Ireland's flag

Ireland’s Flag: Not the Tricolor?

Ireland’s flag, the banner representing the Irish nation state, is green with a golden harp on it. Or it least it was until the 19th century. Admittedly, there wasn’t an Irish nation state before that time. Indeed, by then it had been a millennium since Ireland was fully free. You see, a string of unexpected visitors had begun piling in the door, one after another. And though asked politely, the last in the line neglected to leave.

Long before British expansion, the color green was deeply associated with Ireland. And the Irish wire-strung harp was depicted as early as the 11th century. Like the poet, the harpist occupied an upper social layer in Celtic society, which was structured along strict hierarchical lines. Central to the island’s folk music, the revered harp became a recognized symbol of nationhood quite early on. A green standard with golden harp would remain Ireland’s flag during the first part of British colonialism. But by the 18th century, it was in decline on the island of Ireland.

Erin go Bragh

However, linked with Catholic nationalism, the green standard continued to fly proudly elsewhere, with the Irish diaspora bringing it to parts far flung. Irish battalions have fought (for both sides!) in many major wars since the the 17th century, with much of the canon fodder being made up by impoverished Catholics.

It was in one such conflict that the phrase ‘Erin go Bragh’ first appeared on the old Irish flag of green and gold. Translated as ‘Ireland Forever’, it flew on the standard of the Los San Patricios, the Saint Patrick’s Battalion, during the Mexican-American War in the 1840s. Composed of deserters from the United States side, the Battalion saw mostly Irish Catholic mercenaries fight alongside a motley crew of various European nationalities, escaped slaves from the South, Canadians and Mexicans.

No example of the St Patrick’s Battalion’s standard survives, so we cannot be 100% certain of the exact design. But we know from contemporary accounts that it was a flag of Irish green, blazoned with the famous ‘Erin go Bragh’ below a golden harp.

This is also likely the origin of the widespread usage of the anglicized phrase we know so well today, as it is in the second half of the 19th century that it starts appearing more frequently in similar pride of place. As a name for (Irish Catholic) sports teams, ships, estates, or being flown during nationalist ceremonies or sporting events.

A recent Reader’s Digest piece picked up this humble ANTIblog article you’re currently reading, and goes into further depth on what has become such an enduring phrase among Irish-Americans. As we see it, its utterance is still surely something of a romantic gesture, and the phrase has lost most of its implication of (Catholic Irish, militant) allegiance over the years. These days, it stands as a more general expression of Hibernophilia.

As regards the etymology of the phrase, it’s a direct anglicization of the Irish Éirinn go Brách, and can sometimes be seen as ‘Erin go Brach’ (Bragh is an older, arguably more poetic, spelling of Brách). ‘Erin go Braugh’ also pops up as the anglicized version. Oh, the joys of a language that escaped standardization!

Standardizing the Standard

It was only during the Irish War of Independence (1919-1921) that the tricolor we have today came into general use. Modeled on the flag of revolutionary France, its colors were to symbolize a new chapter in the Irish story. The green represented the older Celtic and Anglo-Norman populations, the orange the Protestant planters settled in Ireland by the British Crown (most successfully in Ulster). The white would stand for the lasting peace between the two communities.

(It’s tempting to place an exclamation mark after the previous sentence, but perhaps anecdotal observance might better serve the point. If you get the chance, ask an older person from the Republic of Ireland how they fold their national flag, or how their elders folded it. Often they will make sure the Green and Orange don’t come into contact. Presumably to prevent the flag from fighting among itself once tucked away. Saves on bomb-damaged furniture, I suppose. A people united, bound apart by peace!)

Serving the tricolor

But transition can be hard, and old ways die hard. Torn to bloody shreds, devoured by the crown of monarchy, and forgotten by its sons, even after independence the golden harp on Ireland’s flag continued to gleam bright.

Supplanting the older flag with the tricolor in the 20th century led to confusion over the exact coloring of the flag we use today. Is it a green, white, and orange flag, for the Protestant planters? Or maybe it’s green, white, and gold, for the gold of the harp on the original flag? It’s confusing.

The old flag also represented the whole island of Ireland, not just a particular part or group, so that may have added another shade of confusion. And being a people not naturally conducive to standardization, the Irish unwittingly continue to add layers to the mix-up.

Irish ambiguity: A national treasure

During their lifetime, the average native sees dozens of versions of their country’s national flag. A spectrum of off-oranges, faded golds, and all shades of yellows can be seen flying in public offices! The confusion takes on an extra-delicious layer of Irish muddle when the effects of aging and the Irish sun (when it appears) are factored in.

The matter is not helped by the fact that prior to the rampant Celtic Tiger of the 1990s, ambiguity was Ireland’s main national export. And this most hazy of resources still plays a major role in Irish life – you’d think a country with a knowledge economy would brand itself better! Add this to the Irish healthy disrespect for authority, and things that are relatively fixed in nature, a nation’s flag, say, tend to suffer.

It’s doubtful whether Irish respect for protocol will ever reach levels set by other nations. But if you’ve ever seen an old IRA man’s coffin draped in a filthy, coffee-stained rag of a flag, you’ve marveled at spectacular absence of decorum. After wincing and swallowing a wry smile, that is.

Disposing of Ireland’s flag

In 2016, the Irish Government took steps to address the mess, issuing guidelines instructing that misrepresentative shades of yellow and gold seen in civilian functions “be actively discouraged”. The guidelines were stirred by the centenary of the event that ultimately led to Ireland becoming an independent nation, the 1916 Rising. A hundred years is swift in Irish terms – super swift in terms of official policy!

The guidelines replaced the notably less specific instructions issued some years previous. The state document ending with the relevant government address appearing below the ominous Irishism “Further advice may be had from” [italics added, colon missing and sentence not closed in original].

The latest guidelines also call for worn flags to be “destroyed or disposed of in a dignified way”. But don’t provide suggestions as to how a fallen example be removed from service. Should it be ceremoniously cremated? Isn’t that burning the flag? Put out with the trash? Surely that’s even more disrespectful? Popped in with letters for the North Pole come December, perhaps? Should Ireland’s national flag be force-fed to under-performing state officials?

Word on the street is there’s a government-funded institute being set up. Their mandate: (research) the construction of a care facility for elderly flags deemed no longer up to the job. Until then government officials can regularly be seen heading out from Dublin Bay, off to bury loyal servants at sea.

And why are you being told all this? With reason. Arguably a most important kind of reason. A reason that’s a layer shot.

Because the efficacy of the layer shot known as the Irish flag shot is beyond misunderstanding. Happy shooting, and keep an eye on our Irish Drinks section for ever more liquid refreshments from Erin’s Isle.