Every country on earth has a national flag, but few are as instantly-recognizable as the Republic of Ireland’s green, white, and orange tricolor (or bratach na hÉireann). The simple design of the Irish flag evokes the fierce tenacity and fighting spirit that is often associated with the Irish. However, the Irish tricolor is just one of many different flags flown by Irish patriots over the centuries. Indeed, the Irish flag has included a wide variety of colors and symbols to represent the spirit of its people, including gold harps, red hands, crowns, and Union Jacks. The Irish tricolor however, is a bit special. It has a fascinating story that deserves our attention, not only for the historical significance of the time in which the flag was created, but also because the tricolor is Ireland’s only flag that serves as a symbol of Catholic and Protestant unification.
The present-day tricolor exists today thanks to a few French women and a group of young Irish revolutionaries known as The Young Irelanders. Composed primarily of young Irish intellectuals, the Young Irelanders were a breakaway movement of the Repeal Association, which was led by Daniel O’Connell, a prominent 19th century Irish politician. Formed in 1830, the Repeal Association’s primary objective was to campaign for the repeal of the Acts of Union of 1800, the legislation that united Great Britain and Ireland to form the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. By 1848, Ireland was in the midst of the Great Hunger, and members of the Repeal Association were either dying, emigrating, or simply backing out of the group altogether. O’Connell, an old man in rapidly declining health, began advocating for a commitment to non-violent political action among all members of the Repeal Association. Many of the younger, more radical members of the group were dissatisfied with O’Connell’s refusal to consider armed rebellion and decided to form their own movement, the Young Irelanders, taking inspiration from the American and French revolutions. In 1848, a group Young Ireland delegates comprising of William Smith O’Brien, Thomas Francis Meagher and Richard O’Gorman traveled to Paris to congratulate and learn from revolutionaries who were helping to establish the newly formed French Republic. While there, Meagher was presented with the iconic Irish tricolor by a group of French women.
Who were these French women and what prompted them to choose orange, white and green as the flag’s colors? Although the identity of the women is uncertain, the colors they chose for the flag had been used as symbols of Irish unity as early as 1830, when they appeared on rosettes and badges worn by nationalists. Green acknowledges the Roman Catholics, and orange represents the Protestants, specifically those protestants who were supporters of William of Orange who defeated King James II’s Catholic army at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. The white portion of the flag represents a hope for national peace and unity that all Irish strive to create. The design of the flag was an obvious nod to the blue, white, and red design of the French tricolor, symbolizing freedom (blue), equality (white), and brotherhood (red).
On March 7, 1848, Meagher publicly displayed the Irish tricolor for the first time from the window of the Wolfe Tone Confederate Club in Waterford City. It remained there for eight days and nights until it was removed by British authorities. On April 15, he presented a tricolor made from fine silk to the citizens of Dublin and said:
“I trust that the old country will not refuse this symbol of a new life from one of her youngest children. I need not explain its meaning. The quick and passionate intellect of the generation now springing into arms will catch it at a glance. The white in the centre signifies a lasting truce between the “orange” and the “green” and I trust that beneath its folds, the hands of the Irish Protestant and the Irish Catholic may be clasped in generous and heroic brotherhood.”
More of Meagher’s story is worth a brief mention. Born in Waterford, County Waterford on August 3, 1823, he would become one of the most notable Irish nationalists of the 19th century, embodying the spirit of a unified Ireland. While attending university at Stonyhurst College (his father regarded Trinity College, Ireland’s only university, as both anti-Irish and anti-Catholic), his professors were abhorred by his “horrible Irish brogue.” Nevertheless, his knack for developed scholarship coupled with an innate gift for oration made him an excellent fit for political activism upon his return to Ireland in 1844. After the failed Young Irelander Rebellion in 1848, he was convicted of sedition, sentenced to death, but then sentenced to life at Van Diemen’s Land (present day Tasmania). He escaped the island in 1852 and made his way to New York where he was welcomed as a hero. He worked as a journalist until the American Civil War erupted in 1861. Meagher joined the U.S. Army and eventually rose to the rank of brigadier general. He disappeared in the summer of 1867, presumably drowning after falling over the side of a steamboat while traveling the Missouri River. His body was never recovered. It is fitting that history would give us such an epic character to debut Ireland’s famed banner, who was himself a symbol for Irish unity and independence, two national ideals he gladly dedicated his life to, albeit for another country far from Ireland itself.
Meagher’s actions gave Irish nationalists a new symbol to rally around, one that helped unite them around a common goal for the future. In spite of the epic nature of the tricolor’s debut, it was all but forgotten until the Easter Rising of 1916. Instead, the Green Harp Flag remained the dominant symbol of Irish nationalism and was used regularly by the Irish Republican Brotherhood throughout the rest of the 19th century. The Green Harp Flag is an old symbol of Irish nationalism dating back to the Confederacy of Ireland during the 1640s. This flag is an iteration of the Royal Standard of the United Kingdom, in which the Kingdom of Ireland is represented in the lower left quadrant of the flag by a harp on a blue background. Irish rebels replaced the blue with green as a statement of defiance, but they did not change the image of the harp, which has been used to represent Ireland since at least 1534, when it appeared on coinage during the reign of Henry VIII. Today, the harp symbol is still used heavily throughout different agencies and offices of the Irish government, and of course it appears on every bottle of Guinness. It is also used to represent the province of Leinster, one of the island’s four provinces, on the lower right quadrant of the Four Provinces Flag of Ireland, and it appears in the upper right quadrant of Ireland’s rugby team.
Outside of Ireland, the gold harp’s prominence is today easily overshadowed by the tricolor. And although Meagher helped introduce the tricolor, it was another revolutionary, Gearóid O’Sullivan (1891-1948), who would help raise it to the level of prominence it currently enjoys.
On the morning of April 24, 1916, approximately 1,200 members of the Irish Volunteers and Irish Citizen Army rallied at various points around Dublin, launching the Easter Rising. O’Sullivan was one in a group of about 400 men who marched on the General Post Office on O’Connell Street, occupied the building, and established it as the rebellion’s headquarters. He climbed to the roof with fellow rebel Eamon Bulfin and together, they each raised a flag: O’Sullivan hoisted the tricolor, and Bulfin a green flag with the words “Irish Republic” emblazoned in gold. Moving out from the GPO, rebels began capturing other buildings along O’Connell Street, including a telegraph station from which they broadcast the declaration of the Irish Republic in Morse code, and at the same time transmitting the first radio broadcast in Ireland.
O’Sullivan was a teacher and fervent member of the Gaelic League who began drilling with the Irish Volunteers in 1909. In 1913, he was appointed to the 1st battalion of the Dublin Brigade and gained high praise from his superiors. Leading up to the Easter Rising, he was chosen to serve as Seán MacDiarmada’s aide de camp, and also fought alongside Michael Collins during the bloody violence that took place over the course of Easter Week. Surviving Easter Rising, he went on to fight in the Irish Civil War for the National Army before finally settling down to serve as a barrister.
The Easter Rising established the tricolor, or “Republican flag” as it was referred to, as the new Irish national symbol, and it generally replaced the Green Harp Flag as the nationalist banner. It was officially adopted by the Irish Republic during the Irish War of Independence (1919-1921), and the Irish Free State (1922-1937). The 1937 Constitution of Ireland is the first recorded legal recognition of the tricolor as the official Irish flag, and nationalists as well as unionists both began to officially recognize the tricolor as a symbol of national identity. The government began to emphasize respect for the flag regardless of religion or political affiliation, but as civil unrest increased throughout the first part of the 20th century, the government eventually began to suppress the use of the tricolor. The passage of the Flags and Emblems Act of 1954 forbade the display of any flag or emblem that might cause a breach of the peace, and gave legal permission to authorities to remove such a symbol. Although the law did not explicitly refer to the tricolor, the Union Flag was the only flag legally exempted from this legislation, prompting explosive backlash from nationalists who saw the law as a purposeful suppression of national identity. The act wasn’t repealed until 1987 by Public Order (Northern Ireland) 1987. Displaying the tricolor can still be somewhat of a hot issue depending on where you find yourself in the UK. For instance, Scotland recently released a list of flags to its police officers that, if waved in “a provocative manner,” could be considered a criminal offense. Among the many flags included on the list is the Irish tricolor.
In 2016, the 100-year anniversary of the Easter Rising, the Thomas F. Meagher Foundation donated a tricolor to every school in Ireland, although local communities are not required to fly the tricolor. Part of the foundation’s goal was to better educate students on the flag’s history and meaning, and how to properly care for it. Protocol for the flag are as follows: it must always be flown above any other flag it shares a staff or pole with, it must never be displayed in poor condition, and the green segment must always be the color closest to the flagstaff. In 2017, Irish senator Mark Daly introduced legislation to amend the flag protocols so that it could be flown at night if illuminated. Historically, the flag had to be lowered at sunset, but Daly notes:
“the history of the tricolour shows that the first time the tricolour flag was flown by Thomas F Meagher was on the March 7, 1848, and it flew continuously day and night until removed by the authorities”
For Daly, and perhaps many other Irish, the change in protocol represents a historical tribute to the history and origins of the flag that is an important symbol to everyone who values Irish national unity, and seek to build a unified Ireland.