Irish fair skin has traditionally been thought to have been caused by the colder climate that comes from being part of northern Europe and from being perched perilously on the edge of the Atlantic.
Now scientists believe there may be a more dramatic explanation – that our pale complexion is inherited from just one man who lived 10,000 years ago.
What makes the theory more surprising is that this man came from the much warmer climate of the Middle East, where darker skin was more the norm.
The theory has been put forward by scientists at Pennsylvania University who have been studying different skin pigmentations, and the genes that cause them.
Professor Keith Cheng and his team have identified SLC24A5 as the gene responsible for skin pigmentation. Within that gene they have also spotted a specific mutation, which only occurs in people in people with lighter coloured skin.
The mutation, named A111T, is found in lighter skinned people all across Europe and America, and also in parts of Asia and North and Eastern Africa.
And it is in the Middle East where it gets interesting. Studies were carried out on individuals from Southern India, and the North and East of Africa that had the A111T gene mutation. The results showed that all these people shared a common ancestral genetic code – incredibly they had all descended from the same one person.
This one person would have had children who inherited the gene, and their children again and so on. Over hundreds of years, the gene was spread down through generations, and in time made its way to Europe by way of North African settlers.
A few more centuries later, thousands of Spaniards moved north into Europe in search of fertile land. Many of them settled in Ireland, bringing the ‘light-skinned gene’ with them.
So it’s possible that the paler skin tone that many Irish people now have, actually originated in the Middle East.