Dispelling Irish Stereotypes: Why Are All the Irish Red Heads?

Wednesday, August 28th, 2013 | By

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These Irish stereotypes, historically speaking, are so interesting, that we’re not even sure where to start. Irish stereotypes, just like in other cultures, tend to have a seed of truth to them. But we’re pretty certain, unlike the Irish drinking myths, we can actually dispel this one.

You see, red hair is the rarest hair color in the world. Do you hear me? Reds and Gingers, as those with red hair are sometimes called, are naturally very rare.

Only about 2% of folks in the U.S. have red hair and about 4 to 6% in England. As for Ireland, up to 10% of the population has red hair. Wow. (Oh, and their rivals in Scotland are estimated at 12 to 14%.)

So, when it comes to these Irish stereotypes, it’s not that all the Irish are Reds, it’s simply that there is a higher concentration of red haired people in Ireland. (Technically, the U.S. has the most red heads, counting in at six to eight million.) Interesting, right?

Further, the red hair gene (MC1R if you want to really geek out over red hair; it’s found on chromosome 16) is recessive. Therefore, two parents must each be carrying the recessive gene for a child to have red hair. It’s thought that up to 46% of Irish people carry the recessive gene associated with red hair.

MC1R wasn’t discovered until 1997, either, so tracing the actual detailed origin of these Irish stereotypes also proves difficult. You’re going to read reports that, for example, the Vikings brought the red head gene to Ireland.

Image Source: Thelifeofbon.com

This isn’t true. Most Vikings have dark or blonde hair. They also heavily settled in Sweden, where only 1% of the population has red hair. (In other words, if Vikings were responsible for red hair, the Swedish population would have a lot more Gingers.)

Most likely, it was the other way around. Vikings following Irish geese (a valuable food source) would often take Irish women as brides. As Irish stereotypes go, these women most likely possessed the recessive gene and passed it to their children, who would have made cute little red head Viking/Irish babies.

Also, don’t forget that when Viking names including the term ‘red’ in them, the word didn’t have to denote red hair. They could also be referring to red cheeks, a ruddy red complexion, or, grossly, blood. (Some Vikings liked to paint themselves red before going into battle so the blood from fighting wouldn’t show on their skin. Eww.)

Let’s geek out with a bit more red hair science, shall we? Those with red hair are often associated with “Irish” fair skin and freckles. This is thanks to lower concentrations of eumelalin, a compound related to melanin, throughout their bodies.

This lower amount of melanin has made a few lucky Irish more able to absorb the correct amounts of vitamin D (gained by the rest of us from sunlight) from areas with low levels of sun exposure. That sure would come in handy if a person lived in a place with Irish weather, wouldn’t it?

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  1. What a great web site, loved the above topic of red-heads. My oldest daughter is a red head and two of her children! Yep, they are special. Both my dads’ parents were Irish, County Armagh. A trip to Ireland and Scotland are own my “bucket list” – seems like time is flying by faster than I ever thought possible. May have to pass that one on to my daughter and her children. Proud to be Irish!


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