Organized Irish settlement can be traced back to around 4000 BC, when the first farmers were thought to have arrived in the lush green country. Since then, Irish people have gone on to establish a diverse culture rich with history, and have contributed massively to music, dance, art, food, language, and, of course, literature. There’s a lot to learn about Irish culture and community from past and present – and this sort of craic (keep reading) might be particularly interesting to you if you have Irish ancestry in your blood.
A brief history of Irish people
The island of Ireland has been consistently inhabited for about 10,000 years, and the earliest forms of Irish ancestry can be traced back to Celts and Gaels – a.k.a., the founders of the Gaelic language, which remains alive and utilized today. Capital city Dublin was founded by the Vikings in 988, and in the 12th century, the Normans invaded the country, building castles, walled towns, and churches. The group also increased agricultural output and commerce throughout the island. The 17th century was a time of harsh Penal Laws: an aggressive attempt to force Irish Catholics to accept the newly established Church of Ireland instead. The Catholics fought back, and by the 18th century, Penal Law influence had waned greatly, but Catholics still only held about five percent of Irish land by 1778.
Throughout time, many people also traversed to Ireland from Scotland or England, but after being pushed out of the country due to the religious conflicts, they fled to America, where many settled in Pennsylvania in the mid-1700s. Those who stayed had to wait until 1892, when Irish leader Daniel O’Connell (a.k.a. “The Great Liberator”) helped the Act of Catholic Emancipation get passed, which lifted the voting ban on Irish Catholics and allowed them to become Members of Parliament in London. Although this was a major achievement for Irish people, it was overshadowed by a major tragedy that was occurring around the same time: the Great Famine. While potatoes have long been an Irish staple, a plant disease struck many of the country’s crops in 1845, and people began starving to death. The crisis was exacerbated by the British government, who continued to order that Ireland export their harvests of wheat and dairy despite nationwide starvation. This caused a boom of emigration, and many Irish people fled to America, much like they had during the religious conflicts of the 1700s. The early 20th century in Ireland was largely defined by the War of Independence: a struggle between British forces and the Irish Republican Army that ended with Ireland being allowed to divide itself into Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State. Today, Ireland is divided into two distinct regions: Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, and the Republic of Ireland (a.k.a. “Ireland”).
10 fun facts about Irish culture
- Ireland is known for folk tales, legends, and myths.
Irish mythology has been orally passed down for several generations, and can be traced back to ancient Celtic times. Folk tales, legends, and myths remain popular bedtime story staples for Irish parents, and many children growing up on the island are familiar with stories like the Irish vampire Abhartach, the Cattle Raid of Cooley, or the terrifying Legend of the Banshee.
- Irish culture places a heavy emphasis on literature.
Gaelic is one of the oldest languages in Europe, and Irish literature traces back several centuries and continues to be widely studied and examined among natives. Ireland’s first poems were written in the sixth century, and the country boasts writing greats like James Joyce, William Butler Yeats, and Oscar Wilde. Irish literature falls into two distinct categories: bardic poems and Celtic sagas that are written in Irish, and Irish literature written in English (often referred to as “Anglo-Irish literature”).
- Beltane marks the beginning of summer.
Beltane – or “the Gaelic May Day Festival” – is observed by Irish people annually on the last day of April until the morning of the first of May. The festival marks the end of spring and the beginning of summer. The tradition is meant to honor the beginning of lighter, longer days, a new livestock cycle, and the start of a fresh new season.
- Other Celtic pagan festivals are still widely celebrated.
Beyond Beltane, three other Celtic pagan festivals are enjoyed by modern Irish people: Samhain, Imbolg, and Lughnasadh.Each festival represents a seasonal transition of the year; while Beltane marks the movement from spring to summer and Imbolg is the start of spring, Lughnasadh marks the beginning of autumn, and Samhain is meant to celebrate the transition from fall to winter.
- Potatoes remain a major staple in Ireland.
Potatoes became a staple of Irish cuisine in the 1700s, and that tradition has carried on to today – even despite the Great Famine of the 1800s. Irish people enjoy plenty of potato-based dishes, but some of the most popular include: fadge (Irish potato bread), boxty (Irish potato pancakes), potato soup (Irish – well…self-explanatory), champ (Irish mashed potatoes with scallions), and crowd favorite colcannon (Irish mashed potatoes with cabbage).
- Riverdance originated in the country, and continues to be a popular form of dance for natives.
Ireland’s biggest contribution to the dance world is riverdance: a form of step dancing that originated in the 1700s. The style is characterized by a stiff, straight upper body with minimal movement, contrasted with feet pounding to the rhythm of the feverishly-paced music. Performed entirely on the balls of the feet, it’s an incredibly athletic practice best paired with a good amount of discipline – and some major leg muscles.
- Trad music also continues to be popular throughout Ireland.
Trad music is a style of folk music that originated in Ireland, and it continues to be quite popular today. The genre can be traced back to Gaelic times, and typically involves the use of at least ten instruments: most often including the fiddle, the flute and whistle, Uilleann pipes, the harp, the accordion and concertina, the banjo, the mandolin, and the guitar.
- Pub culture is a major staple of Irish tradition.
It’s difficult to make your way through Ireland without coming across a pub or two. Rooted in raw conviviality and a down-to-earth welcoming spirit, pub culture remains incredibly prevalent throughout the country – especially during major holidays or sporting events – and has even become a common bar theme throughout the rest of the world. An Irish pub is often accompanied by hearty, greasy food, a wide variety of drinks (emphasis on the Guinness), traditional Irish music, and a lot of good chat. It’s meant to feel like an extended family gathering: one where everyone is invited and encouraged to have a great time.
- St. Patrick’s Day is one of the most widely celebrated holidays in Ireland.
Also known as the “Feast of Saint Patrick” – or the colloquial “Paddy’s Day” – St. Patrick’s Day is a religious and cultural holiday meant to honor the death of Ireland’s patron Saint Patrick. The holiday continues to be staunchly upheld, and is often marked by worldwide parades, festivals, carnivals, and seemingly-endless pub crawls. Oh – and wearing as much green as possible.
- Although Gaelic isn’t that commonly spoken anymore, many Irish people use Gaelic words as endearing slang terms.
Gaelic stopped being the primary language of Ireland in the 18th century, but many Irish people still speak it today – especially in more rural areas of the country. However, even if everyone in the nation doesn’t learn Gaelic as their first language anymore, it continues to be prevalent in everyday Irish culture, and many people opt for Gaelic words when speaking in friendly, casual slang. Some popular Gaelic slang words include: Sláinte (meaning “healthy” and often used during a toast); Slán abhaile (meaning “safe home,” and often used as a farewell); Dia dhuit (meaning “hello” or some other form of greeting); and, of course, craic (meaning “news,” “gossip,” “fun,” “entertainment,” etc…i.e.; “What’s the craic?”)