Are Redheads From Ireland… And Other Ginger Myths

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With Paddy’s Day almost upon us, we’ve decided to celebrate that most Irish of institutions. No, not leprechauns or Guinness – it is, of course, the mighty redhead.

Red hair is synonymous with Ireland. Ten percent of Irish people are redheads, compared with just one to two percent of the global population. You might be forgiven for thinking red hair originated here, but that’s not the case. Geneticists haven’t pinpointed exactly where or when the ginger gene evolved, but one theory puts it in the Middle East during the Paleolithic Era. Some scientists even think it may have been passed onto early humans from Neanderthals.

Some of these early Homo Sapiens migrated north into Russia, the Balkans, and Central and Western Europe, bringing their redhead gene with them. In these cooler climes, the paler skin tones that are linked with red hair gave people an evolutionary advantage. Paler skin converts sunlight to Vitamin D more easily,  so the redhead gene survived and was passed on.

Celtic Redheads

So why do people associate redheads with Ireland? Well, red hair has been associated with Celtic people since the time of the ancient Greeks and Romans, who actually referred to Celts as redheads. Here’s a nice map from Eupedia, the online encyclopedia of all things European, showing how the distribution of people with red hair matches the ancient Celtic world very well.

Map of Europe showing distribution of redheads

Celtic tribes in Southern England and Mainland Europe had more chances to marry outside their own tribe and dilute their genes. But the Irish and Scottish were on the outpost of Europe. Even the intrepid Romans never made it to us. So, there was more shagging of distant cousins and less dilution of genes!

Why The Redhead Racism?

Redheads are stereotyped as having fiery tempers and being less attractive. In fact, they’re generally slagged off for no good reason. We all remember the poor ginger kids in school, given hell because of their hair colour. Perhaps you were that kid. If so, let us know in the comments section what growing up with red hair was like for you.

Why are those beautiful red locks the source of such hatred? It could come down to simple psychology and our capacity as humans to demonize anyone who differs from the majority. After all, redheads are a conspicuous minority!

Or, the answer could lie in the conflict between tribal peoples in the ancient worlds. When the Romans were expanding their empire, who did they attack? Those damn redheaded Celts of course. The Romans considered the Celts uncivilized and violent (in fairness, you would be be too if some invader was trying to take over your corner of the world). And where do our accounts of this phase in history come from? The Romans, of course – they were the ones busily writing everything down while the Celts were passing on knowledge orally.

Vikings, another class of people not known for their peace-loving attitude, were also associated with red hair.  And in biblical times, Judas (betrayer of Jesus) was often portrayed as having red hair. It seems like the poor redheads were the scapegoats of the ancient world.

Hold That Redhead Up High… And Wear Green

Fortunately, red hair is becoming something to celebrate in these enlightened days, with lots of famous redheads doing their bit for the cause. Take a bow Julianne Moore, Isla Fisher, Nicole Kidman, Ed Sheerhan, Benedict Cumberbatch (yes, we were surprised too) and Michael Fassbender. And it’s not just the natural redheads. Plenty of A-listers have dyed their locks to get in on the act. We’re thinking of you Emma Stone, Sophie Turner (Game of Throne’s Saskia), Rihanna and Christina Hendricks (Mad Men).

Actress Julianne Moore

There are also lots of redhead events. Unfortunately, the Irish Redhead Convention is no longer running – perhaps the organisers of St Patrick’s Festival could help us out? Failing that, there’s plenty of other events around the globe – a great excuse for redheads to jet off for a weekend with their tribe! There’s Redhead Day UK, New Zealand’s Ginger Gathering, the Red Love Festival in France, Gingerfest in Idaho, even Italy has Rossitalia in Milan.

And of course, for Paddy’s Day redheads can dazzle us all by looking fantastic in green – but if you’re a redhead you already knew that!

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