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Irish Republican Flags and Their Meanings

The author is a QUB Political Science honours graduate, a political analyst and has written on a variety of related issues

A crossed Starry Plough and Irish flag pin badge.

A crossed Starry Plough and Irish flag pin badge.

Éirí Amach na Cásca

In Republican working-class areas of Ireland, especially the north of the country, Republican flags are very much a symbol of anti-imperialist resistance. They are particularly in evidence during the annual anniversary of the Easter Rising of 1916, also known as Gaeilge (in the Irish language) or Éirí Amach na Cásca.

Generally speaking, the flying of Irish Republican flags is for set commemorative occasions, or they're flown on memorials to Ireland's patriot dead. As a rule, Irish flags would not be on display to the same extent that pro-British loyalist flags would be in Unionist towns and villages in the northeast of the country. Many Unionist areas in the North of Ireland would be tackily festooned with empire loyalist flags and bunting on a year-long basis, often remaining in situ to their tattered remnants are eventually replaced in the period leading up to the Twelfth of July.

In Republican areas, householders are still conscious that, due to the nature of the sectarian Northern statelet, displays of anti-imperialist resistance, especially from Republicans opposed to the now mothballed Stormont Assembly, can mark their homes out for attention and surveillance from the RUC/PSNI and those responsible for tasking them from the shadowy British security services.

Banned Flags

Until relatively recently, Irish Republican flags were the subject of a de jure ban, which was rigorously enforced by the North of Ireland's overwhelmingly Unionist paramilitary police force, the RUC. This emergency legislation was used as a pretext to break up some of even the mildest of Irish Nationalist parades which had the temerity to carry the National flag of Ireland, colloquially referred to as the Tricolour. Indeed, one of the sparks that helped ignite the political tinder that led to the conflagration of the 40+ year conflict in the North, known as The Troubles, was the 'Divis Street incident'.

The Divis Street Incident

It began when the RUC, acting at the behest of the arch-loyalist demagogue, the late Ian Paisley, stormed the then Sinn Fein Election HQ in West Belfast to remove a tiny Irish tricolour on display in the office window that would have caused zero offences to any local resident in the overwhelmingly Republican district. There was considerable truth in the famous poetic idiom ascribed to Napper Tandy, a leader in the 1798 United Irishmen Rebellion, that the 'wearing of the Green' had been effectively criminalised by British rule for centuries, as the famous old song of the same name reflects;

'I met with Napper Tandy, and he took me by the hand
And he said, "How's poor old Ireland, and how does she stand?"
"She's the most distressful country that ever yet was seen
For they're hanging men and women there for the Wearin' o' the Green."'

The southern Defenderist elements of the 1798 rebellion flags reflect their progressive nationalism, more than the northern leadership's Enlightenment ideals.

The southern Defenderist elements of the 1798 rebellion flags reflect their progressive nationalism, more than the northern leadership's Enlightenment ideals.

The Irish National Flag

In most Republican areas, the flag most prevalently on display would be the National flag, which is also commonly referred to as 'the tricolor'. It is made up of three vertical bands of green, white and golden orange. The Irish national flag's tricolor origins are from the French revolutionary tradition and the era of Europe-wide Bourgeois revolutions of the 18th and 19th centuries. Many of the then-new nation-states of Europe from that era, such as France and Italy post-Risorgimento, also adopted tricolor designs as the national flags of their nation-states.

The Irish national flag is a tricolor made up of green, white and gold sections

The Irish national flag is a tricolor made up of green, white and gold sections

There are various accounts of the exact representations of the National flag; many cite Thomas Meagher as having had it made after returning from the barricades of the revolutions that swept Europe in the mid-19th Century.

What Do the Colors Mean?

There is a very debatable theory that the colors of the national flag were meant to represent Irish Catholics, as represented by the tricolor's green vertical band, with the Golden Orange vertical band representing northern Protestants and the center white band representing an imagined future peaceful existence between them.

However, many historians and academics have disputed that particular theory, in part at least, including Dr. Jim Daly, widower of murdered academic and activist, Miriam Daly. They have asserted that to associate all Protestant people with the reactionary, sectarian supremacism of the Orange Order is an insult to Irish Republicanism, whose earliest, most prominent founders were all of Protestant heritage and distinctly Deist beliefs, similar to those of the majority of the founding fathers of the United States and revolutionary France. The Protestant leaders of the United Irishmen were vehemently anti-sectarian, seeing it as colonialism's most insidious weapon against national self-determination and had nothing but contempt for Orangeism.

The modern day Starry Plough flag, that had it's debut in the 1930s with the left-wing Republican Congress.

The modern day Starry Plough flag, that had it's debut in the 1930s with the left-wing Republican Congress.

James Connolly's ICA's original 'Plough and Stars', a military standard of the workers militia

James Connolly's ICA's original 'Plough and Stars', a military standard of the workers militia

The Starry Plough

A very close second to the Irish National flags would be the Starry Plough flag which is becoming even more popular in Irish Republican working-class areas. The modern-day Starry Plough flag has a blue background with seven white stars marking the shape of the constellation Ursa Major, also known as the Heavenly Plough.

The Starry Plough flag is recognized as the flag of Irish Republican Socialism and is very closely associated with the Marxist Irish Republican Socialist Movement (IRSM), although not exclusively so. Most Irish Republican colour parties, marching bands or parades will have a Starry Plough included. The Starry Plough has it's origins in James Connolly's Irish Citizen Army, although the design most regularly seen today is an adaptation of the original, which was adopted by the left-wing Republican Congress during the 1930s.

The original Starry Plough also referred to as the Plough and Stars has a green background, a golden/yellow ploughshare with the stars of the Ursa Major constellation marked on it and a sword as the plough's blade. When designed for James Connolly's Irish Citizen Army (ICA), Europe's first Red Army, it was used as the workers' militia military standard or regimental colours. The ICA version of the Starry Plough flag has seen increased popularity of late and has largely been used as a non-party-specific emblem.

The Sunburst flag is closely associated with Na Fianna Éireann, the Republican Youth movement

The Sunburst flag is closely associated with Na Fianna Éireann, the Republican Youth movement

The Four Provinces flag incorporating the shields of Ulster, Connacht, Leinster and Munster.

The Four Provinces flag incorporating the shields of Ulster, Connacht, Leinster and Munster.

The Sunburst Flag and the Four Provinces Flag

The Sunburst flag, which was adopted in the early 19th century as the flag of Na Fianna Éireann youth movement, has a blue background with a splintered sunrise in red or dark orange. In recent times the Sunburst has become quite popular and is a staple in most Irish Republican color parties.

The Four Provinces flag is also quite popular as a stand-alone flag. It incorporates the four flags of the provinces of Ulster, Connacht, Munster, and Leinster. Some color parties carry the Four Provinces flag or each of the four provincial flags individually. During the long period of the de jure banning of the Irish national flag, especially from rural constitutional Nationalist marches by the now almost moribund Ancient of Hibernians, they made heavy use of the Four Provinces flags and the Green Flag with its gold harp situated in the center. In some Nationalist rural areas, in the not-so-distant past, even during Republican marches, the Four Provinces flags were often used as a substitute for the National flag and received less attention from the notoriously sectarian, antagonistic RUC.

The Green Flag

The Harp flag, also known as the Green flag is relatively popular in rural Republican areas, although it is a flag that is still, rightly or wrongly, associated with Hibernian-type narrow Nationalism. The 9 County Ulster flag, contained within the Four Provinces Flag shown above, has a yellow background, a red cross and a red hand within a shield, does make appearances as a stand-alone flag, although due to it's very slight similarity to the Unionist 'Northern Ireland' flag, it is not as popular as it perhaps should be.

In reality, the 9 County Ulster flag's only heraldic link to the Northern Ireland flag is the Red Hand of O'Neill, the latter flag is, strictly speaking, the English Cross of St George, with the Red Hand of O'Neil, incorporated inside a 6 pointed, Zionist type star.

Prior to the tricolour gaining in popularity, the 'Green Flag' with the gold harp had been in common use as a de facto National flag. Today it tends to be popular with a small rump of Hibernian little Irelanders.

Prior to the tricolour gaining in popularity, the 'Green Flag' with the gold harp had been in common use as a de facto National flag. Today it tends to be popular with a small rump of Hibernian little Irelanders.

The green flag proclaiming an Irish flag was flown from the revolutionaries HQ at Dublin's General Post Office during the 1916 Easter Rising.

The green flag proclaiming an Irish flag was flown from the revolutionaries HQ at Dublin's General Post Office during the 1916 Easter Rising.

Many More Flags Exist

There are of course a varied range of Republican flags that space and time prohibit exploring in this short article. In recent times, some Scottish Republican Flute Bands have begun to carry the St Andrews Saltire flag, which had been, until very recently an emblem very much claimed by Ulster loyalism. Apart from joint claims of ownership of the Saint Andrews Saltire by opposing flute bands from the West of Scotland, there are few, if any, emblems of common ownership.

Unique among the Irish Republican organizations and their use of the panoply of flags and emblems is the Irish Republican Socialist Movement (IRSM), a Marxist revolutionary entity that views the national liberation and class struggle as being inseparable. During annual IRSM commemorations for fallen comrades, the Easter Rising, the H-Block Hunger Strikers, and on flag poles erected on the movements memorials, the Red Flag of international socialism receives the lead or most prominent position.

For those interested in the imagery and exploring the vexillology of Irish Republicanism, perhaps the best time to experience this phenomenon is during the anniversary of the 1916 Easter Rising, especially if it is a significant anniversary. In 2016, during the Centenary of the 1916 Easter Revolt, working-class areas in Belfast, where the author has lived, were awash with a vast array of Irish Republican flags.

Further Reading

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

Comments

Liam A Ryan (author) from Ireland on July 21, 2019:

Thank you, Wesman Todd Shaw & Readmikenow, for your insightful comments! Very much appreciated!

Readmikenow on July 21, 2019:

This was a very good article. I learned a lot about Irish history and flags I knew nothing about. Very well written. I enjoyed reading it.

Wesman Todd Shaw from Kaufman, Texas on July 21, 2019:

I do not believe I had ever seen the word vexillology before today. That's a fantastic word, and I'm going to find a way to use it. People will think I'm smarter than I am for the use of such a great word.

As a random guy, born and living in Texas, with some degree of Irish and Scottish ancestry, these things have always been pretty mysterious to me.

I can't help but try to make it somewhat analogous in my mind to history here. It seems the tri-color is much like our southern Confederate battle flag. As the south was absolutely invaded and subjugated by a numerically superior force. And so, all things Confederate must be demonized.