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The Red Hand of O’Neill
The Red Hand of O’Neill (Lámh Dhearg Ó Néill), also known as the Red Hand of Ulster (Lámh Dhearg Uladh), or the Red Hand of Ireland (Lámh Dhearg Éireann), is seen at times as a symbol to denote the Irish Province of Ulster. Unfortunately for many members of the Ó Néill clan, it is less commonly known as the Red Hand of Ó Néill than that of Ulster or Ireland. Its origins are said to be attributed to the mythical Irish figure Labraid Lámh Dhearg (Labraid of the Red Hand), and appear in other mythical tales passed down over generations in the ancient Irish oral tradition. The symbol is rooted in Irish Gaelic culture and is particularly associated with the Ui Neill Tribe/ Ó Néill Clan in general, or in particular the Ó Néill septs of Ulster(Tyrone/ Clandeboye). In some versions, a left hand is used, and/or the thumb is opened (such as Tyrone GAA's crest).
It is generally accepted that this Irish Gaelic symbol originated in Pagan times, and was first associated with the mythical figure Labraid Lámh Dhearg, or Labraid Lámderg (Labraid of the Red Hand). The Red Hand was probably grounded on a theme in Gaelic mythology. It may have originally symbolized the pre-Christian Celtic Sun-god Nuadu – ‘he who dwells in the clouds'. The latter is well-known designation. Argatlámh signified 'Silver Hand,' and his alias Bolg had a son, (mythologically speaking) named "Lámhdearg-Labraid" (Red Hand).
Nuadu and Bolg were appellations of the Érainn or Ivernic, Sun-god, the equivalent term in the Gaelic language being Nél. From this perspective, there also seems to be a close relationship between the symbol of the hand and the Brehon Law system later in the Christianized period. One law states that no Chieftain/Chief or King can lead a tribe or Clan, if he or she is impaired in any manner, in particular the loss of a hand.
There have been countless myths written about this subject matter. According to one myth, the Kingdom of Ulster had at one time no rightful heir. The story of the arrival of Heremon, Heber, and Ir - sons of King Milesius of Spain (Galicia), who were dispatched to conquer Ireland in 504 BC.
One of them supposedly cut off his hand and tossed it ashore, that he might be the one to have first claim to the land.
Another myth goes with the following version: a boat race would take place between the brothers (possibly in Strangford Lough) and that "whosoever's hand is the first to touch the shore of Ulster, so shall he be made the king." There is yet another story about the hand belonging to one of two giants engaged in battle, whose hand was cut off in the process and left a red imprint on the rocks around strangford lough.
A third story recounts how the Ui Neill Tribe and a man named Dermott, both wished to be king of Ulster. The High King suggested a horse race across the land. As the two came in sight of the ending point, it seemed that Dermott would win, so the Uí Néill tribes Chief cut his hand off and threw it away. It reached the goal ahead of Dermott's horse, winning for Uí Néill/O’ Néill the crown of Ulster. The hand itself is most likely red to represent the fact that it would have been covered in blood, hence why some depictions of the Red Hand are shown with fresh blood drips.
Another variation of this story concludes that it was none other than Niall of the Nine Hostages who severed his own hand in order to win his crown from his brother. The contest was initiated by their Viking father, who could not, chose between his two sons. However, the majority of legends and myths seem to originate in the seventeenth century, several centuries after the red hand was already borne by the Ó Néill clans. The true origin of the Red Hand of the Ó Néill clan probably relates more to the following.
The True Origins of the Red Hand of Ó Néill
The open right hand or the Dextera Dei or the (Right hand of God) is one of the most ancient symbols in the world, and is seen in many different countries of different religious affiliations around the globe. It is shared by Judaism, Islam and Christianity. The Israelites brought it out of Egypt; therefore it can still be seen on the side of Israeli jeeps in Israel today. It can also be seen in India via the Congress party of Rajiv Ghandhi. Imperial Rome used the raised right hand in its standards in order to denote their overall power, and as a sign of victory against their enemies – the manifestation of which can be seen at many present sporting events, when a player scores goal in soccer/football, Hockey the hand can be seen raised in the air in order to signify personal or team victory over others.
To continue in a historcial context, the ‘ingens manus motif’ of Rome was then taken up by early Christians to signify the power of God “to protect and save, to bless or condemn,” based on early scriptures. As a continuation of this same theme, in the Ancient Irish book of Armagh, there are two references (one in Latin and the other in Irish) to the hand of God ( it has been cleansed through his right hand). Therefore, the hand came to signify Christ himself. In Luireach Phadraig (St Patrick’s Prayer or St Patrick’s Breast Plate), the right hand of God is called on for protection, meaning the just right hand could be used as a blessing, but the left could be used for destruction. In early Christian iconography, God the Father was frequently represented by the open right hand occasionally within a circle or nimbus or a halo with rays of light.
An example of this motif can be seen on one of the arms of the 10th century High Cross of Muiredach at Monasterboice, County Louth: the Market Cross of Kells Co Meath, etc. This early Christian symbol can also signify the support of God the Father for the Kingdom of Christ on earth. The symbol can be seen engraved on the walls of the Tower of London by the many religious martyrs awaiting their deaths, and can still be seen by its many visitors even today. It was also a common belief in many countries’ of the time that the hand in general was a sign of kingship based on the king and the “King of Kings concept,” and the reflection of the principle to rule with a just hand. Logic and historical investigation attest that there has to be some common connection between this early Christian symbol and the Ó Néill clan’s red hand motif, as well as having ancient pagan origins, in fact it is probable that it may be an amalgamation of both.
Again theories are plentiful concerning the red hand motif. Another theory states it may have been adopted by the Ó Néill clan-Ui Néill Kings of Ailech and Tir Eoghan because of the internal family structures within the clan system of Ireland. The ‘derbfine’ was an Irish agnatic Kingship group, and power structure as defined in the Brehon law tracts of the eighth century. Its principal purpose was as an institution of property inheritance, with property redistributed on the death of a member to those remaining members of the derbfine.
Comprising all the paternal descendants over a four-generation group with a common great-grandfather, it gradually gave way to a smaller three-generation kinship group, called the ‘gelfine.’ Within a clan, on the death of its chief or king, the surviving members of its derbfine would elect from their number a new chief and/or elect his successor, or Tánaiste (in English, his Tanist). A larger number of clan members, either allies or cousins who were too distantly related to be members of the derbfine, would not have a direct say in such an election. The frequent recitation of a clan’s genealogy by its bards was therefore a reminder of who was currently in or out of the clan's derbfine as much as it was a claim to ancient lineages.
Therefore many scholars have noted that four generations within the derbfine represent the four fingers of the red hand and the thumb being their common great-grandfather. Historians have also noted that the color red in ancient Ireland donated royalty, someone of regal standing or a color belonging to Kings, and royalty alone. Based on these historical observations, this may be exactly where the Red Hand of O’Neill motif comes from.
Irish Symbols or Standards
Now that we have some idea about the Red Hand of O’Neill and its origins, we now need to understand just when the many tribes and clans in Ireland adopted and used symbols or standards. Many revisionist historians would, and have tried to, convince others that standards and symbols in Ireland were a Norman heraldic concept. However, this is not the case. In Keating’s Foras Feasa, or History of Ireland, it mentions the ancient Irish having standards in imitation of the children of Israel. From this book, he quotes the following from the Battle of Maigh Rath, one of the most ancient and well documented battles in Irish history which took place in the year 637.
There was a leader of the entire host and leader of each division of the host under his charge and a standard of each leader from which the divisions of the Army were distinguished from one another by the Seanchaithe or historians who were obliged to be with the nobles whenever they engaged one another in battle.
Keating also states that Conghal Cloan, King of Ulster who was killed during the battle, and his men carried a standard of a yellow lion upon green satin, however Keating gives no source for his material. In his statement concerning “standards in imitation of the children of Israel,” he quotes as reference the Yellow Book of lecan, which may date from the early tenth century. He may have been using an ancient manuscript of the Foras Feasa, which belonged to a close neighbor called Michael Kearney in Co Tipperary, who had translated the original document into English between 1635 and 1668. Aside from conflicting sources, Keating never mentions at any time the Red Hand motif. However, other accounts of the battle from different sources, such as Forian’s Foray to Tara, mention all kinds of different standards, which included animals, birds, trees and a piper playing in battle, if you don’t mind, all of which dated back to the ancient pagan origins of Ireland and her history.
Later, in the Norman period, many of these Irish symbols would have remained as standards for its ancient clans long before the introduction of heraldic or knightly symbols. One such symbol or animal which was popular among clans was called an onchu (an unknown but horrifying land and water animal or monster) which in turn would scare all those who viewed it via a standard before any battle. It is from these types of animals that it is believed came the introduction of lions, leopards, eagles, etc, in coats of arms of the Norman period, leading later to England being represented by the lion, and Scotland the unicorn, etc. In 1610 speed the great English map maker shows Ireland represented by an otter type creature holding the Irish harp. So it is easy to concede that the ancient legendry onchu seen on ancient Irish banners may actually have been an otter type creature, but as of yet there was no mention of the great Red Hand of the O’Neill Clan.
It should also be remembered that the red hand symbol in relation to the O’Neill clan was ancient, and was created long before the Norman Invasion. Therefore it should not be seen as a coat of arms from a feudalistic perspective. Accordingly, it is a mistake to state that the Irish coats of arms system follows a feudal/Norman system, where a coat of arms is property passed through direct lineage. This means that the right to use the arms is not restricted to a given individual, as in the English feudal system, but is open to all within the extended 'sept' or 'clan' of the Gaelic culture. Therefore, enjoy displaying your Ó Néill coat of arms wherever you like.
Concerning the most important of all these symbols in Ireland, it’s earliest historically documented appearance is dated to 1364, and is attributed to a seal belonging to Aodh Ramhar Ó Néill, prince of Ulster. The Seal is counted by many as one of the most exquisite pieces of Irish art in the world. As a side note, the background of the association of Ó Néill clan’s logo incorporates two dragon like serpents from this very seal.
The O’Neill Harp
Another example of a Red Hand artifact dates from the 14th century: the so called Brian Boru Harp. The harp can presently be seen in Trinity College, Dublin, and is used on the majority of Irish coins today. William Butler Yeats actually chaired a committee to advise on the design of the Irish coinage which was to start circulation in December 1928.The English sculptor Percy Metcalfe won the design competition, and his interpretation of the Trinity harp featured on the obverse of coins became the model for further official interpretations of the harp emblem.
Unfortunately for Brian, Brian Boru’s Harp is not his, as it dates from long after his life and death by centuries, and there is no basis for this on any historical level. It also bears the coat of arms of the O'Neill clan, which is of course a strong indication of whom can claim the construction of Ireland’s only serving medieval harp. In fact there are only three in the world from the Celtic and medieval period, and two are in the national museum of Scotland. Although there are many theories about its ownership through the centuries, none can be substantiated as to by whom the Harp was actually commissioned, but over many hundreds of years it passed to Henry McMahon, of Co. Clare, and finally to The Rt. Hon. William Coyngham of Slane Castle, who presented it to Trinity College in Dublin in 1760.
However, as mentioned before, the Harp did have a badge that is no longer attached, and whose location today is unknown. Historical records do state that it contained two dogs, or Irish wolf hounds, holding the Red Hand of O’Neill Clan. As yet another side note, the last known person to have played it, in 1760, was the amazing Irish Harpist Arthur O’Neill, who was of Royal O’Neill descent, (he of the “wherever the O’Neill sits is always the head of the table” fame).
The Red Hand Used by Others
Another appearance of the Red Hand relates to the Gaelic-Irish clan coats of arms and insignia which were first officially listed by the Ulster King of Arms, established in Dublin from 1552, and granted to those clans who had gone through the "Surrender and regrant" process. Coats of arms used by those whose surnames are of Uí Néill tribe descent – Ó Donnghile, O Cathain, Ó Máeilsheáchlainn and Ó Catharnaigh, to name just a few – all feature the Red Hand in some form, recalling their common descent from the Uí Néill tribe. On the Ó Néill coat of arms featuring the Red Hand, the motto is Lámh Dhearg Éireann (Red Hand of Ireland). 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.
Because of the Ó Néill Clan of Ulster and its prominence in Ireland’s collective history, this is the reason the red hand has also become a national symbol of Ireland, Ulster, Tyrone, and other places associated with the ruling family of Uí Néill tribe and its descendants. The red hand by itself has become a symbol of the O'Neill name, such that when other O'Neill family branches were granted or assumed, a heraldic achievement, the red hand was often incorporated into the new coat of arms, to the point of being a cliché. Numerous other families have used the hand to denote their Ulster ancestry.
The head of the Guinness family (Magennises), the Earl of Iveagh, has three red hands on his arms granted as recently as 1891. But he was entitled do so based on the fact they were an ancient family of Ulster and Chief Magennis had been married to Sarah O’Neill, daughter of the great Hugh O’Neill. It should also be noted that a great many Northern families have strong connections to the O’Neill clan through common descent, marriage, subservient status, or through imitation, to connect them to the most important clan in Ireland. For example, the O ‘Donnelly and O’Neill coats of arms are almost identical, but the O’Donnellys were quartermasters to the O’Neill clan, and had fostered Shane O’Neill as a youth, based on the Gaelic traditions of the time. Other families that use the Red Hand in their coats of arms are the following, to name but a few: the MacAuleys, the O’Brennans, the O’Byrnes, the MacCartans, the O’Dalys, the Dunleavys, the Mac Evoys, the O’Flaghertys, the Foxes, the O’Quillians and the O’Sheils.
The Signet Ring of Owen Roe O’Neill
Yet another example of the Red Hand symbol appears via a signet ring belonging to the great Owen Roe O’Neill, in 1649. He wore the ring until his death. His ring included three stars to represent the father, son, and Holy Ghost; and a salmon to represent the Irish myth of the salmon of knowledge or the O’Neill fisheries of the River Bann and Lough Neagh. General Owen Roe should also be remembered for creating another fascinating emblem of Ireland, its first national flag.
Owen Roe’s ship (the Saint Francis) carried a flag when it returned to the Netherlands in 1642; the flag was the Irish harp in a field of green. The flag is often seen in America during St Patrick’s Day parades with the words ‘Erin go braugh’ attached; this in turn is a phonetic version of "Éirinn go brách," which in Irish and means "Ireland forever."
Another version of the Red Hand appears on the flag of Colonal Gordon O’Neill and his regiment that fought at the siege of Derry in1689.
Yet another earlier version appeared in the Co. Derry town of Magherafelt in 1841, in a book store of all places, and is the Great Seal of Murtogh Roe, the Red O’Neill, and Lord of Clanaboy, who died in about 1471.
The Ulster Flag
During the plantation period of Ulster, King James the 1st created the Order of Baronets. By doing so he charged every member a fee of 1000 pounds (for the amelioration of Ulster) in order to maintain soldiers in the occupied territory of the north of Ireland. As a thank you, baronets belonging to the crown were allowed to have the coat of arms of the O’Neill clan, which included the great Red Hand. This in turn created confusion concerning which was correct, the right or left hand, when displaying one’s coat of arms.
This would then lead to later versions being created over time. Heralds of the period then began to get back to basics, and started taking away the bloody drip that had been added for effect by some the Baronets, based on the legends mentioned early. Based on the reworking of emblems that the Ulster flag would bear (or be born) at a later date; the cross which appears on the flag belongs to Walter De Burgh, Earl of Ulster, from the Norman period, and of course the O’Neill Red Hand.
Mottos and War Cries
There have been many mottos, or war cries, associated with the clan and its many branches, some of which include the text below; all of which are said to have been used going into battle, or have been associated with our clan in general.
Irish/English Language versions
Red Hand of O’Neill
Lámh Dhearg Ó Néill
Red Hand of Ulster
Lámh Dhearg Uladh
Red Hand of Ireland
Lámh Dhearg Éireann
Red Hand victory
Lámh Dhearg Abu
This hand has suffered in fighting for the fatherland
Haec Manus pro patria pugnando vulnera passa
The word Abu is mentioned in many Irish clan mottos. A better, and more appropriate, version would actually be Chun Bua (to victory). How far these mottos go back in Irish history is unknown. But some historians have noted that Lámh Dhearg seems pretty recent and may only go back a few hundred years, based on the fact there is nothing mentioned in any of Ireland’s ancient manuscripts concerning these words being associated with the clan. Therefore, they seem to be something associated with Irish nationalism in the 19th century. It can also be noted that the man that is attributed with creating Ireland’s national flag the (Bratach Na hÉireann), Thomas Francis
O ‘Meagher one of the most prominent promoters of Irish Nationalism of the time, also had a concept to include the O’Neill Red Hand in the center. He described his vision of the tricolor to a captivated audience at the Music Hall on Lower Abbey Street Dublin sometime in the1800’s via the following words.
I trust that beneath its folds the hands of Irish Protestants and Irish Catholics may be clasped in generous and heroic brotherhood. If this flag be destined to face the flame of war, let England behold once more, upon that white centre, the Red Hand that struck her down from the hills of Ulster and I pray that heaven may bless the vengeance it is sure to kindle.
As a side note, the tricolor was presented to him as a gift in 1848 by a small group of French women sympathetic to the Irish cause. It was not until the Easter rising of 1916, when it was raised above the General Post Office in Dublin, that the Irish tricolor came to be regarded as Ireland’s national flag.
Thomas O ‘Meagher, also a Young Irelander, was reprieved from a death sentence issued under Queen Victoria, but still a convicted revolutionary and therefore was sentenced to a life of hard labor under English Law, a Van Diemen's Land (Island of Tasmania/Australia) escapee.
He became a General in the Irish Brigade, during the American Civil War, was imprisoned by President Abram Lincoln after refusing to parade the Irish Brigade and its Fighting 69th Regiment, and its colors in front the Prince of Wales in Washington. This in turn led to the brigade forever giving their flag the title of the Prince of Wales. Meagher became the Governor of Montana, and eventually died under mysterious circumstances after falling overboard sometime in the early evening of July 1, 1867, from the steamboat G. A. Thompson, into the Missouri River. He was a truly amazing man.
The Red Hand Magazine
By the 19th century, both Protestant and Catholic organizations, and descendants of the winners and the defeated, claimed ownership of the Red Hand of O’Neill as theirs. The revival of Irish Nationalism through organizations like the Irish Gaelic League and other Celtic societies, encouraged a study of Ireland and her illustrious past, and with it came a literary revival. Books, historical papers, and magazines began to pop up concerning the O’Neill Clan and the northern Provence of Ulster. One such magazine, which was published in 1920, was called the Red Hand Magazine; only four copies were ever printed.
The first article was written by the highly respected author Francis Joseph Bigger, a man whose story concerning his love and relationship to the O’Neill Clan is yet to be written, it would be an insult and would take to long to describe such a defining figure in our clan’s history to this small written piece. Suffice it to say, he pushed for commemorations to be carried out at the great Shane O’Neill’s grave once a year. He also had a flag created with the Red Hand of O’Neill that once flew over one of Ireland’s and the O’Neill clan’s greatest patriots.
The association of O’Neill Clans has also been approached to perhaps revitalize this commemoration with the original flag belonging to Mr. Bigger. I personally hope this will come to pass some time in the very near future. Mr Bigger suggested to the Irish Volunteers in 1913 that the words Lámh Dhearg and the Red Hand and the Irish Harp should be included on their flag. In 1914, the flag was presented to Eoin Mac Neill and the Irish volunteers in Celtic Park in Derry. It is now in the Department of Defense Headquarters in Dublin.
Loyalist use of the O’Neill Red Hand
As mentioned above, many organizations in the 19th century claimed to own the Red Hand of the O’Neill Clan. Throughout history, many Protestant groups were then opposed to Irish home rule. The Red Hand was then used for publicity purposes via posters, slogans, etc. One such poster featured the red hand with the slogan “Ulster will fight and Ulster will be right”. Others carried slogans with the images of Carson, Bonar Law, James Craig and Col. R.H. Wallace (Grand Master of the Orange Lodge) with the following slogan, “the red hand the winning hand,” etc.
Militant loyalists in the future would take their lead from these early post cards, posters, etc, as well as the Ulster Volunteer Force, created by Carson, who used the Red Hand symbol during its birth in 1916. However, their real inspiration would come from the home rule protesters of the past, but more from William Craig’s Ulster Vanguard Movement of 1972, which substituted the Ulster Flag for the Union Jack after the suspension of Stormont.
From this point forward, Loyalist groups began to use it widely right up until the present day – for example, the Red Hand Commandos, Red Hand Defenders, and the Ulster Defense Association, among others. Even the First Minster of Northern Ireland, The Rev Dr Ian Paisley, and his second in command, and the present First Minster of Northern Ireland, Mr. Peter Robinson, also adorned the Red Beret as a Red Hand symbol when they were parading in the hills around Ballymena, in 1981during the Hunger Strikes via their inception of the Ulster Resistance group.
In fact, those unfamiliar with Irish history may actually believe it to be a solely loyalist symbol. In 2005, former Miss Northern Ireland, Zoe Salmon, caused controversy when she selected the Red Hand as a symbol to represent Northern Ireland in a competition for Blue Peter. David Miller, a sociology professor from Strathclyde University in Scotland, complained to the BBC, saying that "like the swastika, the Red Hand has been misappropriated ... it is the symbol of the unionists.” Michael Copeland, an Ulster Unionist Party Assembly member, described the row as “political correctness gone mad”.
Use of the Red Hand of O’Neill today
The Red Hand is now included in the Flag of Northern Ireland, and on the shields of counties Cavan, Tyrone, Derry, Antrim and Monaghan. It is also used by many other official and non-official organizations throughout the province of Ulster. The Red Hand can be regarded as one of the very few cross-community symbols used in North of Ireland. Due to its roots as a Gaelic Irish symbol, nationalist/republican groups have used (and continue to use) it often – for example, the republican Irish Citizen Arm, the republican National Graves Association in Belfast, the Irish Transport and General Workers Union, and numerous GAA clubs in Ulster.
However, it is also the badge of Anglo English baronets, as mentioned previously. As confusing as Irish history is at times, the following poem relates how the use of the Red Hand of O’Neill can also be very confusing to both members of the community and the political divide in the north of Ireland:
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.
But perhaps, just perhaps, it is time that the great Red Hand of O’Neill was at last claimed by her own, the members of the association of O’Neill clan’s
His Brehons around him - the blue heavens o'er him,
His true clan behind, and his broad lands before him,
While group'd far below him, on moor, and on heather,
His Tanists and chiefs are assembled together;
They give him a sword, and he swears to protect them;
A slender white wand, and he vows to direct them;
And then, in God's sunshine, "O'NEILL" they all hail him:
Through life, unto death, ne'er to flinch from, or fail him;
And earth hath no spell that can shatter or sever
That bond from their true hearts - The Red Hand for Ever!
Proud lords of Tir-Owen! High Chiefs of Lough Neagh!
How broad-stretch'd the lands that were rul'd by your sway!
What eagle would venture to wing them right through,
But would droop on his pinion, o'er half ere he flew!
From the Hills of MacCartan, and waters that ran
Like Steeds down Glen Swilly, to soft-flowing Bann -
From Clannaboy's heather to Carrick's sea-shore
And Armagh of the Saints to the wild Innismore -
From the cave of the hunter on Tir-Connell's hills
To the dells of Glenarm, all gushing with rills -
From Antrim's bleak rocks to the woods of Rostrevor -
All echo'd your war-shout - `The Red Hand for Ever!'
Lámh Dhearg Ó Néill