“We are all Irish today.” That’s a ritual saying U.S. politicians repeat each St Patrick’s Day. They’re identifying with the nearly 40 million citizens of the United States, nearly 12% of the total, who trace their ancestry to Ireland.
Indeed, many millions of Irish have emigrated to the U.S., beginning well before America’s Revolutionary War. In 1776, eight Irish-Americans signed the U.S. Declaration of Independence, and 22 U.S. presidents, from Andrew Jackson to Barack Obama (who knew?) were at least partly of Irish ancestry.
Ireland values its foreign sons and daughters. To maintain its ties with them, Irish law goes well beyond what Abraham Lincoln once eloquently referred to as “bonds of affection” and “mystic chords of memory.”
And because of those laws, an Irish passport is one of the most sought-after travel documents in the world. Remarkably, with a population of only 4.6 million, Ireland has millions of current official passports in worldwide circulation.
In 2006, when asked how many Irish passports were in circulation, the Minister for Foreign Affairs told the Irish Parliament that he could not give an exact number; but from 1996 to 2005 about 4.65 million were issued. Since adult passports expire in 10 years and children’s in three, it suggests that at least four million Irish passports are in circulation.
In part, the large number of passport-holders stems from the doctrine of jus sanguinis, which is a principle of Irish nationality law. This doctrine holds that blood lines determine your birthright to citizenship—even when you’ve never lived in the country.
The Irish Nationality and Citizenship Acts of 1956 and 1986 govern citizenship in Ireland. These laws confer Irish nationality in the following cases: 1) you are born in Ireland, 2) your parents or ancestors are Irish, or 3) you are married to an Irish citizen.
Automatically getting Irish citizenship due to being born there was limited in 2004 by a constitutional amendment. The amendment restricts citizenship to a child with at least one Irish citizen as a parent. Since January 1, 2005, birth no longer confers citizenship automatically. Rather, the citizenship and residency history of both parents and all grandparents is taken into account.
If you were born outside of Ireland and either your mother or father (or both) was an Irish citizen at the time of your birth, then you are entitled to Irish citizenship. If your grandparent was born in Ireland but both you and your parents were born outside of the island of Ireland the right to claim citizenship based on having one or more Irish grandparents is simple and direct, just as it is when claiming based on a parent(s).
There are two circumstances under which a great-grandchild is eligible to apply for Irish citizenship by descent: 1) if the parent (the grandchild of the Irish-born person) was registered before the great-grandchild was born or 2) if the parent (the grandchild of the Irish-born person) was registered before June 30, 1986, and the great-grandchild was born after July 17, 1956.
The Irish Consulate in New York explains that the parent would need to be registered in the “Foreign Birth Register” which is held at the Consulate. This is a list of Irish born abroad who are entitled to citizenship because their births officially were “registered.”
Aside from joining the country of your ancestors, there is a good practical use of an Irish passport. It entitles the holder to live, work, and travel freely in any of the 27 countries in the European Union to which Ireland belongs.
You don’t need a work permit, and after you work in an EU country for a certain length of time, you are entitled to unemployment compensation, health care, and pension rights.
Marriage to an Irish citizen does entitle the foreign spouse to Irish citizenship. To claim citizenship by marriage you must: 1) be married for at least three years, 2) have one year of “continuous residence” in Ireland immediately before your application, and 3) have been living in Ireland for at least two of the four years before the one year of continuous residence.
The most difficult route to citizenship is through permanent residence in Ireland for a continuous five years. After the five years you may be entitled to naturalization if you are over 18 years old and have no criminal record.
With three photographs, proper proof of Irish ancestry, and proof of legal residence in the country where you are applying, a 10-year, renewable Irish passport will be issued in due course, bearing the stamp of Ireland and the European Community.
Finding proof of Irish ancestry can be a problem, since many public records were destroyed during the Irish Civil War of the 1920s.
Obviously, Ireland permits dual citizenship, as does the U.S. It does not require an oath of exclusive allegiance, nor does it notify the country of origin of its new passport holders. Contact the nearest Irish Consulate or Embassy for application forms and assistance.
Interested in researching your Irish heritage? Click here for our guide on where to find out about your forebears.
Editor’s Note: This article was taken from a past issue of International Living’s monthly magazine. To get full access to all past and future articles and to receive the magazine in the mail or online each month, you can subscribe here.