• Ali Isaac

The Red Headed Folk of Ireland

Updated: May 9, 2020

In Irish mythology, the Tuatha de Danann and the Sidhe are described as being tall and beautiful with red or fair hair, pale skin and blue or green eyes. Their appearance played no small part in elevating their status to that of Gods.

Ireland has the highest proportion of redheads in the world. As many as 10% of the population have red, auburn, or strawberry blond hair, and up to 46% of the Irish population carry the rare redhead gene.

Red hair is the rarest natural hair colour in the world; only 1–2% of the human population are lucky enough to have it, although this increases slightly to 2–6% in north western Europe.

Ginger map of Europe - Imgur

Ginger map of Europe – Imgur

It results from high levels of the reddish pigment pheomelanin, and is usually associated with pale skin, freckles, light eye colour such as grey, blue, green and hazel, and a tendency to burn rather than tan in the sun. Redheads are said to be fiery-tempered.

It is thought that lighter pigmented skin colour and red hair may be an advantage in cold northern climates where there is less sunlight, as it encourages the higher production of Vitamin D, and helps retain heat better than darker skin.

This would fit with the arrival of the Danann in Ireland around four thousand years ago; they were said to have come from Lochlann, which is generally accepted as the ancient name for Norway. They were described as tall attractive people with pale skin, high foreheads, long red hair and large blue eyes. Other descriptions indicate blonde or golden hair with blue eyes.

The Christians later relegated them to devils and demons, and were afraid of them, thus in Medieval times, red hair and green eyes were thought to identify witches, werewolves and vampires.

In ancient times, red and blonde hair have been discovered in the most unlikely places. For example,  caucasian mummies with red hair have been found among the Tocharians of the Tarim basin in China, dating to the 2nd millennium BC.

The well preserved mummies of Yuya, key adviser for Egyptian Pharoah Amenhotep II, and his wife,  Tjuyu, were both found to have blonde hair. Rameses II-, at 87 years of age, was white-haired when he died, yet microscopic examination showed that the roots of his hair contained natural red pigment.

Some say that the mummification process is responsible for altering the mummies hair colour, yet interestingly, this argument fails to explain how statues of these characters are painted with blue eyes…

In Irish mythology, Nuada of the Silver Hand led his people, the Tuatha de Danann into Ireland. A poem in an ancient text called ‘The Book of the Taking of Ireland’, or Lebor Gabála Érenn in Irish, describes him and his people thus:

“A space of seven years, Nuada noble stately over the fair-haired company, the rule of the man large-breasted, flaxen-maned, before his coming into Ireland.”

 freckled red haired girl

His wife, Macha, said to be one aspect of the female triple deity, the Morrigan, was as fierce as any man in battle. She was described as ‘Macha the Red’.

The Dagda, which means the ‘Good God’, referring to his many talents, was also known as Ruadh Rofhessa, the ‘Mighty Red One of Great Knowledge’. In Irish, the word for ‘red’ is dearg, but the word rua is specific to the coppery-red colour of hair, which in English, we describe as ‘ginger’. It is used for all living things of that colour, ie animals such as foxes and deer, and heather, for example.

The name Ruairi (pronounced Roo-ree) is a popular Irish name for boys, anglicised to Rory, which means ‘red haired king’. Ruadhán (Roo-awn) means ‘little red one’.

Some of the Sidhe were famous for their fair hair. Niamh of the Golden Hair fell in love with Oisin, Fionn mac Cumhall‘s son, and is said to have carried him off into the Otherworld on the back of Manannán‘s white horse, Aonbharr.

Fionn himself was half Sidhe, half mortal, and was well known for having a mane of shining fair hair, in fact, that is the very meaning of his name, Fionn – ‘white/ bright/ fair’. Although his wife, Sadbh, was a shape-shifter, and lived much of her life in the form of a deer, when in human form, she was also said to be blonde.

the red headed folk of ireland | aliisaacstorytell

The Irish Redhead Convention, held annually in August, attracts people from all over the world. The celebrations include crowning the ginger King and Queen, competitions for the best red eyebrows and most freckles per square inch, music concerts, and carrot throwing competitions.

PS. The picture at the top of the post is my son Cai, taken in 2012 when he was ten years old. I must admit that I cried when he chose to have his glorious hair cut short. I was ginger as a small child, too, but my hair gradually got darker as I got older, which I believe is not that uncommon.

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