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.”

In 1969, Stephen gave his own sincere assessment of Northern Ireland’s current issues:

“You have to be very careful about the way you do Irish drama. There are so many misconceptions abroad about Catholic and Protestant in Ireland. I heard Bernadette Devlin’s maiden speech in Parliament and I was deeply moved. She was elected, remember, in a predominantly Protestant community, and she said, “There is not a religious question in Ireland. It is simply a question of poverty.”

“Of course, that was distorted in all of the foreign press,” Boyd said angrily, “Nobody had it right but the London Times. Of course it’s a question of poverty in Ireland, and people everywhere was so ignorant of the situation. Only yesterday someone said to me, ‘But you’re Catholic,’ and I said, ‘No I happen to be Protestant, but what has that to do with it?”

“I come from an Irish family, the youngest of nine. My father was a truck driver. When he retired, he was at the height of his earning power. He was making six pounds a week, that’s about thirteen dollars. How the hell are a man and his wife and nine children going to live on thirteen dollars a week?”

Then he grew less angry and he said, “And then I think of something O’Casey said when I did ‘June and the Paycock’ in Belfast and he came up to see it. He said, ‘There are many, many, many noes in the world , but there is always a bigger yes.’” (The Journal News – White Plains New York, 09 Jul 1969, By Bernard Shaw)

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.

Belfast,  1971


Stephen Boyd

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. (

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