Being a redhead is both a blessing and a curse.
The sense of being blighted comes first. That’s because the nicknames are inexorable. Carrot Top. Rust Bucket. Fanta Face. Ginger Whinger. Copper Nob. And, unforgettably, on a visit to the zoo: Orangutan.
My mother’s insistence on dressing me in unflattering colours didn’t help. We had our first stand-up shouting match when I seven, and saw red at being shoehorned into a pink dress covered in even pinker penguins which clashed spectacularly with my hair.
Not that I’m prickly, but people are inclined to make snap judgments about redheads. “Her temper matches her hair,” people used to remark, if ever I acted up.
I didn’t look too bad in green, but whenever I wore it American tourists insisted on taking my photograph. I felt like a John Hinde postcard. My parents joked about renting me out for the summer season.
As a child, I couldn’t understand why I was called names because of my hair. It wasn’t necessarily done nastily. At times it simply seemed to be a reflex action. “There you go, Carrots,” a shopkeeper would smile, handing over the change from my pocket money splurge.
“No loitering in the corridor, Miss Gingernut,” a teacher sometimes said.
It left me feeling persecuted.
“Tell them your hair is golden,” urged my mother, when I was tearful and 10. I tried it once. The sniggering followed me down the street.
“Pay no attention, you’re one of God’s blondes,” said my father, pouring oil on troubled waters, when I was in my mid-teens. I didn’t even bother repeating that one. Instead, I fantasised about becoming one of Clairol’s blondes.
Generally, my parents were able to console me by saying how distinctively Irish it was to have red hair. But one day I checked. Only to find that – while it’s the rarest natural hair colour for humans, occurring in between one and two per cent of the world’s population – the Scots have more redsers than we do.
We’re only number two in the global red-headed league.
A kindly librarian gave me the ‘Anne of Green Gables’ series to read, and I was heartened to discover a titian-haired heroine. Until then, I was convinced redheads were all Judases and Mary Magdalenes.
Later, I discovered Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s celebrated short story, ‘The Adventure of the Red-Headed League’. It was Conan Doyle’s second favourite Sherlock Holmes story. We were beaten by a hound.
Things improved once I reached 17. Suddenly, standing out in the crowd wasn’t such a drawback.
At college, I was told it was genetically advantageous to have red hair because it was eye-catching and led, therefore, to sexual selection. Sometimes it was hard to differentiate between the intellectual insights and the sheer guff you heard in your student days. Still, it was better than being called Carrots.
To be honest, it’s the skin which accompanies my colouring I find objectionable. I like sunshine but it doesn’t like me. In common with most of my fellow redheads, I burn, I peel, I freckle. Fake tan looks ridiculous on me. Sun block is my best friend.
But however vigilant I am with sun screen – and I’m still waiting for someone to market Factor Bin Bag – the freckles sneak through. I used to think having freckles and spots at the same time was a low genetic blow, but now I’ve discovered something more unfair again.
Freckles and wrinkles.
Men have it tougher. My red-haired nephew reinvented himself as a blond at 18 and will never revert. He says he knows it’s giving in – but the ribbing, taunts and occasional bullying aren’t worth it.
When his son was born, he was on tenterhooks in case the baby might have inherited the rare, recessive gene for red hair. It can skip generations – or target everyone in a family. His son was lucky, in his view – he’s fair.
“For everyone who makes fun of you there’s someone else who envies you,” I told my nephew, parroting my mother. He just looked at me. Pityingly.
The truth is, there will always be people who operate an open season policy on redheads. Less so here in Ireland, compared with Britain. Perhaps it’s down to a visceral cultural bias: people who look a little different are always singled out.
In fairness, there are benefits to red-ism. Auburn hair seems to have better colour retention than other shades, so the grey is held at bay for longer. I save myself a fortune at the salon.
And there are terrific role models. Boudica, Queen of the Iceni, was described by a Roman historian as “tall and terrifying in appearance... a great mass of red hair... over her shoulders.”
If a red-haired woman was able to put the fear of God into a Roman army, she had to be doing something right. Then again, I’m biased.
It’s not a secret bias, mind you. It’s out there for everyone to see – growing from of my head.