The Red Headed Folk of Ireland

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 color 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 red headed folk of ireland / aliisaacstorytellerWhen the Danann were defeated by the dark Milesians, they retreated into their Sidhe mounds. They were called the ‘Fair Folk’ due to their fair hair and complexion, which eventually became ‘Fairy Folk’.

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 Tuathe 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.”

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’.

 freckled red haired girl

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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90 Comments on “The Red Headed Folk of Ireland

  1. Pingback: Happy New Year! So What’s in Store for Aliisaacstoryteller in 2018? | aliisaacstoryteller

  2. *waves* red head reporting from the down under island. interesting read! I have the ginger curly hair monstrosity mix.
    My last name is Connors and I have often found it comes up A LOT as Conchobhair, (last royalty of ireland or something?) i’ve been told our crest is a oak too.however legends aside this fills in a few gaps as to how I might have that red colouring as my father (blonde) and my mother ( dark brown) does not. it make sense that i’m the throw back (genetically not figuratively) with those numbers
    interestingly when i was born ( my mother had a Chinese midwife) said I was a “golden child”. also that my hair darkens in the summer and lightens in the winter.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Rachel. Glad you enjoyed the post and found it informative. My husband and I are both dark haired, yet our firstborn child is a redhead. I was bright ginger as a baby, which bleached blonde in the summer sun. By the time I reached my teens it had darkened into a rather unattractive dull brown, sadly. Red hair is so beautiful! I just love it. Interestingly, my midwife told me that two dark haired parents would often produce red-haired children. Take care of your lovely red locks! All the best, Ali x


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  4. I love red hair! I think there’s something something so supernatural (but also natural) about it.

    One of the Ancient Chinese Fire Gods is sometimes portrayed with red hair and green or golden eyes. He was said to have fair colored skin and wear green colored clothes (like the color of the scales of the dragon).

    The other Fire God (which was once human, canonized in the first dynasty) was also “lack of Chinese characteristic”. He was tall and quite muscular. He has blue/ brown-ish eyes. He came from “the North”.


  5. Pingback: Tuatha de Denann | Who Were They Really? |

  6. I’ve always been a sucker for a redhead; we have some long standing – uni – friends who are now in California and they are both red-headed/ginger with their children absolutely startling and stunning. Their oldest was married in San Francisco last December and wow did she stun us all. Mind you the Californian sun does them no favours, just increasing he size and coverage of their freckles. Such an informative post, Ali.


  7. Wonderful post, Ali! I also have always thought red hair is beautiful. I didn’t know about the Red Head Convention, how fun! 🙂 I tend to take after my dad’s side of the family–slightly darker skin, brown eyes, brown hair. It’s my mom who has the green eyes and hair that used to be much redder than now. I always wished I looked a little more like her.


  8. The Irish part of my family brought the pale skin and freckles, and red highlights that come out in the sun. My daughter, a sandy-blonde, now dyes her hair bright red…almost Disney’s Ariel red. She gets a lot of comments ! It is gorgeous. Lovely post, and so informative, thanks. ☺

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I read somewhere – Nat Geo – that redheads are becoming rarer. I know that my two red-headed friends from childhood saw their red color fade as they got older. All I have from my Irish heritage is freckles!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well, freckles are good! I used to be covered in them, but they seem to have faded with age, just like my fed mop… Wonder why that happens, shame, isnt it?


  10. My great-great-great-great-great-grandmother (maternal) was Irish…even in the old black & white photographs of her, we can all tell that she had beautiful auburn hair!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I love all those old black and white photos!, You are luckh to have such a great record of your family history!


    • I love all those old black and white photos!, You are luckyto have such a great record of your family history!


  11. My college roomie was a redhead, and still is 30 years later. My sister has 3 redheaded kids, but the oldest son now claims his is brown. HAHA! And my grand baby was born strawberry, but now it’s lightened to just blonde. Fascinating facts! Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Wasn’t it Tom Robbins in Still Life With Woodpecker (1980) who suggested that redheads have actually come from another planet?

    Back at school, I was smitten with this redhead (who looked remarkably like the girl in your photo, if memory serves). I could never find what to say to her, though. Finally, one day I approached her, drew a deep breath, cleared my throat and blurted out, “so, Tom Robins says you’re from another planet.”

    Strangely enough, she never spoke to me again…

    Liked by 2 people

  13. Lovely post once again. Fascinating about Rameses and the mummies. Love how insightful your posts are. Oddly enough a lot of my best friends over the years have been ginger!!

    Seeing lots of family Irish characters from a certain book referred to in this post!

    Ps your son is adorable

    PPS love the photo…😋

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Sacha! Thought of you when I wrote the Rameses part, knew you’d like that! Lol! Yes, you might start making sense of all these Irish myth characters now, my faves do tend to crop up quite frequently! PPS thanks for your help with the photo etc etc

      Liked by 1 person

      • Hehe yeah they do! And aww did you, not a surprise really given my fascination. I voluntarily did a project on him when I was young! Like in my own time GOD I’m such a geeky loser! Lol. Can’t remember any of it now mind!

        Liked by 1 person

        • LOL! You crack me up, sometimes! I can think of worse things to be. Karen from My Train of Thoughts called me an Irish Mythology Geek yesterday… I was quite proud of that, no one’s ever called me a geek before!

          Liked by 1 person

            • I should have one. I’d go back to uni in a hearbeat, if I could afford childcare for Carys. Unfortunately, it ain’t gonna happen.

              Liked by 1 person

            • Sigh. U don’t need a piece of paper to say you are a mythology geek. And let’s be honest you could teach a degree or masters in Irish mythology anyway! Sod the degree you are already a Jedi master in Irish mythology!

              Liked by 1 person

            • Now you’re talking! Eouldnt you just love to be Jedi??? We were just talking with the boys about the campaign to put it down on the census as your religion, and how enough people did it to get it officially recognised as a religion. Conor did. If only we could, that’s s religion I’d probably bow to lol!


            • And you’re right also that students take a scientific approach to mythogy, as if it were history waiting to be proved or disproved, or archaeology, even though archaeology is still by neccessity open to (misguided, sometimes) interpretation. Mythology can indeed be studied, but it can’t be boxed into fact and fantasy.


            • Yeah! Ali, Sacha’s already said very eloquently what is on my mind. You don’t need the paper. You don’t need to jump through the hoops and satisfy someone else’s standards for passing a class or, the gods forbid, be told you’re not interpreting something “correctly.” (hides eyes in dismay at the thought) I’ve seen that one in literary theory– so and so has “misinterpreted” this poem. Geesh! You have the land and the monuments, dare I say the very ones who have gone before, to learn from and be inspired by. You also don’t just read their stories and write your own, but physically go to the places where they lived and loved, fought and died. There is nothing better than that. I mean, purely hypothetically, if I were given the chance to read the ancient manuscripts of Plato at a university program at Trinity college or visit Greece and talk to Plato himself, there’d be no competition. 🙂 My personal opinion as an almost scholar is that many scholars would really benefit from a little mystery shaking up their boxed-in world. You live what they study Ali, they should envy you. 🙂 Here’s something I tell myself often, also: The world’s values can be a bit upside down. Don’t let that convince you that you’re somewhere other than right where you are supposed to be. 🙂

              Liked by 1 person

            • You’re right, there is nothing better than actually being in the places associated with them. Even if they are not tied to place, but exist wherever people honour them, as your experiences prove, it is still such a great thrill to stand in a place rumoured to be where their very feet have trod. Call me sad, but that makes me feel alive!


            • Call you sad? It will never be done, Ali. 🙂

              Those who have crossed to the other side are free persons and go where they like, where they are needed, and wanted, and cared about, where their stories are remembered and honored, where people living still exist who love them. There are imprints of memories in the land, as well as what is left of what they left behind. I believe that going to those places is a way to reach out and connect, you can’t really separate the land from the history or the legends that include it. I think I understand better even more how powerful that kind of experience can be, because something like that happened at Tara for me, it was very moving.


            • I just might have to forget about chronological order and post that next. Time might not be linear anyway, right? No really that’s a terrible justification when actually I just want to write about it now, and the rest later. 🙂 As long as bouncing around days wouldn’t confuse people…

              Liked by 1 person

            • I don’t think it would… Unless you want it to read more like a journal of your trip. Either way, I’m happy to wait… Although I can’t wait to hear more!


            • And you’re right also that students take a scientific approach to mythogy, as if it were history waiting to be proved or disproved, or archaeology, even though archaeology is still by neccessity open to (misguided, sometimes) interpretation. Mythology can indeed be studied, but it can’t be boxed into fact and fantasy.


  14. There are loads of them in my family: mother’s brother, father, his father, and her mother’s sister; dad’s father and grandfather; one of my sisters; and two of my children started red-headed but have gone browny red. Shame.

    Liked by 2 people

  15. Nice one Ali, the image worked out quite well. 🙂
    A nice continuation of the guest blog Steve Hague did for me last year comparing the big red in comparison between the Irish and Russians 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  16. I am redhead, as is my youngest son. My hair has turned a platinum blond over the year, which I find quite disconcerting. I also understand redheads do not metabolize morphine well, they require larger amounts of anesthesia and they bleed much more easily than people with other hair colors. Great post!!!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yes, apparently that’s true about the pain and extra anaesthesia, something to bear in mind for all redheads. Its a beautiful colour, wish my hair had stayed red instead of darkening.

      Liked by 1 person

  17. Love the way you weave information from so many locations and sources here. Cool map. Fascinating.
    Growing up I was alway envious of a neighbor who had a thick mane of dark red hair. She fretted over the freckles, but I never understood that either – who says skins have to be one even color?
    You can always hope that recessive gene decides to pop up – my husband has dark red hair with that fair skin. Fair skin runs in my dad’s family (with some red back there somewhere) So far just blonds. But you never know.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Pingback: Irish Mythology | The Red Headed Folk | The Life and Times of Billie Hawklord

  19. 🙂 Redheads are so great…my Mom, and while my hair is brown I have red in my brow and beard. So of course I say redheads are great 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

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