Revealed - Why the Irish are the most fair-skinned people in the world
Life & Style

Revealed - Why the Irish are the most fair-skinned people in the world

Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who's the fairest of them all? Well... it's us. Obviously.

It's no secret that Irish people are some of the palest – if not the palest – people in the world.

When the hot weather hits, and temperatures soar, the Irish feel it the most on that pale skin from the land of the Celts.

We moan about the weather all year round, but when the sun does show up we complain, turn some unholy shade of scarlet and curse at our ghostly skin.

But why are we so fair? Well, it's complicated – and it's not because of the lack of sunlight in pubs.

Common ancestry

Turns out most of us have a common ancestor to thank for sunburn (Image: Getty)

Believe it or not, but we might have just one person from history to blame for our sunburnability – and it's not Mother Nature (well, she didn't help).

In 2016, scientists found that our pale skin complexion is inherited from just one man who lived thousands of years ago.

Researches at Penn State University identified SLC24A5 as the gene responsible for skin pigmentation, and a specific mutation within it responsible for fair skin.

The mutation, A111T, is found most commonly in Ireland and all who possess it share a common genetic code descended from the same ONE person.

We don't know his name, but he lived in India or the Middle East around 10,000 years ago, before his ancestors eventually brought the gene to Ireland via the Iberian Peninsula.

So there's your culprit. Maybe.

The environment

Our green and pleasant land hasn't helped (Image: Failte Ireland)

We can't just blame our genes or our foreign ancestors, though. Ireland itself is also to blame.

The latest research indicates that the genes controlling white skin colour arose relatively recently in Europeans – as recently as 8,000 years ago.

Given Ireland’s relatively remote northerly location, it’s likely that most invaders and settlers to the island have been northern white Europeans, concentrating these genes even further.

Fair skin is advantageous in northern climates because the lack of sunlight hampers the production of Vitamin D – an essential vitamin for bone growth and disease prevention.

We can already hear you asking: "So if it's because we're so far to the north, why do Eskimo people have darker skin? And why do Scandinavians tan so easily?"

Well, close to the poles the atmosphere is much thinner, especially the ozone layer – so UV levels often exceed recommended rates for healthy living.

A recent study showed that UV exposure levels at the poles can reach an index level of 8 or more – similar to what lifeguards in Australia’s sunny Queensland state receive on a regular basis.

In short, our geography – when added to our common ancestry – is the perfect storm for paleness. But there's more.


Ed Sheeran because... why not? (Image: YouTube)

Yep. Recent research also suggests there may have been sexual selective pressures taking place which accelerated the spread of fair-skin genes around the Irish population.

Like today – when a potential partner farting can be enough to rule out another date – Irish people back in the day were similarly picky.

According to geneticists at University College London, the trend toward lighter coloured skin, hair and eyes may largely have been down to sexual attraction itself.

If so, then the originally rare males or females with lighter features might have been viewed as more of a prize to the opposite sex – leading them to have more mates and obviously, more offspring.

This kind of sexual preference for individuals with unusual appearances has been confirmed in other animals, such as guppies – and we're only primates after all.

So who should we blame? Sex? Geography? Our common ancestor and his DNA?

All of the above

Well, they all had a hand in making Irish people as fair-skinned as they are today.

The truth is, pale skin is not a bad thing – it has its advantages and disadvantages – and is beautiful in its own right.

Just remember to slap on the Factor 50 and you'll be grand.

*Originally published on April 19, 2018