Symbolism of red hand

THE red hand symbol is a common sight across Northern Ireland and is used by nationalists and unionists alike.

First used by the O'Neill clan of Tyrone, the red hand's history can be traced back through centuries.

It features on both the flag of the Ulster province, predominantly used by nationalists, and the flag which represents Northern Ireland.

However, its influence goes far beyond politics with the symbol used by sporting and civic institutions across the north including Queen's University Belfast and the Ulster rugby team. Historian Eamon Phoenix said the symbol had been "around before the plantation and one legend is that an O'Neill chieftain was racing a rival clan towards an island and realising he wasn't going to make it first he cut off his left hand and threw it to shore."

He said it became more politicised in the 19th century. "It became a symbol for the anti-Home Rule convention in the 1880s," he said. "Nationalists use it normally with a saffron background while for unionists, a white background is used often accompanied with a crown." The origins of a 'red hand of Ulster salute' or whether such a salute even exists is less clear.

When Rangers fans were investigated by Uefa in 2007 for making what looked like one-armed Nazi salutes in Tel-Aviv, the club said supporters were in fact saluting in support of Ulster loyalism.

However, historian Ian S Wood who has studied loyalism extensively said he had "never seen or heard of anything called a red hand salute".

Simon Cunningham

* ORIGINS: The red hand is used by both traditions in Ireland. Far left, by Tyrone GAA and left by the Ulster ruby team


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