By Kathy Hughes
Before the era of DNA analysis, there evolved a swirl of myths, stories and legends surrounding the origin of various human cultural and physical characteristics. These stories have also always accompanied natural phenomena and animal behaviors, as well as interactions among the three. As far as I know, every society has these stories of their origin, as well as the world around them. Thus we have everything from “How the leopard got his spots” to the “Gypsies” origin in India.
Likewise, here are stories describing why, among the typically fair and even red-haired Irish, some individuals have a decidedly Mediterranean appearance: olive complexion, dark hair and eyes. The term for this phenomenon is “the Black Irish.” Understandably misinterpreted as referring to African origin, instead it is connected to the 16th century Spanish war with England, specifically the disastrous Spanish Armada of 1588. In their defeated attempt to topple the reign of the Protestant English Queen Elizabeth I, the Spanish lost about 15,000 sailors and more than half of their fleet.
After suffering their brutal defeat in the English Channel, the crippled Spanish fleet attempted retreat by sailing into the North Sea, around the Scottish coast, then down the West coast of Ireland and back to Spain. Unfortunately, just as they reached the area near Ireland, they encountered a ferocious storm, sinking more of the already battered ships and casting Spanish sailors into the sea. Among those who washed ashore in Ireland, some survived, remained in Ireland and became the legendary ancestors of the Black Irish.
Of course, the discovered bodies of the sailors who drowned were buried. Another associated legend goes that in an Irish cemetery, there is a remarkable tree growing from the grave of Spanish sailor. Now, it is told that this man carried a chestnut in his pocket, and after many years it took root, growing into a spreading Chestnut tree.
Is there buried truth in the legend, or is there myth told in history? There was a real Spanish Armada, and that it wrecked near Ireland’s Atlantic coast, is true. I now know, my DNA test reveals amid the preponderance of Irish heritage, in addition is it indicates a bit of Spanish heritage. While this lends credence to the “Black Irish myth,” truthfully the connections between Spain and Ireland are more ancient than 1588. Not only are there Irish who share a dark complexion, along the Iberian coast there are fair skinned, freckled individuals with red hair who would not be out of place in Ireland.
It pleases me no end that we can keep our myths and legends even with DNA evidence, and history can retain the adornments of stories, seasoned by the doubts of “what if’s” and “maybe’s.”