potatoes!

Aoife on May 13, 2012:

I though this article was well written and very factual. Good job! The one thing I'd argue with is the potato part. I'd agree it's relatively staple. And it's rather versatile, so you can make chips, bake them, fry them, put them in stew and mash them. And I know relatives who'd eat them a lot. But, I know a quite a few in 'the older generation' and I know a lot of farmers and their children, but I don't think I've ever met anyone who is a 'connoisseur' in potatoes! A lot of people like them, and SOME people have them in a fair few meals, but they're just plentiful and cheap here. I know quite a few people who are vastly intelligent in wine. But never potatoes. And I think it's overrated. I'd have given it a 5. Maybe.

Rosie36 on May 03, 2012:

Just discovered this Hub. Glad I did. Researched our family a few years ago and we're Irish through and through. Very proud of that actually. Hard to get all the records of births and deaths however. Will have to go back for a visit. Interesting in tracing our ancestors how they would write they were from the Free State of Ireland in their Census records. My mother, aunt and uncle were all redheads and we have one grandson who it is a carrot top with the same color eyelashes and eyebrows and lots of freckles - really cute.

Me on April 07, 2012:

Agreeing with everything mentioned above. I have to say, brunettes outnumber redheads 10:1 (approximately) in Ireland. It is true however that nearly everyone I know doesn't really think of potatoes as vegetables and are nearly always on your plate for dinner. Me? I love potatoes, adore them. Don't know anyone who doesn't to be honest so I can't really agree with EVERYTHING up there. A great article though!

savvydating on February 16, 2012:

What an entertaining and informative hub! I love learning about people from other cultures. Thanks for helping us all out. I've met a couple of Irishmen. They both had the gift of gab - in a good way.

Jimmy on January 21, 2012:

Hey fab hub Marie and well said.

bronson albaugh on January 05, 2012:

I have to say this is a wonderful article to start off. For a long time I didn't know how much irish I had in my blood, but as time has gone on I can't ignore it. I have the gift of gab like no other, I can drink the night away though I don't anymore, I will rebel against any injustice, and potatoes can't help but be loved. The more I learn about my heritage the more I fall in love, and nothing soothes my soul better than Irish music :)

collegatariat on November 30, 2011:

Thank you so much for straightening out all those questions I've had! I've been wondering about those leprechauns for years. ;)

The red hair in my family skipped my generation, but hopefully my children will get some of it, whether it's a true mark of being Irish or not.

Joanna McKenna from Central Oklahoma on September 06, 2011:

What about freckles? All my life my freckles have been attributed to our Irish ancestry...all two drops of it, it turns out. One from my mother's side (O'Connor) and one from my dad's side (Conn), but both branches left Ireland in the 1700s, so I'd think any Irish genes were quite watered down by the time I came along. Any ideas?

Mindy Bench from Oregon on June 30, 2011:

I really liked this Hub, Since im' Irish too! It is nice to see you give ratings. Since we do have the gift of gab, we are truly smart at telling stories ;)

Marie McKeown (author) from Ireland on April 20, 2011:

Thank-you for your encouragement thatguypk! I agree it can be difficult sometimes being from Northern Ireland, when all people have heard about is the negative stuff in the media. Even when I was travelling in Colombia people felt sorry for me because I was from Ireland where, in their mind, we have nothing but bombs!

Thatguypk on April 19, 2011:

Another wonderful Hub, Marie, and I agree whole-heartedly with your rating system.

Stereotyping is a most annoying trend. My sister had lived in France for several years and had the misfortune to arrive, by air, in London, a few days after the Brighton bombing. An English woman, hearing her Belfast accent, felt justified in approaching her and saying "All you F***ing Irish Bastards ought to be thrown in jail!", before punching her in the face.

In a similar vein, I was once on a train journey from Milan to Brindisi in Southern Italy. As we left the Milan station a very pleasant, smiling black gentleman came into our compartment and began to chat to myself and my girlfriend. After a few minutes he asked where we came from. When we replied "Belfast", the smile quickly disappeared from his face. "Belfast?" he repeated, then thought for a moment, and added, "Boom, boom! Many bombs!" After that, he didn't speak another word to us for the duration of the journey.

I am happy to concur with your opinion that the Irish people, be they Northern or Southern, are among the friendliest and most hospitable people I have encountered.

Please continue writing. Your hubs are a pleasure to read.

Marie McKeown (author) from Ireland on April 03, 2011:

Thanks for the referral to that blog - very interesting. Mystery of red hair solved!

Make Money from Ontario on April 02, 2011:

You may want to take a look at this Irish Tribesman blog entry Marie. It says a study has "found rich concentrations of genes of the British Isles' first hunter-gatherer settlers in men and women now living in Cornwall, Devon, Scotland and Ireland. One version of the gene MCR1 often confers red hair on its owners and explains those ancient Roman and Greek reports of widespread ginger locks among early Britons."

Marie McKeown (author) from Ireland on March 30, 2011:

The red hair is a good point to raise. Some say it came with the vikings and certainly the areas of Britain where Vikings settled also have the highest levels of red hair. But yes, it is possible there was some red hair before that - I'll have to research a bit further...

As far as I know there's no legends of Irish warriors or queens with red hair - always dark or fair - but definitely one to look into: where did that red hair come from?

Make Money from Ontario on March 29, 2011:

Nice hub Marie. Although I don't believe the red hair of the Irish comes from Scandinavia. The Greek historian Dio Cassius described Boudica, the famous Celtic Queen of the Iceni, to be "tall and terrifying in appearance... a great mass of red hair... over her shoulders." The Roman author Tacitus commented on the "red hair and large limbs of the inhabitants of Caledonia (Scotland)", which he connected with some red haired Gaulish tribes of Germanic and Belgic relation. But Scandinavian or even Germanic people didn't get to the British Isles until after the Romans left. Boudica (d. AD 60 or 61) known in Welsh as "Buddug", led her people against the Romans and Tacitus was a senator and a historian of the Roman Empire between AD 56 and AD 117. There's nothing like the red locks of an Irish lass.

openwater diver on March 26, 2011:

Ms. McKeown, I like your hub, stereotypes about the Irish are definitely are not all true. You have to thank Seth MacFarlane "Family Guy" for the constant poking to not only the Irish but everyone at a whole.

Marwan Asmar from Amman, Jordan on March 26, 2011:

Its a good one

Lorna McNerthney from Paducah, KY on March 25, 2011:

I liked your article! Being nearly full-blooded myself, I can agree with some of them ;o)

Kelley Marks from Sacramento, California on March 25, 2011:

You forgot one stereotype about the Irish: They play great music! And they can dance too! Those stereotypes aren't so bad, are they? Anyway, that red hair you've written about seems to be just as prevalent throughout the British Isles. At any rate, royal red is decidedly cool, don't you think? Later!

ubalildon on March 25, 2011:

i love red heads

sligobay from east of the equator on March 24, 2011:

Hello Marie: This was an entertaining article and I will look forward to more to come. Found you by your interview and Hub Nugget nomination. Congratulations on making a splash in such a short time in the big Hub Pond. Welcome to a wonderful community of writers.

Alaska Swan from Alaska on March 24, 2011:

Hello Marie,

I am a born and raised Alaskan, but I qualify for dual citizenship with Ireland. I went to Ireland with my Irish grandmother who came to the US when she was 20 years old. I have hundreds of aunts, uncles and cousins scattered around Ireland and it was so neat to see some of them as they showed me around. Some of them have come to Alaska to visit also. Ireland feels similar to Alaska in some ways...very green here too (in the summer)and we have very unique and independent people also.

I enjoyed reading your page...I look forward to more.


Marie McKeown (author) from Ireland on March 24, 2011:

Thanks for all the family stories everyone, I really enjoyed them :)

I visited Liverpool once and found it quite a hone from home - there are probably more Irish people living there than in Dublin! Definitely similar culture, just the accent is a bit different... ;)

Golfgal from McKinney, Texas on March 24, 2011:

Top of the Morning to Ya!! Hi Marie, I love the spin you put on your hub with the rating system. That was great fun. I have a funny little story for ya. My grandmother tops 4 foot 8 inches tall, she is german but dyes her hair bright red. She noticed while shopping two young men were staring at her in the mall. As she stood beside the fountain in the mall one approached her to ask if she was a little leprechaun....she said...of course and smiled an evil little smile. She was quite the little pranster too.

Johnny Parker from Birkenhead, Wirral, North West England on March 24, 2011:

Very good Marie I agree with all your ratings.

I come from Liverpool, which everyone knows is the unofficial capital of Ireland ;-)

The Scousers get a lot of their quick wit, storytelling and music genes from Ireland.

Keep up the good work.

Julie Frost on March 24, 2011:

My mother`s side of the family 4 sisters: 2 redheads 1 blonde 1 black - what happened there! (yes they all had the same Dad)And no I am not a redhead!(although my brother was when he was younger)!Good Hub!

JLClose from OreGONE on March 23, 2011:

I am actually disappointed to find out that red-heads are not common in Ireland. My daughter is a red head and I always thought it was the Irish in me that made her that way! Now I don't know what to think... ;0)

Good hub!

Marie McKeown (author) from Ireland on March 23, 2011:

I don't think enough vikings settled in Ireland to have a major impact on the national character - there was a tradition of warrior myths long before they arrived!

Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on March 22, 2011:

This hub is full of interesting information. Congrats on your nomination.

Aysun90 on March 22, 2011:

Weren't Irish people hot-tempered because of the vikings ?

I found interesting information, nice hub !

Michelle Simtoco from Cebu, Philippines on March 19, 2011:

I enjoyed reading your hub. Did some people really think of number 5? Geez, that's insane... I know an Irish man and he ain't a leprechaun but a wonderful man and hubber! :D

Congratulations on your Hubnuggets nomination: Do go and vote and spread the word. Irish are wonderful people! Woohhoo.. Enjoy!

Jeremey from Arizona on March 18, 2011:

A good read to catch up my lack of St. Patricks Day celebrating. Congrats on your hubnugget nomination!

Christina Lornemark from Sweden on March 18, 2011:

Very interesting hub and I like the way you write about these stereotypes and rate them! Many of these stereotypes can be found in my country too. I live in Sweden and the Swedes are known for not knowing when to stop drinking and we also love potatoes! And we have many people with red hair too:) Isn’t it just something we humans do, we want to put labels on everything and everyone, because it makes us feel more secure, like we know and are on top of things. Anyway, you have done a great job! Well done and thanks for a great time! Voted up!

Enelle Lamb from Canada's 'California' on March 14, 2011:

Great hub - love your rating system :D

Marie McKeown (author) from Ireland on March 04, 2011:

Hi Aidan - glad to keep you connected to your home country! Did you know the Horslips re-formed recently? My parents got very excited ... :)

Aidan on March 03, 2011:

Excellent - loved reading this quite accurate article. I grew up in Ireland and still watch the movies and listen to the music. Horslips or Scullion anyone?

An Irishman in Sydney :)

Alastar Packer from North Carolina on March 02, 2011:

Will go on u-tube tonight and listen to Altan, thanks, there's a lot of good celtic music here in the Carolina mountains. An annual scottish-celtic festival is held every year(since i don't know when) on Grandfather Mt., its awesome!

Marie McKeown (author) from Ireland on March 02, 2011:

Thanks Alastar! The Easter Rising was certainly one of those 'turning points' in the relationship between Ireland and England. There are lots of great celtic female singers, there's a group called Altan who are very good and their lead singer is a woman with a fine voice ...

Alastar Packer from North Carolina on February 26, 2011:

I loved this one Marie and your rating system is spot on, as far as racist stereo types go Ireland has produced some of the greatest minds and talents in the world. Just recently finished a book on the Easter Rising that I learned a lot about England's oppression of the people.Celtic Women stir my soul when they sing. Thanks for a fine hub.

Marie McKeown (author) from Ireland on February 26, 2011:

Rostrevor is a lovely part of the world and I'm glad to hear they are keeping up the storytelling tradtion! 'My Left Foot' is great isn't it? There are lots I left out ... The Crying Game and In the Name of the Father ... might need to re-edit that Amazon box!

Ghaelach on February 26, 2011:

Hello Marie. A very nice informative Hub. I live now in Germany and must say they don't do to bad here with the drink eg. Munich Beer Festival, and don't forget the Russians with their Vodka. As you say there are hot-tempered fighting people,stupid people,red haired people in every land. I've not seen Leprechauns anywhere else outside Ireland. You wont find anywhere else on this planet a man that could tell a tale like my dad and his brothers could, and i know that from first hand as they all came from Rostrevor (near Newry) My mother was born there to. Oh! before i finish you forgot a very good film with the Irish actor Daniel Day Lewis "My Left Foot". LOL


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