Belfast’s Stephen Boyd and the Red Hand of Ulster (The Emerald Isle’s Powder Keg)

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Stephen Boyd was always a very proud Irishman. Being born in Belfast made Stephen a citizen of the United Kingdom, as Northern Ireland did not follow its Southern compatriots in their bid for independence which became official in 1922. Being an important industrial city, it was also more prosperous (for some at least) than the south and this area chose to remain loyal to the crown. Northern Ireland, however, was deeply divided by two things– religion and wealth. Stephen’s came from a poor Presbyterian family. This left Stephen somewhat sympathetic to the cause of a United Ireland even before the Troubles began in the late 1960’s. Catholics in Northern Ireland were even worse off, for years being denied even the most basic rights of property, voting, employment and education. The have-not’s were mostly Catholic but not entirely. The impoverished Protestants also felt the strain. These resentments and injustices ran deep and distant, as far back as the 1600’s when James I of England starting the ‘Plantation of Ulster’, the settlement of Scots (who were mostly Presbyterian) and English into Northern Ireland to displace the Gaelic population.

Siobhan McKenna


Stephen spoke to columnist Louella Parsons in September 1959 and relayed his feelings and interactions with fellow Belfast-born actress Siobhan McKenna (King of Kings).

Siobhan McKenna lives five blocks from him, and he told me whenever they get together they talk about Ireland.

“I am one who will fight for a United Ireland,” he said.

“It’s ridiculous that Ireland cannot have her freedom. Why should Belfast be separated from the south of Ireland? If I have a cause, it is to fight for my country –the freedom of Ireland!” said Stephen emphatically.

He went on to say that although he is no Catholic, Siobhan is, and, in fact, that 66% of those who live in Belfast are Irish Catholics. (Lincoln Journal Star, September 6, 1959)

This comment apparently ignited some anger among Ulster-Americans and forced Stephen to write a conciliatory letter to the Belfast Telegraph, which author Joe Cushnan relays in his biography of Stephen Boyd, “Stephen Boyd: From Belfast to Hollywood.”

“I am an Ulster Protestant and I have never made any secret of the fact, but being in a business where colour, creed, political or religious beliefs mean nothing. I have naturally avoided any serious thinking on these subjects. On being asked if there was another war who would I fight for, and being a British subject who is an Irishman, I simply said that I would fight for Ireland, which happens to be my home country. On being told that it is impossible for Irish Catholics to live in Ulster, I replied that this was ridiculous, that there were many districts in Ulster where the majority living there were Irish Catholics, and to my knowledge this is true. Furthermore, I stated that there was no difference between the people of the south of Ireland and the people of Ulster and that, on the whole, I found people around the world basically the same. I would like to close on this note, that if anyone ever reads of statements supposedly coming from me where I take part in any political or religious war, these statements will be completely unfounded and untrue.

American Citizenship


Stephen would become an official US Citizen in December of 1963, but still remained very proud of his Irish heritage. According to Screen Stories Magazine (April 1964), Stephen was given a big party by his Hollywood friends after his citizenship ceremony. The party cake read “He’s Our Steve – Ex-Irishman!” Stephen responded to this gesture by a frown, saying, “Sure, I’m on this side now, but that’s one thing you can never ex out of a Belfast blatherskite whose daddy came from the County Kerry.”

Belfast 1971


Stephen Boyd

In 1969, “The Troubles” hit Ireland. It was partly inspired by social reform and changes in the USA and other parts of the world. I don’t presume to explain the intricacies of this turmoil, but needless to say it was a very ugly conflict between paramilitary units on both sides as well as the British military. The Republican Irish (IRA), who wanted to break away from the British, and Loyalists or Unionists, who wanted to remain with the British. This was a sustained conflict with the loss of more than 3,000 people over the next three decades, finally coming to an uneasy close in 1998.

In late 1971, Stephen Boyd made one of his many familial visits to Belfast, and what greeted him was a horrific scene of chaos and violence. He related his visit to Chicago Tribune writer Bob Wiedrich.

Since Irish-born actor Stephen Boyd achieved international stardom in the late 1950’s, he’s become the darling of his countrymen, regarded almost as a national cultural treasure to be guarded from harm.

Thus, whenever Boyd returns to visit his family in Northern Ireland outside riot-torn Belfast, the military always meets him at the airport to deliver him under escort as insurance against his becoming an accidental victim of either Protestant or outlawed Irish republican Army bullets.

On his last trip home, just prior to leaving for the West Indies to star in Virginia Stone’s “Jamaica Reef,” Boyd and his British Army guards were rolling thru the rubble-littered streets of Belfast when they heard the sound of nearby gunfire.

Around the next corner stood a mob of some 150 Protestants – men, women and children – in a confrontation with Roman Catholics. And before them stood a small boy of perhaps 6, a revolver in one hand, hurling rocks with the other, all the while screaming:

“We’ve stuck to you for 200 years. We’ll stick it to you for another 300!”

“That scene brought tears of anguish to my eyes, ” Boyd told us. “Here was the real tragedy of my homeland, a little boy screaming imprecations he couldn’t possibly understand at his age.

“Yet, this child represented the abysmal hopelessness of the situation in Northern Ireland where the hatred on both sides is so deeply ingrained I don’t know if even God can resolve it.

“Because of this divisiveness, the potential for displaying to the world all that is good in that lovely land is lost, perhaps even destroyed.

“The unemployment, even in good times, the widespread poverty, religious discrimination, overpopulation –all these overshadow the cultural treasures, the writers, the artists, the poets, and musicians with so much to offer mankind.”

There is little doubt Boyd’s first-hand words have the ring of authenticity, for the cultural arts rarely flourish amidst violence. Like any delicate bloom, they expire beneath hobnailed boots and hate. (Chicago Tribune, November 3, 1971)

Approximately two months after this interview took place, the infamous “Bloody Sunday” massacre took place in Londonderry (Derry) in what’s known as the “Bogside” on January 30, 1972. The tragedy of Northern Ireland would continue to unravel for the next 3 decades with brutal killings on all sides: British, Loyalists and Republicans.

The Whore Mother


Stephen Boyd was planning to produce and star in a film called “The Whore Mother”, based on a book by Shaun Herron. Sadly the movie didn’t get past production. This book is riveting and rough and well worth a read to imagine what the film could have been. The story revolved around a young, idealistic, middle-class Ulster Catholic from the Antrim Road who joins the professional IRA in Belfast, but soon balks at the atrocities he is asked to commit in the name of ‘The Cause’ and the coarseness of his working-class comrades in arms. After witnessing a hit he becomes disillusioned and runs away, but the main IRA antagonist pursues him across the entire length of Ireland, trying to kill him.

Boyd did portray an Irish Catholic terrorist in his last role, the premiere episode of Hawaii Five-0 in 1977. As a wayward priest, Stephen has some poignant dialogue about the tragedy and sorrow of war-torn Ireland which is surely coming from the heart. Stephen ends the episode with a mysterious remark in Gaelic/Irish before saying “Up the Rebels.”


The Red Hand of Ulster (Irish: Lámh Dhearg Uladh)

To simplify the conflict greatly, some Protestants were killing Catholics and some Catholics were killing Protestants. Many people no longer felt safe mixing with people from a different religious background. In this context the use of symbols came to have very strong meanings. Using symbols – for example flags, on painted wall murals, or worn on clothing – showed allegiance and let people know whose territory they were entering. This could be, quite literally, a matter of life and death. (

Murals from two sides – left (pro Irish-Republic) and right (Loyalist/Unionist).

The Red Hand of Ulster was one of those symbols, co-opted by the Unionist/Loyalist side, that was an ancient Gaelic symbol which denoted the northern province of Ireland. Even today some of the murals can be seen in Belfast and other part of Ireland like Derry/Londonderry which depict the intensity on both sides of the conflict. When I was there myself 2 years ago you could see some houses flying Israeli flags and others Palestinian flags – once more showing their side. The Unionist/Loyalists choose to align themselves with a besieged residents (Israeli) of the land, while the Republicans show their sympathy towards the Palestinians, the rebellious element. Of course, neighborhoods are still divided by walls and barbed wire even to this day many years after the conflict as eased. The story behind the Red Hand is interesting in itself.



But while many might associate the red hand with loyalist iconography, there is a cultural tug of war over its ownership…The best-known yarn has a Viking longboat war party closing on the shores of Ulster. Their leader promises the first man to touch land full possession of the territory. On board is an Irish mercenary, a turncoat of a man called O’Neill who, with a sword blow, severs his hand and throws it ashore. Ulster is now his property and the mutilated hand becomes the family symbol and icon for a regional creation myth immersed in violence and territorial rights. (

Part 9. “The Fall of the Roman Empire” by Harry Whittington – The Barbarians in Ravenna

This series of blogs is specifically lifting portions of “The Fall of the Roman Empire” novelization which did not appear in the film production, mostly focused on Livius’ relationship with a German Princess, played by Lena Von Martens, and the fictional settlement of Germans (Macromanni) in and around Ravenna. The scenes were filmed, but they didn’t make the final cut. I hope someday to see a new DVD release which features them! In the meantime…



When Livius strode into the market place, the Italians glanced up from filling jugs or drinking at the fountain. The blond savages turned away from the displayed wares in the stores, standing as if awaiting sudden doom as Livius approached. It has been an interminable time, but the Marcomanni believed no more in good now than they had on the day they entered Ravenna.

Livius slowed, feeling tired. He was aware of Xenia and Timonides close behind him, almost as if they were his bodyguard, ready to die for him, but not ready to allow him a moment of freedom, a full breath of air.

He glanced at Xenia from the corner of his eye. She no longer looked like a child though she was still a young girl. She had the look now of a woman, and he winced, knowing he’d given her that, driven into her arms, trying to find a forgetfulness that always eluded him. He never forgot anything, not even when Xenia screamed and in her anguished pleasure.

He drew his hand across his face, sweated. It was a failure, all of it.

Timonides gestured toward the market place where the crowds of blond and dark people were stirred together, yet obviously in now way integrated. He spoke hopefully, “See how well they live together, General. Blond and dark people–”

Livius was silent, grimly surveying the peaceful scene, a peace entirely of the surface, boiling underneath, ready to erupt.


“Oh, Great Livius! Oh, Great Livius!”

Livius went tense at the cry of a young female voice. A blonde child, not yet twelve, hurled herself from a crowd of the barbarians, ran across the stones and clutched her arms about his hips, pressing her face against his body, kissing him.

“Oh, I’ve looked for you every day, ” she cried, tears streaming down her cheeks, “May I come and live with you now? Will you make me your own slave, until I am old enough for you to marry? I’ll be as no woman ever was for you. My whole life will be yours.”

Frowning, Livius lifted the child in his arms, holding her out at eye level, studying her. “Who are you?”

“Don’t you remember, Livius?” Timonides said when the child wept inconsolably. “She is Griselda, the child you saved from a javelin–”

“But you were only a baby!” Livius said, holding her in his arms until her sobbing ceased. “How you’ve grown.”

“Children grow fast,” Xenia said.

“And I will grow much faster now,” the little girl said, talking brightly into Livius’ face, stroking his cheek. “In this wonderful place you have brought us, I’ll soon be grown, and I’ll be lovely- and you will want me.”

“I’ll never be worthy of your loveliness,” Livius told her, smiling. “Are you happy here?”

“Oh, yes. It is heaven here. We have everything, and I remember when we had nothing, only cold and misery all the time. I worship you, sire. Not only for saving my life–but for all you have done for all of us.”

Livius, his eyes burning, kissed the girl’s cheek and set her on the pavement. “You run along and play and grow. Don’t ever speak of being anyone’s slave–except the man you love–”

“It is you I love,” she said. “I’ll never love anyone else.”

“Then you be happy,” Livius said, “For I love you.” When she was gone, he smiled for the first time in months. “A child. Of course it’s easier for her to adjust than for her parents. But maybe it will work, after all.”

“It is working,” Timonides said. “The parents will learn civilization, and the childen will forget they ever lived otherwise.”

Pleased, Livius gave Xenia and Timonides a brisk nod of approval as though they were responsible for peace and order in Ravenna, as though this whole experiment were somehow particularly theirs.

He turned and strode away from them, anxious to find new signs of the slow spread of success.

Xenia did not move. Her face was shadowed. Timonides laughed at her. “Do not be jealous, Xenia. It doesn’t become a princess….Besides, it was only a child he kissed.”

“A child today, “Xenia said, “Yesterday she was a baby.”

“Do not be jealous–”

“I cannot help that I am jealous. You are my teacher. You insist upon teaching me the ways of the Greek. The proud and jealous Greeks–”