Everyone knows the Belfast skyline could do with a hand — and I propose to give it one, a giant red hand of Ulster to be exact.
The ancient Irish symbol is suffering an image problem and the time has come to revive and transform the emblem into a bold new sculpture and icon of unity for a 21st century Northern Ireland.
In the shadow of Harland and Wolff’s Samson and Goliath a site for a new public art project is being discussed, and I have submitted my own proposal for a 10-metre red-hand sculpture. It will have titanic proportions with a hint of Finn McCool for a country that thrives on the giant and the mythical.
This sleek, modern Hand of the North constitutes a immense claim to what you might call the cultural copyright and will overshadow all previous incarnations of the hand. It will be manufactured in iron at H&W and re-launched as a landmark and repository of all our identities.
The scale is no shallow and contemporary conceit, however. A 10-metre hand will shift our gaze and dwarf our adult prejudices. It will reduce us once again to the innocence and purity of children and prompt us into a new relationship of trust in a hand that has been sullied by the whiff of colonisation and conflict.
The blood sacrifice in the red hand’s name has indeed contaminated its image and for many it is the sectarian equivalent of the Nike swoosh — and just as loathsome. It is tainted by a history of real violence, the policy makers and planners keen to banish it from the landscape forever.
But while many may associate it with loyalist and unionist iconography the hand has many shared social and political links and there remains a cultural tug of war over its ownership. It still adorns the provincial and political flags of Ulster and Northern Ireland, the team kit of Co Tyrone’s Gaelic Athletic Association and the crest for the Fire Service of NI. A red hand marks burial plots maintained by the National Graves Association; adorns stained-glass windows in Belfast's City Hall; and even advertises the services of Indian palmists.
For decades, it was used as a trademark and the logo for the NI Tourist Board, since replaced by the symbol of a heart.
The image of the red hand litters the architectural and social topography of Northern Ireland — and, at best, is tolerated for the sake of tourist spectacle. Some would argue unionism and the imminent Orange Order marching season does little to raise its profile and many believe now is a good time to lay it to rest.
As an O’NeilI however, I feel I must defend my attachment to the hand that cuts through any cultural ambivalence. Hanging in my parent’s home since the 1970s is a peculiar wedding gift — an O’Neill family heraldic coat of arms plaque — with a bloody hand. Over the years it has drip-fed into my subconscious and imprinted a peculiar notion of home, history and identity.
If you aren’t aware of the story there are, not surprisingly, countless versions of the red-hand tale in the oral traditions of Ireland. 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.
When I set out to photograph the hand for a newspaper feature I did not expect to be championing what many would like to see erased. But much of the visual landscape has been carted off stage for political expediency and along with any sense of location and identity. The red hand was simply a trail to follow.
I was raised in Antrim town and have been a photographer cum artist for the past five years. My playground growing up was the historic castle grounds, Lough Neagh shore and as far afield as Donegore where the United Irishmen camped before the Battle of Antrim.
I now live outside Northern Ireland and have seen first-hand how town planners and councilors with limited vision can ruin a town’s heritage and future in less than a decade. Roundabouts, Army and security bases and American style retail parks have been allowed to colonise the once historic market town of Antrim in the guise of regeneration.
Belfast has made some effort to include an artistic contribution to their regeneration package but one that seems to steer clear of any recent history. The period known as the Troubles is the one experience that defines us deeply and yet there has been little in the way of an intelligent and courageous artistic response that will not elicit apprehension, condemnation and controversy.
A red hand sculpture is obviously problematic and rests uncomfortably with the planners and policy maker’s vision for the city — a safe, sanitised and tourist-friendly cultural heritage — and they are eager not to upset the lottery-funded hand that feeds them.
Instead they provide us with a bland diet of public art that lacks any form of historical relevance or continuity. Most recently a No More S... Public Art for Belfast has been set up on a social networking site in an effort to stem the tide of lacklustre sculpture popping up in the city as a adjunct to every development project. It is debatable if a gigantic red hand will fill this void.
The red hand I propose raises questions about our shared identity and traditions and is not designed with conflict in mind. The disembodied prostrate hand hints at the dormancy of violence and at the passing of ancient civilisations. It symbolises the redundancy of the old ideologies and the destruction of the aged statuary. Think toppled dictators and the colossi of Greek antiquity and you are closer to the mark.
Feedback to my proposal has been positive and well received. A wry smile passes the lips of everyone who hears of a Declan O’Neill proposing a red hand for Ulster. My mother jokes that my father will be on spin-speed in his grave. Questions as to whether it will be burned have been raised, as well as suggestions for a variety of locations, from the foot of the Falls Road to the Waterfront and Black Mountain.
Though many may disagree I believe our destinies and destinations have changed. We need a radical new landscape with new pointers, new landmarks and grid references to help relocate our memory and reposition our myths. A hand of reconciliation, a reliquary and memorial to sacrifice is required. If my commission proposal is unsuccessful may I suggest a red hand for the city centre perhaps, the grounds of Stormont, Cavehill or the former Maze site?
An iron curtain has come down and with this scrap iron we can refashion ourselves a new architecture and public sculpture. It will not be trouble free and there may be further sacrifice. Maybe we could melt down Carson’s statue and some of the decommissioned weapons. There must be at least a finger or two in them
A symbol worn by Baronets and scorned on Blue Peter