I thought surely that red hair would be more celebrated in a land where the trait is embedded in common Irish surnames such as Flannery, meaning “descendant of the red warrior,” and Flynn, meaning “son of red-haired man.” Someone took a photo of me with Olive, and when I viewed it later, I thought we looked like sisters. In a way we are, connected by recessive genes and shared experiences. As redheads do, Olive and I eventually moved on to discuss curious superstitions linked to our kind.
“Ya know, some of my cousins were involved in building the Dunbrody replica ship moored in New Ross [the homestead of John F. Kennedy],” Olive said. “They told me they had heard stories that red-haired women should not be allowed near the ship when it takes her maiden voyage. Bad luck.”
Another Irish woman told me that it’s considered bad luck if the first person to enter a house on New Year’s Day is a redhead.
And still more. During the Middle Ages, people with red hair were sometimes thought to be witches, and even Shakespeare, I’d heard, used red wigs on his most dastardly characters. The list goes on.
During the two weeks of my most recent visit to Ireland, I’d been quizzing redheads and non alike to see if I could turn up any charms or folklore beyond banal nicknames and typical omens of bad luck, witchery, and hellfire and brimstone. I wasn’t sure what I was looking for, but in Ireland, there’s a good chance you’ll find an answer — or at least have a late-night epiphany at the local pub.
Pubs are the epicenter and social glue of any Irish town — and certainly they are in tiny Portmagee, a Crayola-colored fishing village on a rocky stretch of coast in southwest Ireland, where I’d landed for a night. Its pint-size bar with beer-sticky floors was packed with young and old, couples and singles, working and retired, all of whom had gathered like members of an extended family. Cheers and backslaps greeted new arrivals while local musicians sat on wooden stools in the corner and jammed on odd-looking instruments. I’d struck up a conversation with the fleshy-faced, red-bearded man next to me who belted out spirited lyrics of cultural anthems I wanted to know. During a lull, I acknowledged our shared “gingerness” and asked him what wacky stories and names he’s heard all his life.
“Ay, don’t ya worry about dat,” he said, tugging on the ends of my hair. “I always tell people that red is the color of lust and sensuality, of power, of candied apples and strawberries, of wine and of love. All things we enjoy and can’t resist.”
Forehead smack. I had really never heard that one before.
And until that moment, I’d forgotten something else my grandfather had once said: “Pretty Red, you’ll spend your school years trying to fit in — and the rest of your life trying to stand out. Consider your hair a head start.”