The Province of Ulster flag

Last Updated

The History and Significance of the Ulster Flag

The Ulster Flag holds a special place in the hearts of many people in Ulster. It is an icon of their identity and heritage and a symbol of their history and tradition. But what is the history behind this flag, and what does it represent?

The Ulster Banner And The Ulster Flag

There is much confusion between the Ulster flag and the Ulster Banner. These are two similar but separate flags that both fly at different places and times in Northern Ireland. This article will look at the Ulster Flag or Flag of Ulster. To find out about the Ulster Banner, the Flag of Northern Ireland, or the Flag of the Government of Northern Ireland, see here

Origins of the Ulster Flag

The Red Cross


The Ulster Flag is one of the four provincial flags of Ireland; this particular flag is a red cross on a yellow background, with a red hand ona shield in the centre. This is similar to the Northern Ireland Flag, with the flag of Northern Ireland having a white field instead of yellow. The origins of this design are shrouded in mystery, but there are many theories as to its meaning and significance. One popular theory is that the flag was inspired by the Red Hand of O’Neill, a legendary figure in Irish mythology who is said to have cut off his own hand to win a race to the land of Ulster.

The Red Right Hand

According to the legend, the race to Ulster was organised by a king who promised to give the land to the first person who touched it. To win the race, O’Neill cut off his own hand and threw it onto the shore of Ulster, thus becoming the first to touch the land. The red hand in the Ulster Flag is said to represent the sacrifice that O’Neill made to win the race.

Another theory suggests that the flag was designed by King James VI of Scotland and I of England, who combined the St George’s cross (the patron saint of England) with the red hand of Ulster to create a new emblem for the province. This theory is based on the fact that James I was a strong supporter of the plantation of Ulster and may have wanted to create an official flag to represent the British presence in the province.

Another theory suggests that The flag of Ulster came about when Walter de Burgh, 1st Earl of Ulster became Earl of Ulster in 1264. He merged the family arms(heraldry) of the ancient Anglo-Norman and Hiberno-Norman noble dynasty, the House of Burgh (which was a red cross on a yellow background) with that of the Red Hand of Ulster of the Irish over-kingdom of Ulaid, which the earldom encompassed

The Gold Background

According to Ian Hernon in his book Fortress Britain, The de Burgh family heraldry is said to have come about after Hubert de Burgh, 1st Earl of Kent had fought in the Third Crusade but had no coat of arms himself. He carried a gold-coloured shield into battle. Following a battle, King Richard the Lionheart of England gave de Burgh a coat of arms by dipping his finger into the blood of a Saracen who was slain at the feet of de Burgh and marked a red cross onto de Burgh’s shield, stating, “for your bravery, this shall be your crest”.

The Nine Counties of Ulster

Ulster is one of the four provinces of Ireland, and is divided into nine counties: Antrim, Armagh, Cavan, Derry, Donegal, Down, Fermanagh, Monaghan, and Tyrone. Each of these counties has its own unique history and culture, and together they form a diverse and vibrant region of Ireland. The six counties of Antrim, Armagh, Derry, Down, Fermanagh and Tyrone represent Northern ireland

The Ulster Flag is often seen as a symbol of the unity of these counties and the people who live there. It is a reminder of the region’s shared history and heritage and the struggles and triumphs that have shaped its identity over the centuries.

The Red Hand of O’Neill

The red hand in the center of the Ulster Flag is a symbol of the ancient O’Neills, a powerful Gaelic clan that ruled parts of Ulster for centuries. Legend has it that the clan’s founder, Niall of the Nine Hostages, had a vision of a white bird with a red beak and red feet, and that this inspired him to use the red hand as his emblem.

The O’Neills were one of the most important clans in Irish history, and their influence can still be seen in the culture and traditions of Ulster today. The red hand is a powerful symbol of their legacy and of the enduring strength and resilience of the Irish people.

The Union Flag Influence


The Union Jack, the national flag of the United Kingdom, has significantly influenced the Ulster Flag’s design. The red cross on a yellow background is a part of the Union Jack design, and the Ulster Flag also incorporates this element.

The flag of NI is slightly different but included more Union flag influence, such as the shield being replaced by a six-pointed star with the imperial crown above to represent the six counties of Ulster under the control of the government of Northern Ireland. 

Historical Uses of the Ulster Flag

The Ulster Flag has been used in various historical contexts and has played an important role in the history of N. Ireland. Let’s explore some of the most significant historical uses of the Ulster Flag.

The Plantation of Ulster

One of the earliest recorded uses of the Ulster Flag was during the Plantation of Ulster in the 17th century. This was a period of colonization by English and Scottish settlers brought in to replace the native Irish population.

The Ulster Flag was used as a symbol of the new settlers’ loyalty to the English crown and as a way of distinguishing themselves from the native Irish population. The flag was flown over settlements and properties owned by the new settlers as a way of asserting their ownership and control over the land.

However, the use of the Ulster Flag during this period was also highly controversial. Many native Irish people saw it as a symbol of their oppression and displacement and resented the new settlers’ use of the flag to assert their dominance.

The Ulster Covenant

Another important use of the Ulster Flag was during the Ulster Covenant of 1912. This was a political protest by Unionists (those who wanted Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom) against the proposed Home Rule for Ireland.

The Ulster Flag was used as a symbol of the Unionists’ opposition to Home Rule and as a way of rallying support for their cause. The flag was flown at rallies and demonstrations and was often accompanied by other symbols of Unionist identity, such as the Red Hand of Ulster.

The Ulster Covenant was a significant moment in Northern Irish history, and the Ulster Flag played a key role in the Unionist campaign against Home Rule. However, the use of the flag also contributed to tensions between Unionists and nationalists and helped to entrench the sectarian divide in Northern Ireland.

The Troubles in Northern Ireland

During the Troubles (a period of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland from the late 1960s to the late 1990s), the Ulster Flag became a highly contentious symbol.

Nationalists often used it as a way of showing their loyalty to Irish Unity, and as a way of showing their opposition to the Government of the United Kingdom.

The Ulster Flag was frequently flown in Unionist areas of Northern Ireland and was a common sight at Orange Order parades and other Unionist events by nationalists. However, its use was often seen as provocative by Unionists, and could lead to tensions and violence.

Despite its controversial history, the Ulster Flag remains an important symbol of National identity in Northern Ireland. While some see it as a symbol of division and sectarianism, others view it as a symbol of their heritage and culture.

The significance of the Ulster Flag today

The Ulster Flag is a vibrant symbol that is deeply rooted in the history and culture of Northern Ireland. Today, it continues to be an important emblem that represents the region’s unique identity and is used in various political and cultural contexts.

Political and Cultural Identity

For many people in Northern Ireland, the Ulster Banner represents their political and cultural identity. It is often seen as a way of asserting their loyalty to the British crown, and of showing their opposition to Irish nationalism and the Uslter Flag. 

However, it is also used by many people as a symbol of their pride in Northern Irish culture and heritage and as a way of celebrating the province’s diversity. 

Sports and Community Events

The Ulster Flag is common at sporting events and community gatherings in Northern Ireland. It is used by local Hockey, rugby and Gaelic team fans, and is often displayed proudly at matches and tournaments by sporting organisations. The flag is also used to decorate homes and businesses during cultural festivals like St. Patrick’s Day, where it is a popular way of showing support for the region’s unique culture and traditions.

Controversies and Debates

Despite its widespread use, the Ulster Flag remains a highly controversial symbol. Some people argue that it is an important part of Northern Irish identity, while others see it as a divisive symbol that perpetuates sectarianism and discrimination. In recent years, there has been much debate over the use of the flag in public spaces, with some arguing that it should be banned from certain areas in order to promote inclusivity and equality.

Despite these debates, the Ulster Flag remains an important symbol of Ulster and Northern Ireland’s unique identity and cultural heritage. As the region continues to evolve and redefine itself in the 21st century, the flag will undoubtedly play a central role in shaping its cultural and political landscape.

The Future of the Ulster Flag

The future of the Ulster Flag is uncertain as Northern Ireland continues to grapple with questions of identity and nationalism.

Calls for a New Flag Design

Some people have called for a new flag design that would better represent the diversity of Northern Irish society, and that would be less associated with sectarian and political divisions.

However, others argue that the Ulster Banner is an important part of Northern Irish history and tradition and should be preserved and respected.

The Role of the Flag in a United Ireland

If Northern Ireland were to become part of a united Ireland in the future, the role of the Ulster Flag would likely change significantly.

It could either be relegated to the status of a historical artefact or redesigned and reinterpreted to reflect a new, more inclusive vision of Northern Irish identity.

Promoting Peace and Reconciliation

Regardless of its future role, it is essential that the Ulster Flag is used in a way that promotes peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland.

It should be seen as a symbol of unity and diversity rather than as a symbol of division and conflict.


The Ulster Flag is a symbol of Ulster identity and heritage and has played an important role in the province’s history and culture.

However, it is also a highly contentious symbol that has been associated with sectarianism and discrimination.

As Northern Ireland and Ulster move forward in the 21st century, it will be essential to find ways to use the Ulster Flag in a way that promotes peace and reconciliation and that reflects the diversity of the province’s population.

About the author

Originally from Scotland, Colin now resides near the beautiful seaside town of Portstewart on the Causeway Coastal Route. By day he works in IT and by day off he spends much of his time travelling around the Island with his young family, writing about his experiences for many sites both locally and nationally.