The Red Hand of Ulster




the state or fact of being ignorantlack of knowledge, learning, information, etc.
1175–1225; Middle English  < Latin ignōrantia.  See ignore-ance
In the article ‘At O’Neill’s right hand: Flaithrí Ó Maolchonaire and the Red Hand of Ulster’ by Benjamin Hazard (HI 18.1, Jan./Feb. 2010), there is a sidebar discussing one of the traditional explanations for the Red Hand of Ulster, namely the story about a chieftain who, when his rival was leading in a boat race, won by cutting off his own hand and throwing it ashore so that he touched land first. (The other explanation, as outlined in the article, is that it represents the right hand of God—dextera Dei.) The sidebar, which is illustrated by a picture of a contemporary loyalist mural, says that the chieftain cut off his right hand. In fact, the legend is usually told as having the chieftain take his sword in his right hand and cut off his left hand (although the mural in your picture shows the severed hand as the right one). The significance of this point is that it offers a way of distinguishing between the rival representations. If a Red Hand is left, it is likely to have been inspired by the legend; if it is a right hand, it is more likely to be the dextera Dei.
There is an interesting discussion of this point in the chapter on ‘The Red Hand of the O’Neills’ in As I Roved Out by the Belfast Catholic-romantic antiquarian Cathal O’Byrne (Belfast, 1946; new edition, 1982; pp 340–3). O’Byrne uses it to present Ulster Gaelic-Catholic culture (as represented by the O’Neills) as in touch with the mainstream of European civilisation, throughout which the dextera Dei symbol was in common use, while the left-hand version over the Ulster Hall, derived from ‘the recently manufactured legend’, is presented as the ‘bar sinister’ marking the fundamental illegitimacy of the unionist/planter presence.

1. uninstructed, untutored, untaught. Ignorant, illiterate, unlettered, uneducated mean lacking inknowledge or in training. Ignorant may mean knowing little or nothing, or it may mean uninformed about aparticular subject: An ignorant person can be dangerous. I confess I’m ignorant of mathematics. Illiterateoriginally meant lacking a knowledge of literature or similar learning, but is most often applied now to oneunable to read or write: necessary training for illiterate soldiers. Unlettered emphasizes the idea of beingwithout knowledge of literature: unlettered though highly trained in science. Uneducated refers especially tolack of schooling or to lack of access to a body of knowledge equivalent to that learned in schools:uneducated but highly intelligent. 2. unenlightened.


  1. only ever hear of the red hand legend recently – and this is a first for me of the left and right hand versions.
    The first time ever I actually saw a red hand, I was looking down (from an upstairs window) on red flowers in a garden that were thickly planted in the shape of a large hand. The sight shocked me and I really did take a couple of steps back, what you might call recoiling in disgust.Imagine having that horror in your back garden!!
    Personally speaking I have always found it a sickening symbol – cannot really explain why – it carries no political overtones for me, one way or the other, – but I can’t stand it!!


  2. “the false use of the symbol” Apt observation – a major part of the problem in NI – so many symbols and legends have been falsely used (on both sides) to stir up problems and sectarianism.


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