Turtle Bunbury

Writer and Historian

 
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HISTORY

IRISH HISTORY

 

THE FLAG OF THE EASTER REBELLION

NB: The flag was not ultimately sold at the auction below. It should also be noted that considerable questions over the flag's authenticity have also been raised.

At approximately midday today, 23 March 2010, an auctioneer in downtown Manhattan will reduce a roomful of people to murmurs with the announcement that bidding will soon commence on Lot 26. Up for grabs at Bloomsbury & Whyte’s Irish Sale is a flag that purports to be the original tricolour which flew from Dublin’s GPO during the 1916 Easter Rising.

While the USA’s original star-spangled banner safely salutes its citizens from the National Museum of American History in Washington’s Smithsonian Institute, the first flag of the Irish Republic is to be sold off to the highest bidder for an estimated €500-700,000.

This tricolour claims to be one of two flags which Padraig Pearse and his cohorts hoisted outside the GPO on Easter Monday in April 1916.[i]

In the name of God and of the dead generations’, declared Pearse’s Proclamation of the Republic’, ‘Ireland, through us, summons her children to her flag and strikes for freedom … supported by her exiled children in America and by gallant allies in Europe … she strikes in full confidence of victory’.

Later that day, James Connolly pointed to the tricolour and shouted at the crowds, ‘For the first time in 700 years the flag of a free Ireland floats triumphantly in Dublin City.’

The tricolour was reputedly still flying the day after Pearse’s surrender. When the British stormed the GPO, it was scooped up by Sergeant Tommy Davis, Royal Dublin Fusiliers, a Boer War veteran from Lisburn, Co. Antrim. Three months later, Davis was invalided out of the army at the Somme and returned home to Lisburn where he was looked after by Dr George St George. In lieu of payment, he gifted the flag to the doctor who, upon his death in 1922, passed it on to his son-in-law, Captain Samuel Waring MC, of Kells, Co. Meath.

In 1951, Captain Waring presented it to a neighbour, the son of John Sweetman, co-founder and sometime president of Sinn Féin. And from the Sweetmans, it has made its way to today’s auction.

The making of the 1916 flag was the responsibility of Sean MacDiarmada, secretary of the Irish Republican Brotherhood, whose polio prevented him taking a more active role in the Rising. It was made from Irish linen, in the fashion of the French Tricolour, with three sections or ‘fields’, coloured ‘green, white and orange’.

Indeed, while we may sing of the ‘green, white and gold’, the idea that part of our national flag could be considered ‘gold’ was written out of the script by the authors of the Irish Constitution in 1937. Article 7 states: ‘The national flag is the tricolour of green, white and orange’.

However, the drapers MacDiarmada commissioned for the job bungled it and got their colours muddled. When the 29"x 63" flag arrived at the GPO, the three fields had to be hastily unstitched, rearranged and re-stitched. MacDiarmada duly rejected the draper’s invoice.

The idea of a green, white and orange tricolour was an inspired one. Green is a colour that has been associated with Ireland since Celtic times. It was an intelligent colour to opt for, easy to make with dye and symbolic of our lush and fertile climate. During the 1640s, the Irish Confederates rallied beneath a green banner when they went into battle against Cromwell’s indefatigable army. A century later, in 1751, green was the colour chosen by the newly founded non-sectarian Friendly Brothers of St Patrick. In 1798, the Presbyterian and Catholic comrades of the United Irishmen gathered under green banners from Belfast to Vinegar Hill; their flag was frequently emblazoned with a golden harp at the centre.[ii]

And then there was the orange, also known as the gold. The standard theory was that the orange represents the Orange, or Protestant, minority who ruled Ireland between the 17th and early 20th centuries. The orange derived from William of Orange, the Dutch Protestant victor of the battle of the Boyne whose forbears hailed from Auranja (corrupted to Orange) in south-east France.

The first green, white and orange (or gold, if you’d prefer) tricolour appeared in Ireland in that seismic year of 1848 when all of Europe was awash with revolution. It was made in Paris in February and gifted to Thomas Francis Meagher, a merchant’s son from Waterford who was fast emerging as a leader of Ireland’s radical elite. Meagher had gone to the French capital with his friend William Smith O’Brien to soak up some of the revolutionary fervour.

A highly skilled orator with a showman’s knack for rousing a crowd, Meagher unveiled his new flag from the second floor of his headquarters on Waterford’s Mall midway through an electoral speech. That moment, which fell on 1st March 1848, is considered to be the first time the Irish tricolour was flown in public. It is not known whether Meagher explained the meaning of the flag to those gathered; he was trounced in the ensuing election.

However, we are fortunate to have a transcript of a subsequent speech which the young radical gave to the people of Dublin on presenting them with a replica tricolour just a few weeks later.

“The white in the centre signifies a lasting truce between the Orange and the Green”, he told them. “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.” He described the flag as a ‘gift from Our Revolutionary Brothers in France’. One witness to this speech was his fellow patriot John Mitchell who remarked, ‘I hope to see that flag one day waving as our national banner’.

Meagher’s tricolour was very similar to the tricolours which waved our national rugby team onto the pitch at Croke Park last Saturday. The two differences were that the orange field lay next to the staff (as opposed to the green field) and the white field was decorated with the Red Hand of Ulster.

As 1848 wore on, the tricolour became the symbol of the Young Ireland movement, a 20,000 strong body of young men which sought to repeal the Act of Union and re-establish an Irish parliament in Dublin. By the late spring, the tricolour was reportedly flying at Young Ireland ‘confederate clubs’ all over the island, often alongside the French one. However, following the inglorious collapse of the Young Ireland movement after the battle of Widow McCormack’s cabbage patch in July, these flags would appear to have been packed away for another day.[iii] Maybe someday one of these will remerge and go on sale on New York? A tricolour is reputedly raised and lowered in the village of Commons, Co. Tipperary, every morning in memory of the Young Irelanders.

As Bloomsbury put it, ‘the fact that this flag is the only recorded full sized tricolour of the 1916 Rising in existence … and that it was captured from the headquarters of the short-lived Irish Republic founded by Pádraig Pearse and his comrades, makes it a unique icon of immeasurable significance in the history of the Irish Revolution.’

At the 50th Anniversary commemorations of 1966, it would have been unthinkable to let such an epic piece of Irish history disappear from our shores. As the Centenary of the Easter Rising comes into view, it will be intriguing to see who comes up with the money.

FOOTNOTES

[i] The second flag was reputedly made by Constance Markiewicz herself and was a solid green banner emblazoned with a golden harp and the words ‘Irish Republic’ in Gaelic. It is already in the National Museum of Ireland having been captured by British soldiers and gifted by the Imperial War Museum in London at the 50th anniversary of the rising in 1966.

[ii] When the wind blows, its breeze tickles every string of a harp evenly. For Wolfe Tone and his fellow United Irishmen, in pursuit of a symbol to encapsulate their fundamental belief that all men be treated equal, irrespective of faith, such an inherently Irish instrument was perfect.

In 1847, the doomed San Patricios - the battalion of Irishmen who fought for Mexico against the USA – rallied under a green silk flag, embroidered by nuns. Again the flag featured a harp on one side, surmounted by the Mexican coat of arms, and a scroll that read, ‘Libertad por la Republica Mexicana’ (‘Liberty for the Mexican Republic’). Under the harp was the Irish motto, ‘Erin go Bragh!’ (‘Ireland Forever!). Green was clearly the colour of choice for Irishmen both home and abroad.

[iii] Meagher, who would later serve with distinction on the Union side during the American Civil War, claimed the revolutionaries took as much fire that day as he did at Gettysburg.

This story featured in the Irish Daily Mail on Monday 22nd March 2010 and resulted in Turtle appearing on both the Afternoon Show with Sean Moncrieff (Newstalk 106) and the Tom McGurk Show (4FM) that same day. As stated earlier, the flag did not sell at that auction.


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