'Meagher of the Sword': The Origins of the irish Tricolour

Thomas Francis Meagher

Thomas Francis Meagher

A variety of flags were flown in Dublin during Easter week, 1916, including the ‘Irish Republic’ flag, the Green Flag, which consisted of a gold harp on a green background and the starry plough, which was used by the Irish Citizen Army. None however, have had such a lasting symbolic relevance to the Irish nation as the tricolour of green, white and orange. The origins of the flag can be traced to the time of Daniel O’Connell, and a member of the revolutionary Young Irelanders, Thomas Francis Meagher.

Born in 1823, Thomas Francis Meagher seemed destined for trade, not revolution. During his wealthy Irish catholic upbringing he enjoyed a boarding school education in Ireland at Clongowes and in Britain at Stonyhurst. Here he developed his oratory skills, which later earned him the name ‘Meagher of the Sword.’

Meagher returned home to Ireland in 1843 and became involved in Daniel O’Connell’s Repeal Association, whose aim was to achieve the repeal of the Act of Union between Great Britain and Ireland. In the now famous Sword Speech, Meagher advocated the use of armed struggle to realise this goal. Meagher and other radical members of the Repeal Association, known as the Young Irelanders were ejected from the movement.

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I hail the sword as a sacred weapon; and if, my lord, it has sometimes taken the shape of the serpent and reddened the shroud of the oppressor with too deep a dye, like the anointed rod of the high priest, it has at other times, and as often, blossomed into celestial flowers to deck the freeman’s brow
— Thomas Francis Meagher

Excerpt from 'Fighting Irish of the Civil War: Clear The Way', which explains the origins of the Irish Tricolour.

Against the backdrop of the Great Famine, the Young Irelanders turned their attention to the revolutions that were sweeping Europe. Meagher travelled to France and brought back a tricolor flag modeled on that of the French, but with bands of green, white and orange symbolizing hoped-for peace between the Nationalist and Anglo Irish traditions. Within months, he took part in the abortive Young Irelander Rebellion of 1948 and was one of four men sentenced to death for sedition. Public outcry caused the sentences to be reduced to transportation to Van Diemen’s Land, now Tasmania in Australia.

Meagher escaped to New York in 1852, where he was hailed as a hero. He was soon attracted back to politics and conflict, and at the outbreak of the American Civil War he led the Union's 69th regiment, which became known as the ‘Fighting Irish.’ Meagher quickly rose to the rank of Brigadier General, with command over all three regiments of the brigade, whose bravery in battle was legendary due to the soldier’s adoration of Meagher, who led from the front.

After Meagher’s departure from Irish politics the use of the Irish Tricolor as a nationalist symbol subsided somewhat. At that time however, another militant and radical movement was prominently using tricolour flags: the suffragettes. The most well known example of these is the purple, white and green flag of the Women’s Social and Political Union, of which Emmeline Pankhurst and her two daughters were founding members. Splits in the suffragette movement caused a range of different tricolours to be used as the symbol of various different groups, including a green, white, and gold one used by the Women’s Freedom League in 1908.

The coffin of Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa, draped in the Irish Tricolour,  lying in state, 1915.

The coffin of Jeremiah O'Donovan Rossa, draped in the Irish Tricolour,  lying in state, 1915.

The use of a tricolour has its roots in the foundation of numerous republics, including France, Italy and Mexico. The egalitarianism symbolized by three equal sized vertical bands of colour, rather than in a hierarchical structure would have appealed to James Connolly and the left wing tradition.

A notable episode in which it re-emerged was at the funeral of Jeremiah O’Donovan Rossa. Known by his critics as O’Dynamite Rossa due to his part in the dynamite campaign, the first example of bombings in English cities by Irish Nationalists, he spent the latter part of his life in exile in New York due to his activities. When he died he was sent home to Ireland and his funeral was a huge publicity event for the nascent Irish Volunteers . An Irish Tricolour lay draped over the coffin as Pádraig Pearse gave his famous graveside oration:

They think that they have pacified Ireland. They think that they have purchased half of us and intimidated the other half. They think that they have foreseen everything, think that they have provided against everything; but, the fools, the fools, the fools! — They have left us our Fenian dead, and while Ireland holds these graves, Ireland unfree shall never be at peace
— Pádraig Pearse
The Irish Tricolour that reportedly flew over the GPO during the Easter Rising. It is currently on loan to the American Irish Historical Society and is on display at their New York headquarters. 

The Irish Tricolour that reportedly flew over the GPO during the Easter Rising. It is currently on loan to the American Irish Historical Society and is on display at their New York headquarters. 

The tricolour, however, did not have an official status at this time, and was one of a number of types of flags used by the nationalist movement. This was the case up until the night before the Easter Rising, when Connolly brought the flag to the supreme council of the IRB. The following day, the flag was flown above several buildings that had been taken over, a number of which had connections to the 1913 lockout. A symbol of victory over oppression of workers, the flag flew above Easons and the Jacobs factory. It even flew over the Imperial Hotel, which was owned by William Martin Murphy, the industrialist who sparked the lockout with his mistreatment of workers.

The Irish Tricolour of green, white and orange was adopted as the official flag of the Irish Republic in 1919, and this status was enshrined into the Constitution in 1937. It represents a coming together of multiple traditions: nationalist and protestant; socialist, republican and suffragist; and echoes the ideals and aspirations of other nations born of revolution such as France and Italy. It represented a government that met in secret, and now it flies among the flags of the world.

Written by Eoin Cody

Many thanks to Brian Hand of IT Carlow for his enlightening perspectives on the tricolour.