Irish-American Fashion: The Beard

Ricki Hall. Expect to see a lot of men with this beard.

The beard has made a comeback, which is not a sentence I ever thought I would type. English model Ricki Hall’s career went through the roof when he grew out the sort of beard that you typically associate with Civil War generals, and led Esquire to declare that he had the most influential hair in Britain.  Beard competitions are growing in popularity at bars, with judges scoring contestants on the quality of whatever emerges from their chins. The cast of television’s “Copper” had a battle via social media as to who could grow the most luxurious beard; as far as I can tell, Donal Logue won it. Unsurprising. If you leave him alone and clean shaven in a room for twenty minutes he will emerge with a beard that would do a lumberjack proud.

In the midst of this celebration of masculine follicular magnificence, I’d like to offer two suggestions for the more adventurous whisker-grower. Both come from Irish and Irish-American sources, and either will mark you as a man of rarefied, challenging tastes.
Irish scientist John Tyndall, not from Donegal, but a master of the Donegal beard.
The Donegal Beard: This sometimes goes by the unfortunate name “chin curtain,” as it’s a beard that starts at the chin and then just plunges downward, sans mustache. It’s the sort of hairstyle we now associate with the Amish, but it’s also an Irish-American tradition on St. Patrick’s Day. I’m not quite certain why it became associated with the county in Northern Ireland, but Americans have been having Donegal Beard contests on St. Paddy’s since at least 1938, when Shamrock, Texas was home to a Donegal Beard Club. This was the first year such a thing had occurred in Shamrock, and a reported 500 men participated. By 1963, Shamrock had gotten a bit silly about it – the Omaha World-Herald reported that all male citizens of the town were “required to have a Donegal beard, or carry a ‘shaving permit’ with them at all times.” The trend has spread from Shamrock – I count a dozen or so Donegal beard contests in the planning throughout America for this coming year’s St. Patrick’s Day festivities. But why grow a beard meant for a single competition on a single day? Go Donegal year round; it worked for Abraham Lincoln.
The Galway beard, apparently ideal for top-hatted, flirtatious hitchhiking.
The Galway Beard: Here’s another beard that has an unfortunate contemporary name: The chinstrap beard. This beard follows the line of the chin, but does not extend above it, as the Donegal beard does. Henry David Thoreau had this sort of beard, if that helps. This term dates back at least as far as 1895, when a lecturer in Kansas City was described by the local paper as having a “snow white Galway beard.” The term must have had some general currency then, as the same year the Plain Dealer in Cleveland of an out-of-work hid carrier named McGinnis and his romantic woes – he was likewise described as having a Galway beard.
Speaking of beards and romance, let me close with a few words from Anglo-Irish poet A. P. Graves, published in “Haverty’s Irish-American Illustrated Almanac” in 1892, which sums up better than I can why a man needs a beard. The poem is titled “Irish Son,” and, if you like, can apparently be sung to the tune of “What Shall I Do With This Silly Old Man”: 

When Carroll axed Kate for her heart and a hand
That controwled just a hundred good acres of land,
Her lovely brown eyes
Went wide with surprise,
And he lips they shot scorn at his saucy demand;
“Young Carroll Maginn
Put the beard to your chin
And the change in your purse, if a wife you would win.”
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Max Sparber

Max Sparber is a playwright, journalist, and history detective in Omaha, Nebraska.