How the green, white and orange became our national flag
I KNOW most people are aware of the tricolour’s significance in the 1916 Easter Rising, but this flag had its origins years previously.
Thomas Francis Meagher, a staunch Young Irelander who was born in Waterford on 3 August 1823, would be the first to unfurl what he termed the new flag of Ireland.
In 1848, he had travelled to France with William Smith O’Brien to study revolutionary methods there.
Along with Thomas Devin O’Reilly and John Mitchel, they formed the Irish Confederation, the repeal body, a year earlier.
They returned to Ireland with the tricolour, which was inspired by the French version.
It had been made and presented to them by a group of French women sympathetic to their cause.
The only difference between the present flag and Meagher’s is that the latter had initially placed the orange on the staff side.
Meagher would unfurl this flag at gatherings all over Munster and Leinster, where huge crowds came to listen to him speak about his vision for the future of this country.
His hope was for peace and fairness, describing his longing that the white in the centre of his flag would signify a truce and eventual peace between “the Orange and the Green”, stating: “I trust beneath its folds, the hands of Protestant and Catholic can and will be clasped in generous and heroic brotherhood.” Mitchel added: “I hope that one day this banner will be waving as our national flag.”
During the 1916 Rising, the flag (now with the green on the staff side) was raised above the General Post Office in Dublin, thus becoming accepted as Meagher and Mitchel had predicted. The banner is made in proportion 1:2, meaning the length is twice the width.
In the Irish constitution, the flag colours have no meaning, but it is generally accepted that Meagher’s rationale would be approved. The flag was adopted in 1919 by the Irish Republic during the War of Independence; in 1922 by the Free State; and was given constitutional status by the 1937 Constitution of Ireland, section 7, which states that the national flag is the tricolour of green, white and orange.
The Department of the Taoiseach takes general responsibility for the flag.
In its advisory role, the department issues guidelines to assist persons in the use of the flag.
The three pales, green, white and orange, should be equal size and be vertically disposed. Precise colours of the flag are assigned by the Pantone system, a dye company in the United States which specialises in colour shades. This is the official regulation citing the colour scheme: green (Pantone 347); white (Pantone Safe); orange (Pantone 151).
We do see and hear of yellow and gold being used, mostly for rhyming reasons; however, the department discourages this and would like to see discoloured flags replaced or not used.
Before the present flag, the closest we had to a national flag was green with a gold harp.
Records show this banner being used through the centuries, going back to the 1600s. It was still the accepted flag until the present one was unfurled in 1916.
This is now the flag of Leinster. It is also the jack (flag) of the naval service, with a little variation on the direction of the harp.
Another version which was used in the 18th century – a blue with gold harp – is included in the annals. It is now the standard of the president of Ireland, based on the Irish coat of arms.
However, whereas the standard is rectangular and has yellow strings, the coat of arms is shield-shaped and has white strings.
Both were introduced in 1945. Interestingly, this flag is also used in the bottom left half of the standard of the British royal family.
Flags and banners have been used as a rallying instrument all over the world from earliest times, and it was no different in this country. We will look at some of those later, but before moving to the provinces, there is one other flag of national interest to mention here: Saint Patrick’s Satire.
This is a rectangular white background, with a red St Patrick’s cross, which is X-shaped, with the four edges of the cross being triangular in shape. Another included a conventional red cross on the same background; both are included in the coat of arms in Trinity College. This cross is also incorporated in the Union Jack. It is unlikely the cross had anything to do with Patrick himself, as it only appears with the foundation of the Most Illustrious Order of Saint Patrick in or around 1783. Another argument is that Patrick should not have a cross named after him, as he was not martyred.
We have mentioned the Leinster flag, so on to Munster. This flag has three gold crowns on a blue background. It is believed the crowns represent the three wise men of Bethlehem. It was also the symbol of lordship in Ireland up to the reign of Henry VIII.
The Connaught flag is a white (staff side) and blue halved background. Linking the divide is a black eagle on the white half, joined to a straight shoulder-to-elbow, which is bent with the forearm reaching out into blue, and the hand holding an upright sword.
The present Ulster flag has a white background on a red cross with a white shield in the centre containing a red hand.
There is also a standard bearing the four provinces, with Ulster over Connaught nearest the staff. This format can vary but is generally as described.
This flag is used by many organisations as their standard. The Irish Rugby Union uses a different interpretation on its flag.
It has a green background with its crest in the centre in white, and the four provincial shields in the corners.
The Irish hockey team uses a dark green background, with the four provinces’ shield set in the centre and, underneath, the word ‘Ireland’ in red on a white ribbon. The FAI and, of course, the GAA fly the tricolour.
In the 1790s, the United Irishmen used a gold harp on a green background.
This is known as the Green Flag and was used through many actions, including the 1798 Rebellion and that of Robert Emmet in 1803.
It was also used in a peaceful manner in protests or agitations for repeal of the Act of Union prior to the split that led to Meagher obtaining his tricolour and, although not an official flag, was the Republican banner right up to 1916.
The first mention of the green flag in our history goes back to 1642. The Maid of Erin appeared on the neck of the harp in the early 18th century. Her identity remains inconclusive.
Before I leave the green flag, I would like to mention one item which is tinged with sadness, the full story of which will be carried in a future article.
This is the story of the 16th Division of the British Army, formed by John Redmond, a unit from which many a brave Irishman perished on the Western Front.
Redmond himself, who had taken a commission in the 16th, would later be killed in action in France. Lord Kitchener detested the Irish and banned their green flag as it was not crowned.
He would deny commissions to some of the best young men in the British Army, treating them with contempt. Their flag was the harp on the green background, with the division’s name underneath. Until recently, the 16th was expunged from history.
In 1858, the Irish Republican Brotherhood adapted a flag called the Sunburst, depicting an orange burst close to the staff, breaking outwards on a blue background. The Fenians carried the same sunburst in 1843, this time in the centre of a green background.
Fr Murphy, who was executed in Tullow, had his own banner. This also included a green background, with a white cross in the centre, over which was written the word ‘liberty’, while underneath was the word ‘death’.
I would like to have covered local county flags, but only a few have details of how they originated.