Red Hand of Ulster

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Right hand
Left hand
The Red Hand of Ulster, right and left hand versions

The Red Hand of Ulster (Irish: Lámh Dhearg Uladh) is an Irish symbol used in heraldry[1] to denote the Irish province of Ulster. It is an open hand coloured red, with the fingers pointing upwards, the thumb held parallel to the fingers, and the palm facing forward. It is usually shown as a right hand, but is sometimes a left hand, such as in the coats of arms of baronets.

Historical background[edit]

The Red Hand is rooted in Gaelic culture however its real origin and meaning is unknown, but it is believed to date back to pagan times.

The Red Hand is first documented in surviving records in the 13th-century where it was used by the Hiberno-Norman de Burgh earls of Ulster.[2] It was Walter de Burgh who became first Earl of Ulster in 1243 who combined the de Burgh cross with the Red Hand to create a flag that represented the Earldom of Ulster and later became the modern Flag of Ulster.

It was afterwards adopted by the O'Neills upon their assumption of the supremacy of the ancient Ulaid kingship, inventing the title Rex Ultonie (king of Ulster) for themselves in 1317 and then claiming it unopposed from 1345 onwards.[3][4][5] An early Irish heraldic use in Ireland of the open right hand can be seen in the seal of Aodh Ó Néill, king of the Irish of Ulster, 1344-1364.[6]

An early 15th-century poem by Mael Ó hÚigínn is titled "Lámh dhearg Éireann í Eachach",[7][8] The first line of which is a variation of the title: Lamh dhearg Éiriond Ibh Eathoch,[8] translated as "The Úí Eachach are the 'red hand' of Ireland".[9] The Uí Eachach were one of the Cruthin (known as the Dál nAraidi after 773[10]) tribes that made up the ancient kingdom of Ulaid.[11][12]

The Red Hand symbol is believed to have been used by the Uí Néill clan during its Nine Years' War (1594–1603) against the spread of English control. The war cry lámbh dearg Eireinn abú! ("the Red Hand of Ireland forever") was also associated with the Uí Néill.[13] During the reign of Elizabeth I an English writer of the time noted "The Ancient Red Hand of Ulster, the bloody Red Hand, a terrible cognizance! And in allusion to that terrible cognizance- the battle cry of Lamh dearg abu!"[5]

The Order of Baronets was instituted by letters patent dated 10 May 1612, which state that "the Baronets and their descendants shall and may bear, either in a canton in their coat of arms, or in an inescutcheon, at their election, the arms of Ulster, that is, in a field argent, a hand gules, or a bloody hand."[14] The oldest baronets used a dexter (right) hand just like the O'Neills, however it later became a sinister (left) hand.[14]

Dispute over ownership[edit]

The exclusive rights to the use of the Red Hand symbol has proved a matter of debate over the centuries, primarily whether it belonged to the O'Neill's (Ó Neill) or the Magennis (Méig Aonghasa). The O'Neills became the predominant dynasty of the Cenél nEógain of the Northern Uí Néill and later the kings of Ulster, whilst the Magennis' were the ruling dynasty of the Uí Eachach Cobo, the predominant dynasty of the Cruthin of Ulaid,[12] and also head of the Clanna Rudraige.[15]

A 16th-century poem indicated disagreement between the "Síol Rúraí" (an alias for Clanna Rudraige) and the northern descendants of Niall Noígíallach (the Northern Uí Néill).

A dispute, dated to 1689, arose between several Irish poets about whose claim to the Red Hand was the most legitimate.[2][16][17]

  • Diarmaid Mac an Bhaird, one of the last fully trained Irish bardic poets,[18] admonishes the claim of the "í Néill" to the Red Hand, and that it rightly belongs to the "Méig Aonghasa" who should be allowed to retain it.[16] They support their statement citing several medieval texts attributing it to Conall Cernach, the legendary ancestor of the Uí Eachach Cobo.[16]
  • Eoghan Ó Donnghaile, refutes the Clanna Róigh (Clanna Rudraige) right to the symbol.[16] They state that if hands bloodied in battle are proof of legitimacy to the symbol, then Conn of the Hundred Battles (a legendary ancestor of the O'Neills), has more right to it.[16] They then produce a story based on traditions from the Lebor Gabála Érenn claiming that it belongs to the descendants of Érimón, from whom Conn and thus the O'Neills are said to descend.[16]
  • Niall Mac Muireadhaigh on the other hand dismisses both these claims and states that the symbol belongs to the Clann Domhnaill (descended from the Three Collas, the legendary ancestors of the Airgíalla).[16] In response to Ó Donnghaile, Mac Muireadhaigh derides him as a fool and finding it deplorable that he is an author.[16]

Further poetic quatrains in the dispute were written by Mac an Baird, Ó Donnghaile, as well as by Mac an Bhaird's son Eoghain.[16] The Mac an Bhaird's appear to deride Ó Donnghaile as not having come from a hereditary bardic family and that he is of very low rank without honour, as well as hinting at his family's genealogical connection with the Ó Neill's.[16]

Writing in 1908, the then head of the O'Neill clan states in regards to the Red Hand of Ulster that "History teaches us that already in pagan days it was adopted by the O'Neills from the Macgennis, who were princes in the north of Ireland region inhabited by them."[19]

Possible origins[edit]

The bardic dispute in 1689 produced the following possible origins for the Red Hand symbol:

  • Diarmaid Mac an Bhaird claimed that Conall Cernach (a mythical Ulaid hero from the Ulster Cycle) put his blood-stained hand on a standard as he avenged the death of Cú Chulainn (another mythical Ulaid hero), and it has belonged to the descendants of Conall since then.[16] This they say is backed up by medieval texts such as the Scéla Mucce Meie Da Thó ("The Tale of Mac Da Thó's Pig"), the Leabhar Ultach (also known as the Senchas Ulad and Senchas Síl Ír), and Ó hÚigínn's poem beginning Lámh Éireann í Eachach.[16]
  • Eoghan Ó Donnghaile basing his tale on traditions from the Lebor Gabála Érenn claimed that after the sons of Míl Espáine defeated the Tuatha Dé Danann, they are granted three precious objects, amongst them a standard bearing the red hand.[16] This banner eventually ended up without contest in the hands of the descendants of Míl's son Érimón, from whom Conn of the Hundred Battles and thus the O'Neills are said to descend.[16] Despite this, the Lebor Gabála Érenn amongst other documents do not mention a standard as one of the items of which there were four not three.[16]
  • Niall Mac Muireadhaigh claimed that when the Three Collas defeated the Ulaid, that one of the Collas placed their bloodied hand on a banner taken from them.[16] He then states the Clann Domhnaill have used the symbol within his own time, and accepts the poem Lámh Éireann í Eachach.[16] However according to historian Gordon Ó Riain, Mac Muireadhaigh has mistaken the í Eachach element to mean the descendants of Echu Doimlén, the father of the Collas, when in fact it is in reference to Echu Coba, the ancestor of the Méig Aonghasa.[16]

Historian Francis J. Bigger makes mention of the use of a right hand by the O'Neills around 1335, and whilst stating that he does not know of its exact origin surmises that it may have been for them a symbol signifying divine assistance and strength, whilst also suggesting that the ancient Phoenicians may have brought the symbol to Ireland.[20]

Whilst discussing the Tonn Rudraige ("wave of Rory", located in the Bay of Dundrum within ancient Ulaid) that is one of the "Three Waves of Erin" as detailed in the Annals of the Four Masters, it is suggested by a writer into the All Ireland Review called "M.M." that it is named after the founder of the Clanna Rudraige, Rudraige mac Sithrigi.[21] It is then theorised that Rudraige's name may mean "Red-wrist", and that this may be where the Red Hand symbol derives.[21] In another edition a "Y.M." states that Rudraige's name may derive from ruad (red) and raige (arm).[22] They then say that the Cróeb Ruad (Red Branch) of ancient Ulaid may actually derive from crob (hand) and ruadh and that the Red Hand of Ulster is "lineally descended from Ruad-raige (red arm)".[22]

According to one tradition, the Red Hand derives from the mythical Irish figure Labraid Lámderg (Red hand Labraid) of the Fenian Cycle of Irish mythology.[1][23] Another tradition states that Labraid was the son of the Celtic god Nuada Airgetlám (Silver hand Nuada).[24][verification needed]

Another figure who the Red Hand may derive from is the mythical High King of Ireland, Lugaid Lámderg, who according to Eugene O'Curry is cited in one Irish legend as being king of the Cruthin of Ulaid during part of the reign of the mythical Conchobar Mac Nessa.[25][26]

In another legend which has become widespread, the first man to lay his hand on the province of Ulster would have claim to it.[27] As a result the warriors rushed towards land with one chopping off his hand and throwing it over his comrades and thus winning the land.[27] This tale is alluded to the O'Neills.[27] In some versions of the tale, the person who cuts off his hand belongs to the Uí Néill clan, or is Niall of the Nine Hostages himself.[citation needed] In other versions, the person is the mythical Érimón.[28]

Similar symbols[edit]

The Dextera Dei, or "Right Hand of God", is a symbol that appears on only three high crosses in Ireland: the Cross of Muiredach at Monasterboice; the Cross of King Flann (also known as the Cross of the Scriptures) at Clonmacnoise; and the Cross in the Street of Kells.[20] The former two have the full hand with fingers extended similar to the Red Hand.[20] The form and position of the Kells Dextera Dei is of a pattern usually found on the Continent, whereas that used at Monasterboice and Clonmacnoise appears to unique within Christendom.[20]

The Dextera Dei is suggested by Francis J. Bigger as representing the old-world figurative expression of signifying strength and power, and such hand symbols can be found in ancient civilisations including amongst others the Assyrians, Babylonians, Carthagians, Chaldeans and Phoenicians.[20] It is also used by Jews, Muslims, and can be found in use in Palestine and Morocco.[20] Aboriginal Australians revered the hands of their deceased chieftains.[20] Another historian, F. J. Elworthy, according to Bigger, conclusively proved the ancient character and widespread usage of the symbol amongst early pagan civilisations.[20]

Other uses[edit]

  • According to Charles Vallancey in 1788, a red hand pointing upwards was the armorial symbol of the kings of Ireland, and that it was still in use by the O'Brien family, whose motto was Lamh laidir an uachdar, meaning either "the strong hand up" or "the strong hand will prevail".[29]
  • The ancient Irish deity Nuada Airgetlám (Nuada the silver handed) was also known by the alias Nuada Derg Lamh, the red-handed, amongst other alias'.[30] Nuada is stated in the Book of Lecan as being the ancestor of the Eoganachta and Dál gCais of Munster.[30]
  • Lugaid Lámderg is a legendary figure who appears in the Book of Leinster and the "chaotic past" of the descent of the Dál gCais.[31][32] His epithet meaning "red hand", was transferred to Lugaid Meann around the start of the Irish historic period.[31]
  • The Annals of the Four Masters makes mention of "Reachta Righdhearg" (Rechtaid Rígderg) as a High King of Ireland.[33] He gained the name "Righdhearg" according to Geoffrey Keating as he had an arm that was "exceeding Red".[33] Reachta is listed as the great-grandson of "Lughaigdh Lamdhearg" (Lugaid Lámderg).[33]
  • Cathal Crobhdearg Ua Conchobair, otherwise known as "Cathal the Red-Handed O'Conor", was a king of Connacht in the early 13th-century.[34] There is a poem that is attributed as having being composed between 1213 and Cathal's death in 1224, which makes frequent reference to Cathal's red hand.[35]
  • A Dermott Lamhdearg is cited by Meredith Hanmer in his "Chronicles of Ireland" (first published in 1633), as being a king of Leinster who fought a battle around the start of the 5th century against an army of marauders at Knocknigen near Dublin.[36]
  • The Kavanagh's of Borris, County Carlow, descend from Dermot Kavanagh Lamhdearg, lord of St Mullin's, the second son of Gerald Kavanagh, Lord of Ferns in 1431.[37] Gerald was descended from Domhnall Caomhánach, a son of Diarmait Mac Murchada, king of Leinster.[37]
  • The Cavenagh's of Kildare that became part of the Protestant Ascendancy are kin of the Kavanagh's of Borris and according to their own traditions claim descent from a Cathair Rua Caomhánach who was said to descend the Lámhdhearg (Red Hand) branch of the Caomhánach clan.[38]
  • Hands feature prominently in Dermot O'Connor's 18th-century publication "Blazons and Irish Heraldic Terminology", with the "Ó Farguill" (modern Irish: Ó Fearghail) sept specifically bearing the motto Lámh dhearg air chlogad lúptha.[39]
  • Quatran 78 of the classical Irish poem Carn Fraoich Soitheach na Saorchlann, makes mention of the "inghean ríogh lámhdhearg Laighean", translated as "a descendant (lit. daughter) of the red-handed kings of Leinster".[40] This poem, as well as the related poem Osnach Carad i gCluain Fraoch, mention a Carn Lámha, the burial place of Fraoch's hand.[41]
  • Gleoir Lamhderg, or Gleoir the red-handed, was a king of the Lamraighe and allegedly the step-father Fionn mac Cumhaill from the Fenian Cycle of Irish mythology.[42] The Lamraighe are claimed as descending from Lamha, a son of Conchobar mac Nessa, a legendary king of Ulster.[42]

Modern usage[edit]

Coat of Arms of Monaghan

The form in common use is an open right (dexter) hand coloured red, with the fingers pointing upwards, the thumb held parallel to the fingers, and the palm facing forward.

Coats of arms used by those whose surnames are of Uí Néill descent – Ó Donnghaile, Ó Catháin, Mac Aodha, Ó Dálaigh, Ó Maéilsheachlainn and Ó Ceatharnaigh, to name just a few – all feature the Red Hand in some form. On the Ó Néill coat of arms featuring the Red Hand, the motto is Lámh Dhearg Éireann (Red Hand of Ireland).[43] The arms of the chiefs of the Scottish Clan MacNeil (of Barra) contain the Red Hand; the clan has traditionally claimed descent from Niall of the Nine Hostages. Many other families have used the Red Hand to highlight an Ulster ancestry. The head of the Guinness family, the Earl of Iveagh, has three Red Hands on his arms granted as recently as 1891.[44]

The Red Hand is present on a number of Ulster counties crests such as Antrim, Cavan, Londonderry, Monaghan and Tyrone. It was later included in the now abolished Government of Northern Ireland flag. It is also used by many other official and non-official organisations throughout the province of Ulster and the rest of Ireland.

The arms of The Irish Society that carried out the Plantation of Ulster feature the Red Hand.[45]

The Red Hand can be regarded as one of the very few cross-community symbols used in Northern Ireland (which makes up 6 of Ulster's 9 Counties) crossing the sectarian political divide. Due to its roots as a Gaelic Irish symbol, nationalist/republican groups have used (and continue to use) it – for example the republican Irish Citizen Army, the republican National Graves Association, Belfast, the Irish Transport and General Workers Union, the Ulster GAA association GAA clubs in Ulster . Other organisations within the nine counties of Ulster and also supported within the political sectarian divide, use it happily in the six Ulster counties within Northern Ireland, such as the Ulster Hockey Union, these are supported from both sides of the community- nationalist and unionist. As the most identifiable symbol of Ulster, at the start of the 20th century it has also been used by Northern Ireland's unionists and loyalists, such as its use in the Ulster Covenant (1912) and in the arms of the Government of Northern Ireland (from 1922 and now abolished), the Ulster Banner (the former flag of the Northern Ireland government), the Ulster Volunteers and loyalist paramilitary groups based only within Northern Ireland such as the Ulster Volunteer Force and Ulster Defence Association among others.


The arms of the Viscount Brookeborough indicate the viscount is also a baronet: Or, a cross engrailed per pale gules and sable, a crescent for difference.[46]

A left (sinister) Red Hand is an option for baronets to add to their arms to indicate their rank. The College of Arms formally allowed this in 1835, ruling that the baronets of England, Ireland, Great Britain or the United Kingdom may "bear either a canton in their coat of arms, or in an escutcheon, at their pleasure, the arms of Ulster (to wit) a Hand Gules or a Bloody Hand in a Field Argent."[47] It is blazoned as follows: A hand sinister couped at the wrist extended in pale gules.[48]

King James I of England established the hereditary Order of Baronets in England on 22 May 1611, in the words of Collins (1741): "for the plantation and protection of the whole Kingdom of Ireland, but more especially for the defence and security of the Province of Ulster, and therefore for their distinction those of this order and their descendants may bear (the Red Hand of Ulster) in their coats of arms either in a canton or an escutcheon at their election".[49] Such baronets may also display the Red Hand of Ulster on its own as a badge, suspended by a ribbon below the shield of arms.[50] Baronets of Nova Scotia, unlike other baronets, do not use the Red Hand of Ulster, but have their own badge showing the Royal Arms of Scotland on a shield over the Saltire of St Andrew.[47] The left-hand version has also been used by the Irish National Foresters, the Irish Citizen Army and the Federated Workers' Union of Ireland.



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  4. ^ Duffy, p. 481.
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  6. ^ National Library of Ireland Heraldry In Ireland
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  17. ^ Williams, p. 64.
  18. ^ Welsh
  19. ^ O'Neill, p. 180.
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  21. ^ a b M.M., p. 184.
  22. ^ a b Y.M., p. 102.
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  27. ^ a b c Cite error: The named reference Hylland81 was invoked but never defined (see the help page).
  28. ^ The Red Hand of Ulster
  29. ^ Vallancey, p. 59.
  30. ^ a b Westropp, pp. 145-7.
  31. ^ a b Westropp, p. 134.
  32. ^ Barry, p. 365.
  33. ^ a b c Keating (1723), p. 157.
  34. ^ O'Daly & O'Donovan, p. 337.
  35. ^ Bergin.
  36. ^ Hamilton, p. 252.
  37. ^ a b Burke, p. 552.
  38. ^ Cavanagh, p. 100.
  39. ^ Williams, p. 68.
  40. ^ McManus, p. 120.
  41. ^ Fitzpatrick, p. 65.
  42. ^ a b Shearman, p. 209.
  43. ^ "O Neill, Neill, Neale, Neil". 
  44. ^ Burke's Peerage, London 2003, sub "Iveagh"
  45. ^ "Wars and Conflicts - Plantation of Ulster - English and Scottish Planters - The London Companies". BBC. 
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  48. ^ Collins, Arthur, The English Baronetage: Containing a Genealogical and Historical Account of all the English Baronets now Existing, Volume 4, London, 1741, p.287[1]
  49. ^ Collins, 1741, vol.4, p.287
  50. ^ Debrett's Peerage, 1968, p.1235

See also[edit]