Frank Quinn’s Tyrone jacket with the Red Hand logo

I began the New Year sporting the Red Hand of Tyrone on a borrowed jacket, the property of Frank Quinn in Glenmalure. So I was fascinated to read the following history of the symbol of Ulster in An Irishman’s Diary written by Frank McNally, part of which is reproduced here:

“The question of which foot you use while digging has in Ireland long had a significance that goes beyond matters of horticulture. But during a visit to Belfast recently, I was struck by the contrasting neutrality, in political symbolism, of the hand.”


Red Hand in the Ulster Rugby logo

“I’m thinking mainly of the Red Hand, that ubiquitous symbol of Ulster. Unlike most emblems, it straddles the political and sectarian divide.  And on both sides, it’s usually the right hand (dexter) that’s depicted, although there are quite a few left hands scattered around Belfast on coats of arms and other insignia, with apparently equal indifference.

This is all the more surprising given that there are two competing explanations for the symbol’s origins. One is religious, referring to the hand of God (His right, invariably), a meaning mentioned in Milton’s Paradise Lost and a Nick Cave song, Red Right Hand, among other places.

The alternative is the prehistorical myth of the Iberian invaders, promised Ulster as the prize in a boat race. The first to touch it would win, so within sight of the finish, the most committed of the trio chopped his hand off and threw it ashore, a result that withstood the subsequent stewards’ inquiry.

By the law of averages (and most versions of the story), however, it was the invader’s right hand that did the chopping, and therefore his left that claimed the reward. Maybe that explains some of the left-hand versions in Belfast.  But then again, as far as I can see, loyalist murals, just like GAA insignia, tend to go with with the right.

Not that the Red Hand is entirely the property of Ulster. It used to symbolise Ireland in general. And again, this could be ambidextrous. You see lefty versions on, for example, old cap badges of the Irish Citizen Army. But I suppose there is a certain logic in that.

The foot question has its contradictions too. In the South, it is Protestants who are (or were) said to the dig with the left. In the North, the same claim was made of Catholics.  The point in both cases was that they were the minority.  Whichever foot they dug with it, it was the “wrong” one.


Red Hand in Mid Ulster Council logo

One the other other hand (no pun intended), that great student of Ireland’s idiosyncrasies, (QUB Professor) E. Estyn Evans, once went into the subject in meticulous detail and found a depth of meaning in it that few who used the phrase could have suspected.

In his 1957 book, Irish Folk Ways, he wrote that most diggers in Ireland used the right foot – a habit reinforced by the traditional one-sided Irish spade, or “loy”, which unlike the English version, didn’t offer a choice.

But he added that, “in eastern Ireland, and particularly the Protestant districts of the north-east, the left foot is normally the digging-foot […] though the old Irish stocks continue to dig with the right”. In general, he marvelled at the “astonishing variety” of spades here, as witnessed by a Tyrone factory that specialised in the product. Its “spade gauge book”, he reported, had 230 different patterns.

The Tyrone factory had recently closed, he noted.  And I suspect that the complexity of Irish spade technology had peaked by then. Even so, anyone who still thinks that “calling a spade a spade” is synonymous with verbal simplicity should read Irish Folk Ways.  For me, at least, it sheds new light on Seamus Heaney’s famous decision, circa 1966, to dig with a pen.”


Red Hand (dexter version)

The left hand version (sinister) of the symbol has been used by the Irish National Foresters, the Irish Citizen Army and the Federated Workers Union of Ireland, subsequently SIPTU.


ULSTERLOGOThe casualty list is long. After the exertions of the European Cup match in France against Oyonnax which produced a great win, it’s not surprising that there are so many injuries. No further news yet on Tommy Bowe who was a spectator at the annual Christmas Day swim at Emy Lake near his home in Emyvale, Co. Monaghan. So here’s the long list and I hope it’s not too depressing for Ulster rugby fans…..

An injury update on Cave, Payne, Olding, Williams, Arnold, Herbst, Ludik, Bowe, Tuohy and Henderson…

Ireland internationals Darren Cave (shoulder) and Jared Payne (foot) have returned to training following their injuries and are in contention to play against Saracens on Saturday. Nick Williams was concussed during Sunday’s win over Oyonnax and will follow the return to play protocols. He will be unavailable for selection this weekend against Saracens. Sammy Arnold strained his hamstring in the first half of the Oyonnax match and will be sidelined for approximately three weeks. Louis Ludik is having treatment for an adductor strain he suffered in the same match and he is likely to be rested this week.

Wiehahn Herbst has recovered from a calf injury and he is likely to feature against Saracens this weekend. Stuart Olding is recovering well from an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury suffered against Cardiff last March. He is in full training and is likely to return to competitive action in the coming weeks.

Tommy Bowe (knee), Iain Henderson (hamstring) and Dan Tuohy (ankle) are recovering well from their respective injuries. A return to play date has yet to be determined for the trio.



ERC Heineken Cup

ERC Heineken Cup

Congratulations to Ulster Rugby on their Heineken Cup win over Leicester. The 19-22 victory over the Tigers at Welford Road thanks to the boot of Ruan Pienaar earned them a home quarter final at Ravenhill against Saracens. The semi-final draw also favours Ulster, and hopefully they can progress to a home tie against the winners of Clermont v Leicester. Ulster and Saracens met in the last eight last season and on that occasion the Londoners ran out winners 27-16.

The other semi-final could be an all-Irish affair with the winner of Toulon v Leinster hosting the winner of Munster v Toulouse. The quarter-finals take place from 4th-6th April with the semis following on 25th-27th April. The last eight line-up includes six past champions, with Saracens and last year’s beaten finalists Clermont the only survivors this season not to have won the tournament.

Quarter-finals: Ulster v Saracens; Clermont v Leicester; Toulon v Leinster; Munster v Toulouse.

Semi-finals: Ulster or Saracens v Clermont or Leicester; Toulon or Leinster v Munster or Toulouse.

Ulster Rugby

Ulster Rugby


Brian McLaughlin at Antrim Lions Breakfast

Brian McLaughlin at Antrim Lions Breakfast

I’m a winner: people who know me know what I’m about! I don’t like losing….. “. The interest in my previous post on Lions & Lions has encouraged me to devote another page to the breakfast talk given recently at the Dunadry Hotel to Antrim Lions Club and their guests by former Ulster Rugby head coach Brian McLaughlin, now Academy Schools Coach. This time I will tell it as he delivered it: punchy and with plenty of insights into the world of rugby, with which he has been intimately involved for many years.

Brian kicked off his life story by talking about the support he got from his parents (and I am typing this at my parents’ house in Dublin). His career has centred around sport. His father played hockey but his mother’s preference was for tennis and “she had a tennis racket in my hand from the age of three”. Tennis was his second love and he played at Comber, where he was reared. What he did not tell us last Thursday (and I would have loved to discuss it further with him) was that his grandfather (like Tommy Bowe) had a connection with County Monaghan, having moved from Ballybay in the 1920s to take over as manager of the Northern bank in Comber. His father, a keen Instonian, worked in the linen industry in Belfast and had a small business on Murray Street.

Brian said his parents had encouraged him every step of the way and they had never missed an Ulster game at Ravenhill when he was in charge. After the age of twelve he “always wanted to be a PE teacher” and his love of sport as a teenager seems to have left a trail of destruction behind in several broken windows!

Brian McLaughlin & Antrim Lions President Barry Warwick

Brian McLaughlin & Antrim Lions President Barry Warwick

He and his two brothers were sent to Regent House in Newtownards. David McMaster who coached rugby teams at the school for many years was an important influence and he has kept in contact with many of his school friends. He was a contemporary of Nigel Carr, “the hardest guy to play against”. Carr was later an Irish international and was a great player who showed “unbelievable spirit”, according to Brian. Nigel and two other international players were caught up in an IRA bomb at the border in April 1987 and although he escaped serious injury, his knee was affected and it ended his rugby career at the age of 27. Brian said he admired Carr’s resilience. He remembered doing speed and power training with him in the 1980s. Each acted as best man for the other at their weddings.

A third member of that Regent House team, who went on to star for Ireland, was Phillip Matthews, now a BBC rugby commentator. Along with McLaughlin he played in an Ulster schools’ cup final in 1977 when Regent House narrowly lost to Tommy Bowe’s alma mater, Royal School Armagh, 12-9. Carr broke his leg in the quarter final against Grosvenor (Belfast) and missed out on the final. He had seven knee operations during his time as a player to keep him active. But he missed out on any Lions tour (South Africa in 1986 did not happen, owing to apartheid) but did play against the Rest of the World in Cardiff in 1986.

During the 1986/87 season McLaughlin was captain of Ards. In 1987 they won the Ulster Senior Cup. In 1982 he took on his second teaching job at Wallace High School in Lisburn. He was also involved in club rugby with Malone and Instonians and the Ulster under-20s. When Eddie O’Sullivan got the Ireland under-21 coaching job, he brought in Brian McLaughlin in as his forwards coach.  They got on well and thought about rugby the same way. The side won triple crowns in 1996 and 1998. The 1996 team was captained by Tony McWhirter, who won 94 caps playing for Ulster and was a member of the European Cup winning side in 1999. Other rising stars from that era included Eric Miller, Girvan Dempsey and Malcolm O’Kelly, all of them coached by McLaughlin. He described O’Sullivan as a forward-thinking coach and said it was a huge decision for O’Sullivan to go off in 1997 for two years to the United States as an assistant coach. O’Sullivan was not long in the Ireland senior job in 2005 when he gave McLaughlin a shout to come and help higher up the line. Both remain good pals, according to Brian.

Michael Fisher & Brian McLaughlin

Michael Fisher & Brian McLaughlin

In the previous three years from 2002-2005 McLaughlin had been coaching Ballynahinch. He was full of praise for their young players who have come through like Willie Faloon (now Connacht) and Paddy McAllister (both Royal School Armagh) who he said was “dynamic” and he hoped would play for Ireland. He  described scrum half Paul Marshall (Methody) as a fantastic player, who was the fittest guy in Ulster: “a pocket-rocket”.  The late Nevin Spence, who died in a farm accident last September, was “a fantastic guy” and “an exceptional character”, who he said had shown “unbelievable determination” on the rugby pitch and who was an unbelievable loss for Ulster. He said he had stayed in contact with the Spence family, who lost two other members in the slurry-pit tragedy. Another Hinch player to make the grade with Ulster was a Cork man, Jerry Cronin from Mallow. He was signed up for Ballynahinch one night in the pub in Belfast, where he was working as a structural engineer. He is a “phenomenal character” according to McLaughlin and made his debut for Ulster in October 2010 against his home province of Munster. He was signed up by the Doncaster Knights in England eleven months ago and it remains to be seen if he returns to Ireland at some stage (Munster, perhaps?).

Antrim Lions Club
Antrim Lions Club

Funds raised from the breakfast went to Lions Club charities. You can find out more about Antrim Lions Club here.


Brian McLaughlin & Antrim Lions President Barry Warwick

Brian McLaughlin & Antrim Lions President Barry Warwick

Over a traditional breakfast at the Dunadry Hotel near Templepatick, former Ulster Rugby Head Coach Brian McLaughlin (now Academy Schools Coach) talked about Lions to Lions and their guests from the Antrim Lions Club. In the course of an hour, Brian revealed his passion for rugby and answered questions about his favourite sport (apart from tennis!). Asked if he had sent a Christmas card to the Director of Rugby David Humphreys he quipped “Yes, but I didn’t put a stamp on it!”

David Humphreys & Brian McLaughlin news conference (BBC Sport)

David Humphreys & Brian McLaughlin (BBC Sport)

An indication that the parting of the waves in February last year and the subsequent appointment of New Zealander Mark Anscombe was not entirely amicable. At a media conference at the time,  McLaughlin made it clear he was disappointed at being replaced as senior team boss and described his switch to the academy as a sideways move. A day later he clarified that his new position was an important role he took seriously and to which he would bring extensive experience.

Antrim Lions Ken Oliver & Barry Warwick

Antrim Lions Ken Oliver & Barry Warwick

Brian gave the Antrim Lions an insight into just how experienced he is when it comes to rugby. He started playing with his home town club Ards where he was a back-row forward alongside Ireland stars Philip Matthews and Nigel Carr before injury interrupted his career. He had success at Ulster and Ireland age group level winning the Five Nations Grand Slam alongside O’Sullivan in the early 1990s. His other coaching duties included spells at Malone and Instonians. He also guided then Division Two team Ballynahinch to a series of titles in 2008/09. Hinch won the AIB All-Ireland Cup by beating  Cork Constitution and topped the Ulster Senior League, took the Ulster Senior Cup and won promotion to Division One of the All-Ireland League. They have just won division 1B of what is now the Ulster Bank League and will be back in the top flight (1A) next season.

Michael Fisher & Brian McLaughlin

Michael Fisher & Brian McLaughlin

Brian is most recognised, however, for his work at schools level. He coached Wallace High School (Lisburn) to a couple of cup finals and then guided RBAI (Inst) to seven cup finals in 12 years, winning five of them. He also won the inter-provincial title with the Ulster Under-21 side where he coached Rory Best. McLaughlin was appointed to the top job in Ulster in June 2009. He was supported by the same backroom staff who were in position at Ravenhill under Matt Williams, with Jeremy Davidson and former pupil at Wallace Neil Doak his main assistants.

He gave his views on some of the players he had coached and the one he most admired for his commitment to training was former Ireland captain Brian O’Driscoll, who he hoped would be included in the British and Irish Lions squad later this year. Funds raised from the breakfast go to Lions Club charities. You can find out more about Antrim Lions Club here.



An explanation first of all of the title. Rugby fans will I hope recognise it immediately. It means Stand Up For The Ulster Men. The chant could be heard around a rain-soaked Ravenhill tonight as Ulster took on Glasgow Warriors in the Heineken Cup. Despite some protests over the union flag on some of the main roads in Belfast, it was almost a packed house (10,940) and there seemed to be only a handful of visitors from Scotland. The wet conditions were not conducive to good rugby. Ulster dominated the first half. Ruan Pienaar put over a penalty after seven minutes and the out half added the conversion after Nick Williams went over for a try in the nineteenth minute. A 10-0 lead for Ulster at the break. Glasgow came back in the first fifteen  minutes of the second half with two penalties from out half Duncan Weir. Pienaar added another penalty on 62 minutes to give the home side a seven points cushion 13-6. The last quarter saw a determined Ulster side score two tries in the 73rd (Jared Payne) and 78th (Darren Cave) minutes. Neither was converted but coach Mark Anscombe will be satisfied with the result: victory to Ulster by 23-6. With one round of pool matches remaining, Ulster now sit top of Pool 4 on 19 points, five clear of Northampton Saints and six ahead of next weekend’s French opponents Castres. Although qualification for the Cup quarter-final is now secure, a good away result next week would give Ulster the advantage of a home draw in the knockout stages. Man of the match: Tom Court.


For the teams, see Ulster Rugby.


Rovers win Dublin derby

Rovers win Dublin derby

Two great results for two of my favourite football teams. A visit to Tallaght stadium in Dublin, my first of the new Airtricity Premier League season, was rewarded with a convincing 4-0 win by Shamrock Rovers over Shelbourne. Mind you, Shels did not help their cause by losing a player after only seven minutes. Goalkeeper Dean Delany was red-carded for a foul in the box on Billy Dennehy. Gary Twigg converted the spot kick. A back pass from Stephen Hurley drifted slowly towards the goal, ending up in the back of the net, much to the amusement of the home supporters in the 5,000 crowd. Kick-off had been delayed for ten minutes because of the number of spectators waiting to gain entry. President of Ireland Michael D. Higgins was in the stand. Will be interesting to see the replay on RTÉ’s Monday Night Soccer show.

SRFC 4 Shels 0

SRFC 4 Shels 0

A long-range strike from Ronan Finn just before half time made it 3-0. Shels continued to battle against the odds but Aaron Greene added another for the Hoops, who had Gary McCabe sent off for a second offence. So both sides in the Dublin derby were reduced to ten towards the end.By that stage the three points were already in the bag for the Hoops, who remain at the top of the table along with Sligo Rovers.


Jack  MIdson

Jack MIdson


Less then 24 hours later I was delighted to see another 4-0 scoreline, this time in favour of AFC Wimbledon who were at home to Burton Albion. A badly needed three points to keep the Dons clear of the relegation zone in npower League 2, their first season back in the Football League. Glad to see Jack Midson is still sharing the top spot for goalscorers in the division with 18 goals. After the soccer, it was time to switch my attention to the RaboDirect PRO12 rugby matches involving the Irish provinces. On Friday night in a sell-out match at the RDS (coinciding with the Tallaght match) Leinster lost by a single point against the Ospreys, 22-23. Tommy Bowe was rested by the Welsh side but turned up as a guest on RTÉ’s Saturday Night Show with Brendan O’Connor. Looking forward to seeing Tommy back in action for Ulster next season! Listening to some of the Ulster match away to Treviso the news was not good but by the time I got round to checking the result I was delighted to see that a last gasp try by Ian Whitten had secured a 23-27 victory. There was also time to watch the first half of the Connacht match against Munster shown live on TG4. An impressive performance by Connacht for forty minutes but not enough to match the strength of the visitors who went on to win 16-20. Finally some GAA thoughts. On Sunday I was anxious to see how the Monaghan footballers would do in their Allianz National Football League division 2 match against Galway. Monaghan lost home advantage because of the ugly scenes at Clones at a previous match and they had to play the game at a neutral venue at Pearse Park in Longford. The Farney men went down by 0-12 to 1-14 (17 points) and are now in danger of being relegated to division 3 next season. That would be a terrible shame as there are still some great footballers on the team. One of them is Paul “Jap” Finlay from Ballybay, profiled in this excellent piece by Keith Duggan on Saturday in the Irish Times.


Four points in the bag for Ulster

ULSTER returned to their winning ways at Ravenhill, defeating Connacht 22-3 in the RaboDirect PRO12 league. But the scoreline did not reflect how close Connacht came to upsetting the home team. Both sides exchanged penalties early on. Having brought a New Zealander along to watch the match I was particualrly interested in how new signing and World Cup medallist from Auckland John Afoa would perform. He got a great cheer when he came out onto the pitch and was soon demonstrating his strengths in the front row of the scrum. Indeed it was from the scrum just before half time that a move began which resulted in winger Craig Gilroy latching onto an inside pass from Ian Humphreys and then going over in the left corner to make it 8-3 to Ulster at the break. The home side began the second half intent on pressurising Connacht and two minutes in, good work by Rory Best, Dan Tuohy and Afoa created an opportunity for Ireland prop Tom Court to score their second try, with Humphreys adding the conversion. For the rest of the half, though, the battle was extremely tough as Connacht did their best to pull back the twelve point gap. Tempers flared at times but the referee kept the game under control well and no-one was sin-binned or shown a red card. However the medics were kept busy with a series of injuries to key Ulster players Stephen Ferris (ankle), Tom Court (knee), and skipper Johann Muller. Perhaps coach Brian McLaughlin had the risk of an injury in mind when he substituted Afoa before the end and the Kiwi was applauded for his first performance in an Ulster jersey. Additional time was being played when Ian Humphreys broke through the Connacht defence to score under the posts and add a quick conversion as the final whistle blew. Ulster 22 Connacht 3. The result means that with eight games played, Ulster are in mid-table, nine points behind the Ospreys and Leinster, who saw off the challenge of Munster at the RDS.

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