Red Hands up if you Know the Answer

Darran Anderson investigates the origins of Ulster's most potent symbol

Dating back centuries before the establishment of the Northern Irish state, the flag of Ulster is a curious creation. Deceptively simple like many others, it contains a cross symbolising Christianity while its colours of red upon gold originate in the heraldry of the Norman invader John de Courcy.

The most intriguing section, however, is in the top left hand corner which consists of a white shield and on it a red hand with a history all of its own.

Galicia, northern Spain, 'the land of a thousand rivers', is famous for the 'city of glass', La Coruna, the treacherous shipwrecked coast Costa de la Muerte (the Coast of Death) and its unmistakably Celtic roots.

Due to centuries of shared fishing traditions and cross-emigration, Galicia has developed a unique culture, but one that is profoundly influenced and inspired by Ireland.

The region boasts a folk music tradition with tin whistles, fiddles and bagpipes, a form of traditional dancing and a similarly rich literary and folkloric history. In return Galicia has provided Ireland with one of its most potent symbols.

Five hundred years before the birth of Christ the Galician King of Spain Milesius sent his three sons, Ir, Heber and Heremon, to invade and conquer Ireland - promising the island to the first of the siblings to touch its soil.

As the legend goes, each of the parties raced towards the shore and one of the sons cut off his own hand with a sword and throwing it onto dry land so that he could lay claim to the country. The soil was Ulster, and the Red Hand has persisted ever since.

Due to the Irish oral tradition of storytelling, there are many variations of this tale. In some accounts the invaders are Vikings, returning Irish mercenaries or Scottish clansmen. One even attributes the symbol to battle-wounds received when two giants brutally fought each other across the mountains and valleys of the North.

Debate around its precise orgins must be tempered by the recognition that the tale is likely apocryphal and of little factual historical basis. The Red Hand symbol is older than, and as universal as, civilisation itself, continually recurring in aboriginal art, Native American engravings right back to the cave paintings of Cro-Magnon humans.

Culturally it appears countless times down through the centuries, from James Clarence Mangan’s poem 'King Cahal Mor Of The Wine-Red Hand', to Nick Cave’s chilling vision of an apocalyptic figure with "his dusty black coat and a red right hand.”

Nevertheless, as with any potent symbol, the Red Hand has been the subject of a great deal of interpretation, mostly of a fairly dubious nature. Often it is invoked to give credence and historical substance to particular ideologies.

One of the most outlandish theories, based on no actual evidence, is that the Red Hand is proof that the Protestant community of Northern Ireland are a wandering lost tribe of Israel. For some who regard the Da Vinci Code as historical fact, and Christian fundementalism as the voice of reason, the Red Hand seems to substantiate claims of the Hebrew origins of Unionism.

Biblical texts are cited, pointing to Judah’s son Zarah of the Red Hand who, having been marked out as the first born with a red cord tied around his wrist, was robbed of his birthright and cast into exile. This 'evidence' is backed up with claims that the word 'British' comes from the Hebrew for 'People of the Covenant,' 'Union Jack' comes from Union Jakob and that the Ark of the Covenant is buried in the hill at Tara (or Torah).

Meanwhile, genealogical research has traced the origin of the Red Hand in its modern context back to the coat of arms of the O’Neill clan who once ruled over Ailech (roughly modern day Donegal and Derry) and Tir Eoghan (Tyrone and surrounding areas).

Descendants of the Connacht King, Niall of the Nine Hostages, the O’Neills ruled the north until 1607 when they were usurped by colonialists and through them the Red Hand has passed on into the heraldry of their descendants th e O'Catharnaighs (Kearneys), the O'Neills and the O'Donnells - many of whom still populate the North West.

Today a culture war rages over the ownership of the Red Hand. Many groups and organisations use the symbol on all sides of the religious, social and economic divides. The Northern Ireland football squad and the Ulster Rugby team employ it on their crest as do the Tyrone Gaelic and Hurling teams.

Then there is the irony of the UDA and the Red Hand Defenders proudly displaying an ancient Irish symbol on their flags and murals. And while its adoption by cross-community groups such as schools, councils and the Fire Brigade may suggest a reclaiming of the soul of the image for moderation, it is worth reflecting on the very nature of its existence.

This sign is intrinsically rooted in the past. It is a sign that is immersed in the symbolism of violence and land ownership that has plagued this corner of the world.

It ultimately stands as a reminder that it is not just inheritances that are passed down through the years but also curses. Perhaps we need other symbols, new icons for 21st century Ulster, than simply the severed blood-stained hand of some long-dead invader.