Lots of flags to see in Ireland! This post includes some thirty images, most of which are photographs from our recent trip.
In the Republic of Ireland, the Irish tricolor is very popular and widely flown. It helps, of course, that it is a simple and striking design, and meaningful to boot: as is commonly stated, the green represents Catholicism, the Orange represents Protestantism, and white the hope for peace between them. Its form is also a deliberate reference to the flag of republican France. It dates from the abortive revolution of 1848, and its status was assured forever when it flew from the General Post Office during the Easter Rising in 1916. This meant that it was contested between pro- and anti-Treaty forces during the Irish Civil War 1922-23, a story detailed by Ewan Morris in his book Our Own Devices: National Symbols and Political Conflict in Twentieth-Century Ireland (2004). So not only does it represent the 26-county Republic of Ireland, the successor to the Irish Free State, but also all the dissident republican groups that descend from the losing side in the Irish Civil War and who reject that state.
The photo above shows the flag flying from Bunratty Castle, Co. Clare.
Another way to express Irish unity: four flags for the four traditional provinces of Ireland. In the photo above, from left to right, these are Ulster, Munster, Leinster, and Connacht. I took this photo in the Bogside neighborhood in Derry.
You can get all four flags in one, if you want, although there is no set order to the quarters (no one has taken up my brilliant proposal, sadly).
Here is another example of the four-provinces motif. I took this at the GAA Museum at Croke Park in Dublin. Note also the Round Tower, the Irish wolfhound, and the Celtic cross, other symbols of Ireland.
This is the James Connolly room in Dublin Castle. It’s very interesting – in the midst of the throne room, the state drawing room, the state dining room, and all the other remnants of the ancien régime, we have a monument to James Connolly, one of the leaders of the rebellion of 1916. Connolly was injured in the fighting and brought to the castle, which was serving as a hospital; the British executed him by firing squad in Kilmainham Gaol on May 12, 1916. He had been so badly wounded that his doctor gave him only a day or two to live, but they executed him anyway, bringing him to the prison courtyard on a stretcher and tying him to a chair before shooting him. This was especially outrageous to the Irish public, and was a major reason why Sinn Fein took 75% of Irish seats in the election of 1918.
To the left of the Irish tricolor in the Connolly room, we have a reproduction of the “Irish Republic” flag. While not as well known (or well designed) as the tricolor, this flag was also hallowed by the Easter Rising, and I saw a souvenir vendor selling reproductions of it on O’Connell Street. According to an article in the Irish Times, the original was made of wool, and painted by a man named Theobald Wolfe Tone Fitzgerald at the home of the revolutionary leader Constance Markievicz. It flew over the General Post Office in 1916, but survived because its pole was shot through and it lay undisturbed on the roof. Taken by the British as a souvenir, it was kept at the Imperial War Museum and returned to Ireland as a gesture of goodwill in 1966. It is now on display at the National Museum in Dublin.
To the right of the tricolor on the Connolly room, the Starry Plough flag. This was employed by the paramilitary Irish Citizen Army, which Connolly had founded with Jim Larkin and Jack White in 1913. The ICA’s main aim was to protect workers’ demonstrations from the police, but it joined the Irish Republican Brotherhood and the Irish Volunteers to carry out the Easter Rising. The idea is that “a free Ireland would control its own destiny from the plough to the stars.” The original is also in the possession of the National Museum.
I saw numerous examples of it flying around the Bogside in Derry, and I bought one in a republican shop there.
According to Wikipedia, in 1934 the Irish Transport and General Workers Union introduced a simplified version of the Starry Plough with a blue field, and it was adopted as the emblem of the Irish labor movement, including the Irish Labour Party, although they eventually dropped it. I understand that the Irish National Liberation Army liked to use it during the Troubles.
Here is a copy (with six-pointed stars) on display at the Museum of Free Derry.
The Irish Republican Socialist Party, the political wing of INLA, has a flag of sorts. I saw this one flying on the Bogside. Note the use of the Starry Plough.
A flag on display at the Eileen Hickey Irish Republican History Museum: the sunburst flag. The sunburst, as an emblem, is inspired by the Fianna (warrior bands) of Irish mythology, and was first employed by the Irish Republican Brotherhood in the mid-nineteenth century. This modern version, I understand, is largely associated with Republican youth.
I saw a few examples of this flag flying and I took this photo in a shop in Derry. Turns out it’s the flag of Cumann na mBan, and features an abbreviation of their name, with a gun.
Cumann na mBan (“The Women’s Council”) was founded in April 1914, and during the Easter Rising acted as an auxiliary of the Irish Volunteers. Constance Markievicz acted as its president for ten years after the Rising, and it still exists, although it is a proscribed organization in the UK.
If the Unionists hearken back to the time when they fought for Britain during the First and Second World Wars (and a great deal of their propaganda does), then Irish republicans will remember the time when some of them fought against Franco in Spain, as members of the Abraham Lincoln International Brigade. The flag above (flying on the Bogside in Derry) is the flag of the Brigade, with writing added: “XV Brigada Internacional” on the top band, and “No Pasaran” on the bottom.
This freestanding gable end, bearing the words “YOU ARE NOW ENTERING FREE DERRY,” is one of the icons of the Troubles, and of the Bogside in Derry. I did not know that it is repainted every now and then with a different theme: a friend of mine said he saw it done up for Joe Hill, and a souvenir in the Free Derry Museum showed it decorated for the referendum on same-sex marriage in 2015. As you can see, when we were there it showed a large Palestinian flag, and I saw plenty of other Palestinian flags flying throughout the Bogside. Irish nationalists, of course, tend to identify with the Palestinians, on the principle that both are supposedly engaged in the same struggle.
Irish republicans also identify with the Catalans, Basques, Kurds, and (from what I can gather), the Tamils of Sri Lanka. (I do not know about Cyprus, Quebec, or Tibet.) Catalonia in particular is especially meaningful to them, given that it was the heartland of the republican side in the Spanish Civil War. I did not see any Catalan flags flying but I did see it for sale in the store in Derry. The picture is from a mural in Belfast.
And on the other side…
The most common emblem of Ulster loyalism is the Royal Union Flag, which is of course the official flag of the United Kingdom. One problem with it is that you have to make sure that it’s not flying upside down, like it is here, in the unionist Fountains area in Londonderry. Another problem is that it is offensive to about half the population of Northern Ireland, and so does not fly officially very much anymore. This means that private citizens of unionist persuasion wave it all the more.
Flying beneath the Union Flag is the Ulster Banner, a cross of St. George with the red hand of Ulster on a crowned, six pointed star at the center. This was the official flag of Northern Ireland from 1953 to 1972, when it went into abeyance with the suspension of Northern Ireland’s parliament at Stormont. It has not been reintroduced by the current, power-sharing parliament, and attempts to find a neutral flag for the province have so far been unsuccessful. However, ESPN does identify (e.g.) the golfer Rory McIlroy and the Northern Ireland football team with the Ulster Banner, for lack of an alternative. Needless to say, the unionist community waves it almost as much as the Union Flag.
A riposte to the four provinces display of the nationalists: the flags of the four countries that make up the United Kingdom! In the photo, left to right we have Scotland, Northern Ireland, England, and Wales (mostly obscured, but you can see a bit of the green poking out behind England’s cross of St. George). The Union Flag flies in the middle, and in the foreground is a made-up flag featuring the logo of the NI Football team (out of the frame), an outline map of NI with the Ulster Banner on top of it, and the legend “Our Wee Country” in comic sans.
I took the photo above outside the Northern Ireland Supporters Club on the Shankill Road. I guess that the football team draws most of its support from the unionist community? You’d think that they wouldn’t fly the flags of their potential competitors, but apparently politics reigns supreme here.
Also in the Fountains area in Londonderry: the flag of the Loyal Orange Institution, a fraternal organization for Protestants founded in 1795, and so called on account of William of Orange, the hero of the Battle of the Boyne.
They have a distinctive flag (orange in color, with a cross of St. George in the canton and a Williamite purple star on the fly), but they’re most known for getting dressed up in dark suits, bowler hats, white gloves, and orange sashes, and marching around on July 12, often through nationalist neighborhoods, to great consternation. A man in a unionist souvenir shop claimed, however, that the Orange Order is not as popular as it once was. The police have cracked down on some of their more provocative parade routes.
One place where the Union Flag is forbidden is over Belfast City Hall – or rather, city councillors, in 2012, voted to bring city hall practice into line with UK government practice, meaning that the flag would only be flown there on eighteen designated days of the year. This being Northern Ireland, however, certain unionists took this move as a provocation, and it was greeted with widespread discontent, even rioting. (From 1906 to 2012, the Union Flag had flown every day of the year over Belfast City Hall.) Since then there have been daily protests at lunchtime (pictured). The irony is that June 2, when the photo was taken, was one of the designated days – it’s Coronation Day, and the 65th anniversary of the original one in 1953. The Union Flag was indeed flying over the front entrance of City Hall, although the wind wasn’t blowing it and the sun wasn’t shining directly on it, meaning that none of my pictures turned out. But I saw it, I swear!
Another view of the protest reveals that, if the nationalists side with the Palestinians, the unionists side with the Israelis. (In a happy coincidence, both unionists and Zionists employ a six-pointed star as an identifying device.)
But is City Hall the best place to fly the Union Flag anyway? It’s Belfast City Hall – why not fly the flag of Belfast? It’s simply a banner of the arms of the city, but it’s not an overly complicated design. However, I did not see it flying anywhere.
Dublin certainly flies its own flag. It’s a pretty good design to boot, comprising the flag of the province of Leinster (a gold harp on green), with arms of Dublin on the canton.
I saw the Dublin city flag flying in a number of places, including this vertical variant outside Dublin Castle.
One final Irish flag: the St. Patrick’s saltire, a red X-shaped cross on a white background. It is essentially the arms of the Fitzgerald earls of Kildare and (later) dukes of Leinster, repurposed in 1783 for the Order of St. Patrick.
Here are some of the jewels of the Order of St. Patrick, on display in the Ulster Museum. Note the red saltire on all three of them. The motto, “Quis Separabit?” means “Who will separate us?” – biblically, “from the love of God,” but politically, “from the British sovereign.” (The answer to that question, of course, was “Sinn Fein and the IRA.”)
With the Act of Union in 1801, St. Patrick’s Saltire could fit into the Union Flag as it then existed, although they had to modify it slightly for reasons I’ve never quite understood.
In an American context a red saltire on white acts as the flag of Alabama; here it is flying over Fort Gaines in the summer of 2016. However, I did not see St. Patrick’s Saltire flying anywhere in Ireland.
But some people still use it. A group called Vexillology Ireland posted this photo to Facebook for St. Patrick’s Day. I have no idea where it was taken or in exactly what year, but it clearly shows people celebrating St. Patrick’s Day with a red saltire flag. Or maybe they’re all retainers of the Duke of Leinster, who knows.
One sees references to St. Patrick’s Saltire here and there – note the flag on the ship in the arms of Belfast (top left, from Wikipedia), the flag on the castle in the arms of Trinity College, Dublin (top right, also from Wikipedia), and the coat of arms of the Queen’s University of Belfast (bottom).
I thought that it was most appropriate for this traffic sign in Dublin to take the form of St. Patrick’s Saltire, although I don’t think this was necessarily intended!
Finally, a defunct flag, the banner of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, on display in St. Anne’s Cathedral in Belfast. The RUC was the police service for Northern Ireland from the state’s founding in 1922 until it was abolished and reconstituted as the Police Service of Northern Ireland in 2001. RUC officers were prime targets for terrorists during the Troubles, and some 300 RUC officers were killed during that conflict. For its courage under such conditions, the organization was collectively awarded the George Cross, Britain’s highest civilian honor for bravery, in 1999. (Thus is the medal displayed on the canton of this flag, like the flag of Malta, which was similarly awarded the George Cross in 1942 in the wake of Nazi bombardment.)
Alas, as brave as RUC officers may have been, the organization had a number of skeletons in its closet, including collusion with Protestant paramilitaries and prejudice against nationalists, both in recruitment and in exercising power. Thus was it replaced by the PSNI, which has strict rules about cross-community membership.