Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Arms and the Red Hand of Ulster – 2nd in a small series

Sometimes I end up with so much egg on my face, you could scrap it off and feed the starving masses, or at least satisfy an undiscriminating family pet. It is part of what comes from being a solo researcher. At the best of times, when I wander off the well trodden path, I find unexpected treasures; other times there is the aforementioned egg. 
You don’t have to dip your toes very deeply into research about Sir Thomas Jackson to know that he was fiercely proud of his Irish heritage and felt a profound connection to his homeland in South Armagh. Nor, do you have to go very far in learning about Ireland to hear about the Red Hand of Ulster.

It is just that putting the two of these things together when decoding the symbolism included in Jackson’s Armorial Bearing, well, just lets say that is one of those egg on face times. I have to confess that I even waded in and made mention of the significance of this connection when I gave a talk in Monaghan a few years ago. Thankfully, the audience was kind.

Armorial Bearings of Sir Thomas Jackson - granted 1902

When I first saw the original parchment version of the arms granted to Sir Thomas, my eye immediately leapt to the red hand in the upper left hand corner of the shield. From my place of ignorance, I was convinced that I knew why it had been put there: another instance of Sir Thomas’ expression of his Irish pride – perhaps even an instance of his family’s connections with political subversion. I subsequently learned two important things about the Red Hand of Ulster in Armorial bearings.

Firstly, it seems that since 1922 all new and reconfigured Baronets in Great Britain use the Red Hand of the O'Neills to indicate they are recognized as Baronets in North Ireland as well as in other parts of Great Britain. The use of the red hand in a family crest is not indicative of an Ulster heritage, or being on any particular side of the sectarian struggles, only that the peerage is recognized in the North of Ireland.

One of the best written versions of the Red Hand of Ulster and its place in Irish mythology is told by Derek Lundy in The Bloody Red Hand: A Journey Through Truth, Myth and Terror inNorthern Ireland. I bought my copy in Dublin in 2006, where the same book was titled Men that God Made Mad. Both titles are a perfect fit. I subsequently met Derek at a wedding on Saltspring and discovered that not only is he a fine writer, but he is also a fine musician and a motorcycle aficionado – an obsession he shares with my husband.

Lundy tells two versions of the story. In the first, an Irishman named O’Neill has teamed with Viking raiders, is seeking plunder and is in one of several longboats fast approaching the shores of Ireland. The deal is that the first man to touch land with hand or foot wins all: land, booty, women, slaves – you name it. In the second version, the two rivals with similar goals in mind, are representatives of two Scottish clans: The MacDonnells and the O’Neills. In both versions, the key protagonist is about to lose to unnamed others who are a few paddle strokes ahead. In each version, this is so unacceptable that the protagonist severs his hand with one swift sword blow and throws it ashore onto the sand before anyone else can make the leap. Each version has the freshly amputated victor claim the bloody hand for their family crest – the O’Neill’s family crest in the first version and the MacDonnells of Antrim in the second.

Of course, Ireland being the land of storytellers, there are several other versions of this tale. I have also found that it is quite common that the teller will be absolutely convinced that he is in possession of the only correct version. 

Just to complicate things even further, the red hand was also a symbol for the son of an ancient Gaelic Sun God as well as being a symbol in church iconography of the open right hand associated with the early Christian God. That alone should tell us a lot about both the tenacity and shape-shifting qualities of such myths.

The second thing that I learned about the Red Hand of Ulster and its use in Armorial Bearings is that it is important to be clear about when to use the left hand and when to use the right hand. If you are designing an Ulster flag, you need to be sure that the red hand is a right hand; if you are crafting Armorial Bearings for baronets or the Irish Society, it is a left hand. It’s a way of keeping you on your toes – even when you are sober.

The Red Hand of Ulster's a paradox quite,
To Baronets 'tis said to belong;
If they use the left hand, they're sure to be right,
And to use the right hand would be wrong.
For the Province, a different custom applies,
And just the reverse is the rule;
If you use the right hand you'll be right, safe and wise,
If you use the left hand you're a fool.

Going back to the myth, whether it was a left handed man who cut off his right hand, or a right-handed man, I don’t know. The myth is also silent on how he managed to drop the knife, pick his severed hand up off the gunwales, and then toss it ever so deftly and definitively. Perhaps whoever it was, he was ambidextrous, not unlike the way that such stories often are in Ireland.

For more on Sir Thomas JACKSON see: Wiki


  1. Kudos for all your work and interesting articles. I've been going through your website too and have referred others to it from my facebook page at:

  2. My family crest has two right red hands of Ulster. One in each of the upper corners, with a red lion in the center of the shield. Over a red 5 pointed star, centered on the bottom point of the shield. Everything on the Shield is red except the Shield itself which is white. Any idea what that means?

  3. Gosh, I haven't a clue. That is curious.

  4. Thanks anyway, mostly curious why it has two of them.