“I’m looking forward to meeting your friend. She’s cute, right? Not some red-haired, freckle-faced girl. Ha ha ha … ”
I went on the date anyway, but the remark really stung, joke or not.
When I was a kid, my mom or grandmother tended to my wounds, braiding my hair with ribbons and soothing me with verbal Band-Aids like “special” and “unique.”
As I got older, however, it was my grandfather’s advice that got me through. “Pretty Red,” he said during one of our yearly visits, “pay no attention to boys who are colorblind.”
The first time I went to Ireland was nearly 20 years later. I was in my early 40s, and once there, I wished I had visited decades earlier. Though still a minority, redheads are found in more concentration there than anywhere else in the world, and I read recently that an estimated 10 percent of the population of Ireland has red hair. At social events back home, I often felt like a zebra at the horse farm, but in Ireland there were always three or more members of my homogeneous herd roaming about.
Being a redhead anywhere is a bit like being in a club whose secret handshake blazes atop our heads. In a hotel, at a restaurant, on the street, whenever I cross paths with another redhead, there is an unspoken connection — an eye lock that I perceive to mean, “Yeah, I know what it’s like.”
On a more recent trip, it was instant kinship with redheaded Olive, whose fine features, fitted heels and contagious spirit seemed cut from quintessentially Irish-literary-heroine cloth. I’d met her on the vast and idyllic Liss Ard Estate in the countryside near Skibbereen, County Cork, and when I saw her at our communal dinner table, I immediately planted myself next to her. She told me something I didn’t expect to hear: “Even though redheads are more popular here in Ireland, we were still made to feel different and awkward.” Garfield, Marmalade Head, Freckles, Ginger Nut and Carrottop were all names hurled her way.