Irish Red Hair - Fact or Fiction?


Irish Red Hair

In another page we explored the stereotype of the black Irish. Here we look at another stereotype. The belief that the people of Ireland (the Republic and Northern Ireland) have raid hair is one of the most common stereotypes about Ireland. The question is. Is it true or false? Is it a fact or a fable, a myth?

Irish Red Hair - Some Truth Some Myth

Like with many other stereotypes, there is some truth and there is some myth. Let us begin with the myth part. The notion that all or most or a majority, or even a sizable minority of people in Ireland north and south have red hair is a myth. Red hair is associated with the gene MC1R, a recessive gene and somewhat rare gene. It is estimated that only about 2% of the world’s population have red hair and a somewhat higher number do not have red hair but carry the relevant gene and may therefore pass it on to their children. It is unusual but by no means rare for a husband and wife to have dark hair but being carriers of the gene to have a child with red hair.

So much about the myth part of the stereotype. But what about the truth part of Irish red hair? The truth part is that although the majority of Irish do not have red hair, nonetheless, the incidence of red hair in Ireland north and south is much higher than in other places. We noted above that taking the population of the world as a whole, about 2% have red hair. In the US the percentage is estimated at around 2% though some claim as high as 5% or even 6%. Europe seems to have the highest solid concentration with around 4%. Scandinavia is somewhat higher than the European average and the Mediterranean countries lower. However, the highest percentages are in Scotland and Ireland with percentages above the 10% mark. Some reports put Scotland slightly above Ireland and others put Ireland ahead. Behind these two ranks Wales and Cornwall.

It is obvious that the incidence of red hair in Ireland is 5 times higher in Ireland than in the US or the rest of the world, and 2.5 times in Ireland than in the overall Europe. The stereotype therefore, does have a ring of truth to it.

Irish Red Hair - Ireland and Scotland

The fact that Ireland and Scotland lead the way followed by Wales and Cornwall should not surprise us. Many Irish settled in Scotland in late antiquity and early medieval times during the glory of Dalriada, and even in more recent times. Conversely, many Scottish Protestants settled in Ireland. And the Irish, Scots, Welsh and Cornish belong to the broader family of Celts. The ancient historian Tacitus mentions a number of Celtic tribes that were characterized by raid hair.

Famous Redheads of History

In the Bible at least two of the famous people had red hair. The first was Esau, son of Isaac and grandson of Abraham. He had a compulsive personality and was a mighty hunter. The other was King David who must have been of a blondish/reddish hair complexion according to the Bible.

One of the most famous heroes of ancient Greece, Achilles, was also a redhead according to ancient sources. He fought and died in the Trojan War and was considered the archetypal hero.

A few centuries later, Queen Boudicca was a redhead. Boudicca was queen of the Celtic tribe, the Iceni and fought unsuccessfully against the invading roman armies at the turn of the era. Dio Cassius, the Greek historian, described her as tall and terrifying in appearance with a thick and wild set of red hair flowing over her shoulders.

Queen Elizabeth I, the famous queen of England who defeated the Spanish Armada, was also a redhead. Because of her red hair became very fashionable for a time in England.

Irish Red Hair - Exotic or banal

How do the Irish feel about red hair? The short answer is that take it in their stride. Because it is more common than in other countries it is not considered as exotic. Neither are people with red hair looked down upon. In England feelings have been divided. During the time of Queen Elizabeth I and because of her red hair, red was popular. Many rich women would dye their hair with henna to look more like the queen. After her death the fad died out. Some English have looked down on redheads. On reason may be that antagonism that existed at certain points of history between the English and the Irish. In many other countries red hair is considered different and exotic.

Return from Irish Red Hair to Northern Ireland Travel Homepage