WHERE DOES THE IRISH LOOK COME FROM?
During the last ten thousand years, many different peoples have arrived on the island of Ireland. The genetic history and make-up of the Irish has connections to Scotland, Wales and also to the Basque region and Galicia in northern Spain. Many Irish people still share an early western Atlantic genetic history which has remained relatively untouched and less affected by migration and mixing of peoples than other parts of Europe.
We know very little, however, about the physical appearance of the first pre-historic people who arrived in Ireland.
What do you imagine these pre-historic Irish people looked like?
The Celts arrived in Ireland around 500 BC. We know that the Ancient Romans described the Celtic people as ‘tall and fair and warlike’ and noted that there were many ‘redheads’.
Is this where Irish red hair comes from?
In fact, many Celts were dark-haired. There were some red-haired Celts but the idea was greatly strengthened by the fact that the Celts used lime to style and dye their hair before battles. This bleached their hair and gave it a reddish appearance.
How tall were the Celts?
The Celts were definitely taller than the Romans. The average Roman soldier was only about 5’5” (1.65m) and most estimates put the Ancient Celts at 5’6” or 5’7” (1.7-1.75m). Some historians believe that because the Celts put lots of products in their hair before going into battle, it made their hair stand up from their heads and made them look much taller than they actually were.
In the ‘bog bodies’ exhibition in the National Museum of Ireland in Dublin, you can still see the styled red hair on ‘Clonycavan man’, a Irish Celt who died over two thousand years ago.
Vikings – The Scandinavian Look
Nordic or Scandinavian physical characteristics are typically described as – having light-coloured or blonde hair, pale blue eyes, fair skin and tall stature.
Can you see any ‘Viking look’ in Irish people?
A popular theory about the Viking influence on the Irish look is that the Irish were dark-haired, dark-eyed people before the Viking sea-invaders began to attack Ireland in the 9th century from Scandinavia. Over time the Irish mixed with a lot of blonde-haired, blue-eyed Vikings to get the modern Irish look.
This theory is both true and untrue. It was definitely not the case that the Viking blonde hair mixed with the Celtic dark hair to produce red hair. Both races in fact carried the red hair gene. However, the Vikings did bring a lot of traits of fair hair, light-coloured skin and light-coloured eyes which became part of the Irish genetic mix.
The Spanish Influence
Pale skin with dark hair is rare in most places. In Ireland it is common, as in the Irish actor Colin Farrell. Irish people with this look also tend to have thick bushy eyebrows.
One theory suggests that these ‘Black Irish’ as they were once known are descended from survivors of the Spanish Armada (1588) who landed on the west coast of Ireland.
Can you see any ‘Spanish look’ in Irish people?
There is little evidence to support the Spanish Armada theory. It’s unlikely that any significant number of Spanish soldiers would have survived long in the war-torn place that was sixteenth century Ireland to have made a significant impact. However, a parallel theory is that Irish people with these physical characteristics were descendants of Spanish traders who settled on the west coast of Ireland over a much longer period. An ancient sea-trading route may have existed along the Atlantic coast from North Africa and the Iberian Peninsula to the west of Ireland.
The Modern Irish Look
The modern Irish usually have light features – pale blue or green eyes, reddish or brown hair and fair skin with freckles.
Do you have any freckles? Do you think they are attractive?
Freckles are very common in Irish people. groups of concentrated melanin which are most often visible on people with a fair complexion. The number of freckles you have is genetic.
The formation of freckles is triggered by exposure to sunlight. People with freckles generally have a lower concentration of photo protective melanin and are therefore more susceptible to the harmful effects of sun radiation.
A farmer’s tan
A ‘farmer’s tan’ is a very common phenomenon in Ireland. Do you know what it is?
Because of the Irish pale skin colour, Irish people usually have a difficult time getting a tan in the sun and get sunburnt very easily.
A ‘farmer’s tan’ is a tan that is only on the arms and neck of the person because they were wearing a t-shirt when the tanning occurred, the rest of the torso is white. Farmers get this because they do a lot of labour out in the sun whilst wearing a shirt.
What do you know about the history of the ‘look’ of the people in your country?
RED HAIR – True of False
And finally, how many of the questions below can you answer about red hair? True or false?
- Natural red hair is easier to dye than other colours.
- In ancient Celtic Ireland, people thought redheads had magical powers. This gave us the idea of rubbing a redhead’s hair for good luck.
- People with red hair don’t go grey.
- People with red hair are more likely to be left-handed.
- Red hair is a ‘recessive gene’ and it will become extinct in about one hundred years.
- Adolf Hitler banned marriages between redheads.
- Ancient Greeks believed that redheads turned into vampires after they died.
- Redheads have more hair on their heads than other colours.
- Redheads are more sensitive to pain.
- Ruadh gu brath is Gaelic for “Down with Redheads!”
- Natural red hair is easier to dye than other colours. False – it’s harder.
- In ancient Celtic Ireland, people thought redheads had magical powers. This gave us the idea of rubbing a redhead’s hair for good luck. True.
- People with red hair don’t go grey. False – redheads do go grey but more slowly than other hair colours and it is less visible.
- People with red hair are more likely to be left-handed. True – both are recessive genes and these tend to go together in pairs.
- Red hair is a ‘recessive gene’ and it will become extinct in about one hundred years. False – it is a recessive gene and in theory will disappear but not for thousands of years.
- Adolf Hitler banned marriages between redheads. True.
- Ancient Greeks believed that redheads turned into vampires after they died. True.
- Redheads have more hair on their heads than other colours. False – they have less hair but each individual hair is thicker.
- Redheads are more sensitive to pain. Both true and false. People with red hair are more sensitive to some kinds of pain (eg. heat/cold) and less sensitive to others (eg. stings).
- Ruadh gu brath is Gaelic for “Down with Redheads!” False – it means “Redheads forever!