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12 July 2007 Edition

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The Tricolour : Symbol of unity, reconciliation and shared interest

The Irish Tricolour’s beginnings are in 1848 when Thomas Francis Meagher presented the flag to the citizens of Dublin

The Irish Tricolour’s beginnings are in 1848 when Thomas Francis Meagher presented the flag to the citizens of Dublin

A 21st century flag of freedom

National and cultural symbols can grow and then fade in importance. Whether it’s a song, colour, emblem, building, or indeed a flag. They can be abused, as is too often the case, or they can emerge as a symbol of reconciliation and practical, positive affirmations of shared, mutually beneficial goals.
The Irish Tricolour is such a symbol. The flag once banned by Unionist Party decree in the Six Counties, not to mention from coffins of IRA Volunteers by the Catholic hierarchy in the 1980s and ‘90s, a flag whose meaning is still disputed North and South, has untapped potential to be a renewed icon of modern Ireland.
The Irish Tricolour’s beginning is in 1848 when Thomas Francis Meagher presented a tricolour to the citizens of Dublin on 15 April of that year at a meeting held to mark Meagher and William Smith O’Brien’s visit weeks before to present an address to the French Provisional Government.
One version of its origins is that the flag was presented by the French to Meagher and O’Brien. Another is that Meagher had, through his family connections, seen the green white and pink tricolour from Newfoundland and used the idea of reconciliation between conflicting factions, in this case Newfoundland’s Irish Catholic and British Protestant settlers, as a template for a new Irish flag.
Though the origins of the flag and the use of three colours – green, white and orange are still a subject of historical debate,the importance of the Tricolour as a symbol of the whole of Ireland is undisputed and its potential as a positive symbol of a free, just and peaceful Ireland in the 21st century is as undiminished as it was over 150 years ago when Meagher unveiled it in Dublin’s Rotunda hall.
While some historians focus on the Meagher Newfoundland connection to the Tricolour there are other more important factors in his life and political activism that give the national flag a broader depth of symbolism.
Meagher came from a wealthy merchant family with business interests in Ireland and Newfoundland. He had the benefit of private education at Clongowes, an institution he scathingly attacks in later public speeches, and could have quite easily put all his energy into the family business and no one would have thought any the worse of him.
Meagher though didn’t take this road, he joined the Repeal Movement, the Young Irelanders, was elected an MP and threw himself into the business of insurrection. He was convicted of treason, sentence to be hanged, which was commuted to transportation to Van Diemen’s Land, from where he sensationally escaped to San Francisco.
In the US Meagher had the connections and reputation to take an easier pace to life. He didn’t. His exploits in the Irish Brigade and the Fighting 69th during the US Civil War were legendary, and it is noteworthy that a second Meagher Flag hangs in Leinster House today. It is the battle flag of the 69th Regiment, a gift to the Irish People from US President, John F Kennedy in 1963.
The point is that wherever Meagher lived he took his responsibilities as a citizen seriously and often with tremendous self sacrifice, and surely his understanding of the responsibility of citizenship has a role in the Ireland of today, where so many of us are content to ignore their neighbours, their local communities, salving themselves with the idea that no one person can change things for the better and we can all just muddle through.
At the inaugural meeting of the Irish Confederation in January 1847, formed by Young Irelanders who had broken away from the Repeal Association, Meagher also touched on another symbolic aspect of freedom that the Tricolour represents today.
Meagher said that, “We must insist on the right of this country to govern itself”. Tackling the role of Britain in Ireland he said that, “To depend on the honour of another is to depend on her will, and to depend upon the will of another country, is the definition of slavery”.
Continuing, Meagher asserts that, “No foreign hand can bestow the prosperity which a national soul has the power to create. No gift can compensate a nation for its liberty”.
In Ireland today, there has never been a greater opportunity to govern in our collective interests and the Tricolour is a symbol of that, Green and Orange governing together in a shared, collective interest.
It was in the years following the 1916 Rising that the Tricolour gained widespread appeal and prominence.
For centuries, the flag most associated with Ireland and indeed the struggle for Irish freedom was the green flag with a gold harp. This flag appeared on numerous battlefields and featured in various uprisings against British rule. The Fenians used it and it flew over the G.P.O during the 1916 Rising.
However, in 1916 the Tricolour of Green White and Orange joined the Green Flag, on the top of the GPO, headquarters of the republican insurgents.
During the Tan War the Tricolour became the symbol of the fight for independence and the objective of a 32-County Irish republic. It was during this revolutionary period that the flag gained widespread appeal as the symbol of independent Irish nationhood.
The Tricolour that flew over the GPO during the 1916 Rising along with the first known version of the Irish national anthem Amhrán na bhFiann, were among a total of 450 items on sale last year at a controversial auction of historical memorabilia in Dublin to coincide with the anniversary of the Rising. Members of Ógra Shinn Féin disrupted the auction in protest.
Following the Treaty and the partition of Ireland, the Tricolour was appropriated by the new Free State. However it continued to be honoured by republicans throughout the country as a symbol of their aspirations – a united, Independent Ireland based on a lasting peace between the nationalist and unionist traditions.
Since 2004 there has been a campaign at Trinity College Dublin, once considered a bastion of unionism, to have the flying of the Tricolour on a permanent basis, as both UCD and University of Limerick have done. Repeated such requests have been met with formal negative responses.
Similarly in the unionist community, opposition to the flag has, it seems, been based on a knee jerk reaction to any public nationalist displays, but surely now this must also pass, and the flag’s original intention can be revitalised.
In Celtic Park, in the school yards of Ireland, at sporting events, Easter commemorations, St Patrick’s Day parades, the flag is then often in the hands of the very young who know little of its history. The challenge now for us all is to forge a new hope for having the Tricolour flying over an Ireland that embodies its symbolic themes.

An Phoblacht Magazine


  • Don't miss your chance to get the second edition of the 2019 magazine, published to coincide with Easter Week
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