By Martin Gleeson
Irish people may be surprised that only 1 to 2% of the world’s population has red hair. That makes it the rarest natural colour. The gene which causes red hair is called MC1R. Many people carry this gene, but both parents must possess it to produce a red-headed baby. Red hair is more common in Northern European countries, particularly among the Celtic people.
In Ireland, about 10% of the population has red hair so we are used to meeting many redheads. However, Scotland beats Ireland in having the highest number of redheads per capita in the world, about 14%.
Because red-haired people have pale skin, they often possess freckles too.
It is said that prejudice against redheads had existed since the Middle Ages. Even today, people with red hair will recall being called names like ‘Ginger Nut’, ‘Copper Top’, ‘Matchstick’ and ‘Rusty’.
A common belief is that they have fiery tempers and sharp tongues. This is based on ignorance and prejudice.
Redheads are often bullied at school, maybe because they stand out in a crowd.
This prejudice started a long time ago. The betrayer of Jesus, Judas Iscariot, had been portrayed by many artists as having flaming hair and a crimson beard.
In December 2009, a British supermarket chain had a Christmas card with an image of a red-haired child sitting on Santa’s lap with the words: Santa loves all kids. Even Ginger ones. After many justifiable complaints, the cards were withdrawn.
Advantage of red hair
However, some people have found that having red hair could be a great advantage.
When the cinema developed technicolour, Hollywood wanted its stars to appear colourful. Maureen O’Hara’s beautiful red lock helped her become a superstar on the silver screen in the 1940s and she was often called the ‘Queen of Technicolour’.
Lucille Ball, the actress and comedian found that red locks were an asset in her long career in films and TV.
And because most of James Cagney’s film successes were in the black-and-white ear, few people knew that he also was a redhead.
I remember being told in school that all the kings of pagan Ireland had red hair. I could not vouch for this, but we can assume that there was a propensity for red hair among those Celtic people.
History tell us that King Henry VIII of England had ginger hair. And we know from pictures painted, that both his daughters, Queen Mary I and Queen Elizabeth I too were redheads.
And today, Prince Harry, 6th in line to the British throne, may be the most famous redhead in the world.
Not surprisingly, many of our Irish celebrities are blessed with red hair. Among them are Michael Fassbender, Ed Sheeran, Jean Butler, Jessie Buckley, Gavin James, actors Brendan Gleeson, his two sons, Domhnall and Brian.
Fans of RTÉs ‘Nationwide’ know that red-haired Bláthnaid Ní Chofaigh has been chosen to replace Mary Kennedy in January 2020.
And because we look at the Kennedy family of Massachusetts as Irish, we are happy to see that Congressman Joseph Patrick Kennedy III, grandson of Bobby Kennedy, sports a head of flaming red hair!
The Californian singer-songwriter Thom Moore, who live over 30 years in Sligo, was aware of all the redheads he encountered in Ireland.
His song ‘Caroline Rua’ starts like this:
Stories never ed ’til you come to conclusions:
Carolina Rua has a hand in my confusion.
Waits for me to choose which quarter to bend in.
To Susie-make-me-blue, or the redhead I’m attending.
Thus, Thom Moore wrote a great song, popularised by Mary Black, about a red-haired schoolgirl.
It is known that 35% of the population on Manchester claim to have some Irish ancestry due to the massive Irish immigration there in the nineteenth century.
The characters in the Manchester-based soap opera ‘Coronation Street’ reflect this Irishness and currently 8 of its main characters are redheads. The most famous of these are Rita Sullivan (Barbara Knox), Jenny Bradley (Sally Ann Matthews), Fiz Brown (Jennie McAlpine), and Gary Windass (Mikey North).
Irish Redhead Convention
In Crosshaven, Co. Cork, the ‘Irish Redhead Convention’ was launched in 2010.
This three-day celebration, the brainchild of redhead brother and sister Denis and Joleen Cronin, included the coronation of the Ginger King and Queen and competitions for the best red eyebrows and the most freckles per square inch.
About 2,500 Irish redheads came from as far away as Australia. A series of concerts and céili by red-haired artists was enjoyed. Lack of funds means that the Convention is currently on a break.
However, the city of Chicago has a Redhead Festival as does the city of Breda in the Netherlands.