Many years ago my grandmother told me that her grandfather’s ethnicity was “black Irish.” Recently I’ve heard three different explanations concerning the origin of the term: (1) It refers to a mixture of Irish and Spanish blood dating from the time of the Spanish Armada, when many shipwrecked Spanish sailors were washed up on the Irish coastline and wound up staying. (2) It refers to a mixture of Irish and Eastern European blood. (3) It refers to a mixture of Irish and Italian blood from the time of the Roman Empire. No books have been written on the subject, and no entry is to be found in either the Encyclopaedia Britannica or the Oxford English Dictionary. So naturally one turns to you. –Christian Ard, San Francisco

We dance here on the fine line between science and folklore, a locale that is all too familiar to us here at the Straight Dope. People talk about the black Irish as though it were a mythical race on a par with the lost tribes of Israel, when in fact all they mean (usually) is that somebody named McNulty has dark, and in the classic case black, hair. Even if we make the dubious assumption that dark hair genes were completely absent in the original Gaels, it seems likely that the incidence of dark-haired folk in a nation whose population only slightly exceeds that of the city of Los Angeles can be accounted for strictly by routine mixing due to immigration, trade contact, and so on. But you can see how exciting an explanation that makes. So people have come up with all kinds of fanciful tales instead.

The wildest notion is that black hair is evidence of Spaniards marooned in Ireland following the wreck of the Armada. But as we had occasion to discuss in this column years ago, the number of shipwrecked Spanish sailors who remained in Ireland for any length of time was trivial.

I have also heard it said that the black Irish were the first settlers of Ireland–maybe the Phoenicians; the red Irish were descendants of the Normans; and the blond Irish are descended from the Vikings. One of many drawbacks to this theory is that it seems to leave the Gaels completely out of the picture. A more plausible but still essentially unprovable version of this idea is that black hair is a vestige of an indigenous population of short dark-haired types overrun by the fair-haired Gaels. Supposedly there are more black Irish in the western part of the country, which fewer Gaelic invaders reached. There is archaeological and, I’m told, linguistic evidence of pre-Gaelic settlement, but how it was concluded that they were short and black-haired I do not know. It all seems like an absurd thing to make a fuss over in any case.

Regarding the origin of the once ubiquitous smiley face, I’ve enclosed the version I’m most familiar with for your entertainment and information. –Jeff Kurtti, Los Angeles

Ah, the David Stern story. Several people have sent me this, including someone who must be either Stern’s press agent or his mom, since it includes a whole packet of stuff about the guy. Stern, the Seattle adman who gave Egghead Software its name, came up with a smiley face for a campaign for Seattle’s University Federal Savings and Loan. Trouble was, he did this in 1967. We have already clearly established that Harvey R. Ball drew a smiley face in 1963.

A more potent claim is that the smiley face first appeared in 1962 on sweatshirts given away by WMCA radio in New York. I have not been able to track down one of these shirts yet (although I would be pleased to accept a donation), and so cannot be sure we are talking about the canonical smiley, i.e., two eyes and a mouth on a yellow background, and not merely some protosmiley having a vague resemblance. We will interrupt your normally scheduled program with a bulletin if we learn more.

One more thing. We had been crediting the launching of the smiley craze (though not the creation of the smiley) to Bernard and Murray Spain, brothers who ran a Philly novelty company. Now some say credit must be shared with New York button manufacturer N.G. Slater. Cecil despairs of getting to the bottom of this–what am I going to do, take depositions?–but if further info emerges I’ll let you know.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino.