Ireland has produced, throughout it’s history, an extraordinary abundance of famous and influential figures (James Joyce, Samuel Becket, W.B.Yeats,Brendan Beahan, Arthur Guiness, Bono, Liam Neasan, to name but a few) ,perhaps more than any other country in the world, however there are also a number of individuals whom you may be surprised to learn were/are, or even aren’t , technically Sons and Daughters of the Emerald Isle!
Born in Dublin in 1854, to give him his full name – Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde gives more than a clue to his Irish heritage. The famed wit, poet and playwright attended Trinity College before moving to Oxford, England. The Englishness of some of his books and plays, such as “The importance of being Ernest” and “A Picture of Dorian Grey” has perhaps led many to associate Wilde with England, rather than his native Ireland, although most of his working life was based in London and the fashionable society of the time. Although his infamously high profile trials and imprisonment for “gross indecency” eventually led him to spend the last of his remaining years in near poverty in France.
Sir Arthur Wellesley – Duke of Wellington
Nicknamed “The Iron Duke” and perhaps more widely known as one of England’s national heroes, due to his success in defeating France and Napoleon Bonaparte at the Battle of Waterloo and subsequently twice becoming British Prime Minister, the Duke was in fact an Irishman. Born in Dublin in 1837 and educated in Dublin and Drogheda, Co Meath, before moving across to England and attending Eton. The Duke was apparently later keen to play down his Irish roots when allegedly challenged about his heritage, quipped; “Being born in a stable, does not make one a horse!”. Whatever he thought, being born in Dublin, undoubtedly makes him an Irishman!
George Bernard Shaw
Famous for works such as “Pygmalion” (Perhaps more familiar to many now as the Musical/Film “My Fair Lady” ) considered to be a “British” playwright and author, Bernard Shaw was born in Dublin in 1856 and didn’t move to London until his early 20’s, although he was never to live there again. He was to become a notable figures in London and English Society. He retained socialist views and went on to become an important figure in the Fabian Society, in which Bernard Shaw was helped found the world famous London School of Economics and also later, the forming of Britain’s Labour Party. Although Shaw saw out the rest of his years in England, retiring to the Countryside, he was made a freeman of Dublin in 1946, during his 90th year.
Born Clive Staples Lewis in Belfast in 1898, Lewis won a scholarship to University College Oxford and after serving in the army during the First World War, spent his life as an academic and author. Lewis was a friend and academic colleague of J.R.R.Tolkien at Oxford University, England and became most famous for the Chronicles of Narnia, with perhaps “The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe” being the most popular of the chronicles.
Born in a northern suburb of Dublin in 1847, Bram Stoker is perhaps one a minority of authors whose creation has become more famous than they are. Bram Stoker wrote a number of novels, but his most famous/infamous was of course “Dracula”. Like many on this list, moving to England to in the 1870’s to take on a Manager’s role at the Lyceum Theatre , a role he remained in for nearly three decades. It was allegedly a trip to Whitby on the North East Coast of England that inspired Stoker to write his most famous novel, today the town has become a pilgrimage site for goths and fans of the macabre, somewhat to the annoyance of the locals!
Sir Ernest Shackleton
The legendary Polar Explorer is often cited as one of Britain’s great Hero’s, but Shackleton was born in Kilkea, County Kildare in 1874. A familiar pattern occurred when, as a boy, his parents moved the family first to Dublin and then to England, following his father , a newly qualified Doctor, taking a new job. Shackleton had an early unpromising academic life but joined the Merchant Navy as a young apprentice and eventually worked his way up to “Master Mariner” . He soon became involved with the Royal Geographical Society polar, joined and eventually led a number of high profile expeditions and become a British National Hero, receiving a Knighthood and various other accolades. He died of a suspected heart attack on his last expedition to the South Pole in 1922.
Born in 1667 in Dublin, Swift had many preoccupations ; poetry, politics and notably becoming a Cleric in the Church of Ireland and later Dean of St.Patrick’s Cathedral, Dublin, but it is his writing that he has since become most famous for, writing a number of novels and essays over the course of his life , but it is the classic “Gulliver’s Travels” that he is best remembered for. Although within Ireland he is well remembered, even commemorated on pre-Euro banknotes, but his nationality and heritage outside of Ireland, is less well known.
The 20th Century abstract artist born in Dublin, to a wealthy family with a loose English aristocratic background. Bacon spent his youth living between Ireland and England, eventually settled in London in the late 1920’s and embarked on various occupations, but it was not until the 1950’s that his art started receiving recognition. Bacon lived a “colourful” life amongst fellow artists in London’s infamous SoHo social scene and gained a certain level of notoriety for his drinking and gambling!
Dame Iris Murdoch
The famed authoress and academic is widely regarded as British, however she was born in 1919 in Dublin. As a baby, she was moved to England when her Father took a new job in the British Government in London. Following early education in Bristol, England and later at Oxford and Cambridge, Murdoch went on to become an accomplished and hugely influential author, playwright and philosopher. She was made a Dame of the British Empire in recognition of her achievements in 1987 and died in Oxford, England in 1999.
Although the name might be something of a give away, the late actors upper-class crystal cut English accent might have fooled many people into believing the late screen and stage actor was English. But the star of classic British films such as "Lawrence of Arabia" is believed to have been born in Conemmara, Co.Galway, Ireland, to an Irish father and Scottish mother, there is some confusion, even by the actor himself, as although he had his Irish Birth Certificate, there was a similar record in the Leeds Infirmary registery, in Leeds, England, for 2 months later, so he was never entirely. The actor had a successful career spanning six decades, winning numerous awards and eight oscar nominations, but just missing out on each occasion to strong opposition winners. The actor was known almost as well for his hard partying lifestyle in the 1960's alongside his friends Richard Burton, Richard Harris & Oliver Reed, however he made it to 81, passing away in 2013.
Born in Drogheda, Co Louth (the same town as my Father!!) and growing up in Navan, Co.Meath predominately with his Grandparents, like nearly all on this list, he emigrated to London to be with his Mother in the early 1960’s and embarked on a hugely successful TV and Film career, firstly in the 1980’s in “Remington Steele” and through the 90’s and early 2000’s as James Bond, along with a string of other movies. It is perhaps most of his castings are quintessentially American or British Characters, that many do not realize he is Irish, although during interviews, there is still a hint of an Irish accent!
Sir Kenneth Branagh
The multi-talented Actor, Producer and Director was Born in Belfast in 1960 and moved to England aged 9. Despite being a hugely accomplished stage actor, particularly in Shakespearean roles, in recent years he has become known to a much wider younger audience as Gilderoy Lockhart in the Harry Potter movies. As he has completely lost his Northern Irish accent, many assume him to be an English actor.
Most British Television viewers will have seen the familiar face of Todd Carty on TV over the last 40 years. He rose to fame playing Tucker Jenkins in the now classic children’s drama series Grange Hill, plus it’s later spin-off “Tucker’s Luck”. In more recent years, he become one of the longest residents of Albert Square , playing Mark Fowler in "Eastenders". What many people don’t realise is that he was born in Limerick in 1963, emigrating to London,England, with his family when he was a child.
Jack Gleeson – Internationally recognized for his portrayal of the vile and sadistic character Joffrey Baratheon in the hugely successful TV adaption of the Game of Thrones, despite his characters vert “English” accent, Jack Gleeson was born and raised in Cork. Having appeared in a number of minor parts in various films in recent years, his breakthrough role has propelled him into a Global recognition. He has however, indicated that he may well retire from acting altogether following his hugely successful role as the evil Joffrey. Interestingly, quite a few of his fellow actors on the Game of Thrones are South and Northern Irish and again, many might not realise, as all have adopted regional English accents – Aiden Gillen, who excellently plays the scheming Lord Petyr Baelish (also known as “Littlefinger” is from Dublin, Liam Cunningham, who portrays Davos Seaworth, right hand man to Stannis Barratheon is a relatively well known Irish actor ,also from Dublin. Conleth Hill, who plays the Eunuch - Verys – is from Ballycastle in Northern Ireland. Also from Northern Irleland is Michelle Fairley, who plays Catelyn Stark, wife of Ned Stark and Mother to Robb, Sansa, Arya, Bran & Rickon Stark. Kristian Nairn, who portrays the simple minded but huge stableboy “Hodor” is from Lisburn, Northern Ireland. Ian McElhinney, who portrays Ser Barristan Selmy , Lord Commander of the Kingsguard, is from Belfast Northern Ireland. Brian Fortune , Yarwyck from the Nights Watch, in Seasons 1,4,5 & 6 I from Dublin.
Surprisingly Not Irish!
In contrast to the above list, here are some people whom you may have assumed were Irish, but technically were not, having been born elsewhere!
The patron Saint of Ireland and the reason millions of pints of Guinness are consumed globally each March 17th , was actually believed to be English! It is believed he was born somewhere in the Cumbria region within an Anglo-Roman family and eventually came to Ireland after being captured by pirates as a slave, escaped back to England and eventually returned to Ireland as a Christian Missionary! Still, this scenario is not that unusual, as England’s “St. George” is believed to have been either Turkish or Syrian!!
Eamon De Velera
One of the leading political figures in the birth of the Republic of Ireland and later Taoiseach and then President of Ireland. De Velera was born in New York, USA to an Irish mother and Spanish Father and after his father died, he was taken to Ireland by his Uncle and raised by his Grandmother in Co.Limerick. He eventually got involved in politics and an advocate of Home rule and separation from Britain. He had become a senior figure in the Irish Republican Brotherhood up to the time of 1916’s Easter Rising and was believed to be one of, if not the only, senior Rebel who was not executed at the time, believed in part, due to his retention of US citizenship. In 1917, after his release from prison, became President of Sinn Fein and eventually President of Ireland and a hugely influential figure in Irish Politics up until his death in 1975
The Edge (David Howell Evans)
The guitarist in one of the World’s most famous Bands – U2. Born in 1961, to Welsh parents, David Evans (AKA The Edge) is actually English! Born in the County of Essex, England, he moved with his family as a young child to Dublin and was educated in Ireland, where at Mount Temple Comprehensive, he responded, along with his Brother, to an advert on a school noticeboard advert posted by Larry Mullen Jr to form a band, along with a number of other pupils including Adam Clayton and Paul Hewson. The rest, as they say is history!
Known as one of music’s most unlikely survivor’s and cited by many of his peers as one of modern music’s most exceptional songwriters, Shane Macgowan is best known as the lead singer of The Pogues, whose music is a mixture of traditional Irish with roots in the post-punk era. Their most famous song is the Christmas themed “A Fairytale of New York” (dueted with the late Kirsty MacColl) and is considered a modern day classic. Despite MacGowan and the Pogues being one of the most famous modern “Irish” bands, MacGowan was born in Kent, England in 1957. Both parents being Irish, his family moved briefly back to Ireland but returned to England when Shane was six. Interestingly, none of the original “Pogues” lineup from the early 1980’s were Irish (although most were second generation), it wasn’t until Terry Woods and the late, great Philip Chevron joined, before the recording of their third album, that the group had any Irish born members.
Despite growing up in Killarney, Co. Kerry and having a distinctive Irish Accent, Fassbender is technically German. Born in 1977 in Heidelberg, Germany to a German father and Irish Mother, he moved to Ireland as a young child and moved to London in his late teens to pursue , what has become, a hugely successful acting career.
I’m sure there are many others that I have missed. I have tried to concentrate on those that were actually born in Ireland (or not!) to determine their Irish “heritage”. Whilst this is a somewhat grey area for some, the fact that somebody’s Grandmother once went on a day trip to Dublin, doesn’t , in my eyes at least, necessarily make them “Irish” (although there was a thought that in the 1990’s, such a claim would allow you eligibility to play for the Irish National Soccer Team, but that’s another story!). I personally have an Irish father and a very large proportion of my family still living in Ireland and was raised, steeped in Irish stories, music and traditions and whilst I am fiercely proud of this and have a great affinity with the Country, having been born in England, I wouldn’t necessarily consider myself Irish (although I do give myself a little flexibility, sometimes, during large national sports event, such as the soccer World Cup or European Championships) Although with the huge exodus from Ireland during the Famine in the 1800’s and subsequent economic migrations that have occurred in pretty much every generation since(including my Father in the 1950’s!), I don’t think there are many major nationalities in the world that can’t claim to have some degree of Irish influx and there is probably a little bit of Irish in everybody….and the world is all the better for it!!
This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.
© 2016 Kieran Clarke