Irish Examiner

Is the future orange? – As Published in the Irish Examiner 3rd October 2011

A sperm bank is refusing to take donations from red heads. Does this mean the end of ginger hair, asks Jonathan deBurca Butler.

THE world of red heads was recently dealt another blow in its fight against gingerism (yes, this is a real term) when the largest sperm bank in the world decided it would no longer take sperm from people with fiery fetlocks.

Cryos International, which has been responsible for over 18,000 pregnancies since 1991, has said that it is now turning down redheaded donors because there is too little demand for their sperm.

The director of the Danish facility, Ole Schou, said the highest demand was for sperm donors with dark hair. Even in the home of the tall blond Aryan, it seems would-be mothers and fathers are hoping for small, dark and handsome. Mr Schou said that Ireland is the only country going against market forces. Here, according to the director, the sperm of redheaded people sells “like hot cakes”.

Graham Coull of the Sims IVF Clinic in Clonskeagh, Dublin says the Danish director might have a point.

“While I would not say it sells like hot cakes we probably request more red headed donors than most countries,” says Coull. “For heterosexual couples we are essentially trying to match the male partner’s characteristics as closely as possible, so if he has red hair then we will look for a red-headed donor. However, by far our most frequently requested characteristics are dark brown hair and blue eyes, not red hair.

“I believe that Germany actually requests more red-headed donors than Ireland,” he continues. “But with 80 million residents compared to 4.5 million here this is not surprising.”

Coull explains that the hair colour of a certain donor will not necessarily mean that the hair colour of the child will be the same.

“While you can perhaps tip the balance in certain directions there is no way to guarantee a particular outcome,” he explains. “Hair and eye colour are both fairly complex in their genetic inheritance.”

When it comes to red hair, genetics seems positively random, however, and it often crops (sorry) up in families that have not seen it for years. My father is one of two redheads from a family of eight. He has one son (my second eldest brother) who is a redhead. My own noggin has flecks of red in it but I like to call it Celtic blond — it sounds more warrior-like. However, my eldest brother, who has almost Swedish-blond hair and who married a dark-haired German woman, has a son and a daughter with hair as orange as the setting sun. So what gives?

“It’s a bit complicated,” says Professor of Genetics at University College Dublin, Geraldine Butler.

“If both parents are redheads, then all the children should be redheads. There are other genes that might have some influence but at its simplest, all [their] children will be redheads.

“If one parent is a redhead, he or she will pass a mutant redhead gene to their children. If they get a normal gene from the other parent, they won’t be redheads. If both parents have one normal and one mutant gene they won’t have red hair themselves. But they randomly pass on either the normal or the mutated gene to their children. So there is a 25% chance that the child will inherit both mutant forms and will have red hair.

“You need to inherit two mutated genes, one from each parent, in order to have red hair. This explains why red hair is rare and why people without red hair can have redheaded children.”

There are various theories as to why redheads are more common in Northern Europe than elsewhere. One suggests that redheads survived better in the less sunny climes of the north where their pale skin absorbed enough vitamin D from the sun. Whatever the reason, the redhead gene is still most common in Scotland, where it is estimated some 40% of the population carry one and about 15% carry two — and therefore have red hair.

In Ireland, 10% of the population has red hair but worldwide the fear and ban rua account for only 1% of the population.

“Red hair used to be more frequent because people tended to marry within their own ethnic group,” explains Professor Butler.

“Related individuals are more likely to have the same mutations, and by related I mean distantly related, such as all the Irish, or all Africans or whatever. There was therefore a higher chance that people carrying the red hair mutation would marry and have red-haired children. Now people are more likely to marry someone who is unlikely to have the same mutation.”

Rumours of the red head’s demise are greatly exaggerated however and although National Geographic ran a feature in which it said red heads were declining, it seems unlikely that they will be extinct by 2100 as some news rooms seemed eager to suggest.

“There were reports that red hair would disappear,” says Butler. “But this is unlikely to be true. The mutated gene will stay around, but the chance of inheriting two mutated genes is getting lower, just because people are mingling more.”

Unfortunately, as with all minorities, redheads in this part of the world, and particularly in Britain, have been treated with something close to contempt.

There are many, however, who choose to make a virtue of their red hair.

In August more than 500 redheads turned up to the second Redhead Convention in Crosshaven, Co Cork. The fun-packed event raised €3,500 for the Irish Cancer Society.

For 6’7″ Dubliner Mike McGuire having red hair has its up and downs.

“It was a bad thing growing up because you got picked on immediately for it and it lead to a lot of bullying,” says the 30-year-old. “But then when you reach about 18 or 19 you find out that it’s a bit of a commodity and you find out that a lot of girls are really into redheads.”

In an effort to celebrate his red hair, and to raise money for charity, McGuire organised the inaugural Ginger Fest just before St Patrick’s Day this year and he hopes to make it and even bigger and better event in 2012.

“Well we’re trying to get on the momentum that comes from St Patrick’s Day,” says McGuire. “It’s a very Irish thing the way I see it. Having red hair I suppose is the stereotypical Irish image so I’d like to embrace the Irishness of the two.”

McGuire, the only red head out of five siblings, says that although he was often the butt of jokes he learnt to develop a thick skin.

“My mother always said to me that it was something I should be proud of,” he explains. “And when you meet other redheads later in life it’s something that they are incredibly proud of and it’s a huge part of them.”


Lenin – Not only was his politics red but so was the revolutionary’s noggin.

Nicole Kidman — In the 19th century Kidman’s ancestors left Co Clare and sailed to Australia. Not only did they bring the lanky gene but the redhead gene as well.

Napoleon — In Corsica, tradition holds that if you pass a red haired person you are supposedly meant to spit and turn around. No wonder the little Emperor left at the age of 10.

Chris Evans — A British redhead that tabloids love to hate and all because of his lovely ginger main. Okay and his tempestuous love life.

Hector Ó Heochagáin — Behind every stereotype lies some truth and in the case of Hector … well let’s just say there are brass bands who can’t compete with him. A loud and proud redhead.

The Gooch — Kerry’s most famous redhead has been banging them into the back of the net ever since making his senior debut for his club at the age of 16.

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