The White-Haired Boy

The Celts strolled up to Ireland from North Africa, and they were not blond or even red-headed as people like to think. They used quicklime to stiffen their hair into white spikes before battle, and their terrified enemies spread stories of fierce blond giants. The real fierce blonds arrived much later, marauders from the North with names like Leif and Erik. Irish monks built high round towers with entrances seven floors up, but it didn’t stop the Vikings getting at our women in the villages below. A second wave of Norsemen arrived a few centuries later, more peacefully, via France. They intermarried with the natives, and in a double-edged phrase from our childhood history books, became more Irish than the Irish themselves.

So some of the Irish ended up with the Vikings’ light hair and eyes (though most are bog-standard brunettes, like me). In Ireland, the most privileged, the luckiest one, is referred to as ‘the white-haired boy’. It’s the exact opposite of the unfortunate red-haired stepchild, and it’s often a jealous, disparaging term. Got a promotion?
 “Well, aren’t you the white-haired boy.”

Oddly, our blond-worship focuses more on men than women. The great mythical hero, Fionn McCumhaill, has a name that translates literally as ‘fair-haired’, but the classic standard of female beauty is raven hair. This may spring more from identification with our strapping Viking conquerors than from American-style glorification of sunny youth. We all want to imagine ourselves on the winning side.