Today, nothing seems more Irish than green and orange. But this wasn’t always the case. In fact, the flag of Ireland could be considered its most famous import. But before we dig into either of these, we should first examine another Irish symbol: the harp.
The Gaelic Harp has been an important symbol in Ireland since the 11th century. Although the harp’s origins have been lost, it was customary to have a harp player in royal Irish courts to play during meetings of high society. By 1531 when Henry VIII declared himself king of Ireland, the harp had gained so much notoriety that he made it the official symbol of Ireland.
Ireland was not always known by the shade of kelly green that we know today. For most of the country’s early history, it was known by a shade of blue called “St. Patrick blue.” That’s why Ireland’s royal standard (created in 1542) is a blue field emblazoned with a golden harp. A similar flag lives on today as the Presidential Standard of Ireland.
The first records of a green Irish flag date back to the 1640s, when a green flag emblazoned with a gold harp was reportedly used by Owen Roe O’Neill, an Irish soldier. It is unclear exactly when the flag was made or why O’Neill used it, but we do know it was around the time when O’Neill returned to Ireland after fighting for an Irish unit in the Spanish Army. Tensions were high – battles were already being fought between Irish Catholics who wanted an independent Ireland and those loyal the protestant English king Charles I. Being that O’Neill was a Catholic and Irish native, it wouldn’t be too far fetched to say that this flag was flown in favor of independence.
There was very little mention of the green flag until the 1790s. Having been inspired by the American and French revolutions, Irish wanting parliamentary reform created the Society of United Irishmen (SUI). Green had become associated with revolution during the 18th century, so the SUI represented themselves with a green variant of the Irish royal standard. It is unclear whether it was a direct copy of O’Neill’s flag or just a coincidence.
While the SUI flag gained popularity among Irish Catholic reformists during the Rebellion of 1798, Irish Protestants who were loyal to England joined the Orange Order. The Order was named for King William of Orange, a dutch Protestant ruler who overthrew the Catholic James II.
The Rebellion of 1798 ultimately ended in the defeat of the SUI, but the flag would remain a powerful symbol of Irish nationalism through the Easter Rising in 1916. Today, a flag very similar to the SUI flag is the Naval Jack of Ireland (see above).
The roots of the current Irish Tricolor flag can be traced to an 1830 meeting of Irish nationalists who were celebrating the most recent French Revolution that restored the French Tricolore. Green, white, and orange cockades were made for the event, similar to those that sparked the creation of the French Tricolore. However, the use of green, white, and orange wouldn’t reach widespread recognition until for almost another two decades.
During a trip to Paris in 1848, Thomas Francis Meagher, the leader of another Irish nationalist group known as the Young Irelanders, received the first Irish Tricolor flag from a group of French women sympathetic to their rally for independence. Meagher presented this flag later that year at another gathering celebrating yet another French Revolution and explained that the green represented Irish Catholics, the orange represented Irish Protestants, and the white represented a hope for peace between the two. While this event put the Tricolor on the map, it would remain less popular than the SUI flag for another few decades.
The Tricolor finally came to prominence in the Easter Rising of 1916, another rebellion against English rule. On the morning of April 24, 1916, more than 1000 volunteers and members of the Irish Citizen’s Army took over key locations in Dublin, including the General Post Office. The post office became would become the headquarters for the movement and two Irish Tricolors were flown above it. While the week-long rebellion was ultimately unsuccessful, it allowed the Tricolor to become the symbol of a new, revolutionary Ireland. It would become the banner for the Irish Republican Army during the Irish War of Independence (1919-1921) that ultimately gained Ireland its freedom from England.
After the war for independence, Ireland was known as the Irish Free State (IFS). While the country’s Executive Council adopted the flag, the constitution of the IFS did not name any national symbols. It wouldn’t be until the creation of the Constitution of Ireland that the flag was made the official banner of Ireland.
We will be covering the flag of Northern Ireland in a separate post.