The Red Hand of Ulster

Elyse Kallen


‘Do you know where the red hand comes from?’ Six American heads shake from side to side. ‘An ancient king cut off his hand and threw it to be the first to touch Ulster’s shore.’

With such a bloody start, it’s no wonder how things turned out. I cling to my snark as the guide ushers my family into yet another tribute to victims of the understated Troubles.

Affixed to the gate surrounding Belfast’s Clonard Martyrs Memorial Garden, that red hand guards dozens of portraits. Eyes of men and boys stare out at me from nearly every decade of the 20th century. I refuse to meet their gaze and instead ponder the evolution of male hairstyles. If you’re after tragedy, look no further than the mushroom cut.

My attention and my fingers move across a shimmering plaque, tracing the ages at which they—willingly or unwillingly—died for a cause. Forty, sixteen…twenty-six. My age. What would I give my life for?

Before I decide if ‘nothing’ makes me selfish or sensible, the guide begins a new tale of broken bodies and broken souls. I grit my teeth. This isn’t how I want your story—our story—to start.


‘And I never saw that leprechaun again.’ Your boyhood adventures were reverently passed down from your beloved granddaughter, my mother, to me. It’s this magical, verdant Ireland I’ve always claimed as my origin.

But that’s not the only story you bequeathed us. I remember too the rocks in your pocket, your only defense against attacks from children of that other faith.

With a thump, my snark falls away, taking my illusions with it. It wasn’t the leprechauns you were running from more than a century ago when you boarded a coffin ship bound for the unknown.


My own beloved grandfather asks the guide when the conflict will end. Glimmers of a republican past surface: ‘Only a united Ireland will bring peace. Otherwise, the violence will go on forever.’ As I leave the red hand behind, my breath frees itself from my lungs, even as my eyes overflow with all we’ve lost.

Elyse Kallen is a Guest Contributor to Panorama.

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