Oh,’ she said, her lips pursed with pity and disgust. ‘The ginger’s sticking, isn’t it?’ The speaker in question was a large, friendly Derry woman who was saying hello to my son. ‘Oh, he’s gorgeous,’ she’d just said, quite gratifyingly, before adding the aforementioned commiseration about his wispy locks of light red hair. And it was, undoubtedly, a commiseration, uttered with the distant sympathy you’d offer someone who’s son had just opened a vape shop, or developed an interest in Jordan Peterson.
‘Maybe he’ll grow out of it,’ she said, but listlessly, in the manner of one who knows all is lost.
I was a little taken aback, mostly because his red hair is one of my favourite things about his wee head, but also because I didn’t know that anti-ginger sentiment was still a thing. We were speaking in a community centre built with funds for peace and reconciliation. I wondered if the other attendees were aware that this sweet old lady bore the tattered soul of a hair-racist. In a way, it was refreshing to be in the presence of an older Northern Irish person whose prejudices were at least surprising. For all the youth centre murals showing Celtic fan Bart Simpson shaking hands with Rangers mad Sonic the Hedgehog, my homeland still has a long way to go in some areas. I had just missed the fact that anti-gingerness was one.
Quite apart from anything else, I am a redhead, so her choice to say this to me was a decidedly bold gambit. Perhaps the chrysophobic crone considered red hair such a grievous genetic affliction that even I would have to curse my blood for having passed it down; as if we both bore a swastika birthmark, or a great big horn made of scabs which has protruded from O’Reilly foreheads for generations.
How many neighbours were drawing their curtains in horror any time I bounded home, a pale, soulless wraith?
Maybe my own colour has now faded so much over time that I finally pass for a normie. If so, I now realise how well this ability to hide in plain sight has served me. When I was a kid, I thought the occasional playground taunts I received – ‘ginger nut’, ‘your hair is on fire’, ‘you have no soul and are an abomination unto God’ – were little more than that: the unhappy combination of total ignorance and avid cruelty that defines most children. How could I have known that adults around me may have felt the exact same way? How many neighbours were drawing their curtains in horror any time I bounded home, like a pale, soulless wraith spoiling the view of a summer’s day?
Maybe the woman’s feeling came from personal dislike, rather than some greater, more organised disgust. Perhaps a glance back through her past will reveal unhealed wounds. In the spirit of peace and reconciliation, I gave her the benefit of the doubt and moved swiftly along. We need less conflict here, not more. Besides, I can’t be arsed painting her a mural.
Follow Séamas on Twitter @shockproofbeats