Saturday, 30 August 2014

Development & History of Irish Flags Pt1 Early flags

1st in a new series of posts I hope to regularly post here. This one is about the flags and emblems possibly used in early Ireland.
References to flags (in the widest possible use of the term) in Ancient Ireland are scarce, and the few references that do exist are often so vague in detail, that what these flags looked like is mostly left to the imagination.  Often simply describing banners as "having over them, of red, and of yellow, and of green, and of all kinds of colours." or being "gold spangled" with very little if any more detail.
Many if not all references of the flags of Ancient Ireland are from the ancient poetic chronicles and sagas, which existed as much as to tell fantastically imaginative stories as record historical events, so the small amount of detail these have should be looked at slightly sceptically, but none the less cannot be overlooked.
The earliest Irish texts use the word "onchu" which modern linguists and scholars have translated to meaning both a banner or standard, and also meaning a beast. This could mean that the early "flags" were not made of cloth or fabric as we know today, but rather three dimensional objects on a pole or staff called Vexilloids.
Such objects were common throughout the ancient world, notably in the armies of Egypt, Greece and Rome. The famous Roman Eagle is perhaps the best example of this type of emblem.
Although like Scotland, Ireland (or Hibernia as the Romans called it) was never annexed into the Roman Empire, they certainly had influence, particularly in trade and or military, from their colony in Britain.  Roman historian Tacitus mentions that Agricola, while governor of Roman Britain (AD 78 - 84), considered conquering Ireland, believing it could be held with one legion plus auxiliaries and entertained an exiled Irish prince, thinking to use him as a pretext for a possible invasion of Ireland. Apparently this Chieften returned to conquer his homeland, perhaps bring this style of flag with him?Or perhaps the Romans themselves might have come to Ireland? The same historian mentions Agricola sailing across the Irish Sea and defeating "peoples unknown to Rome until then." He left fortifying the coast. Some historians believe this was the first of many military expeditions to the island. Perhaps this is how this type of standard was introduces to Ireland, an Iron Age fort at Drumaanagh about 20 km north of Dublin has yielded Roman artefacts in archaeological digs supporting this theory. Of course all this is little more than speculation.
There is evidence of this type of emblem still in use in the early medieval period in England.The Bayeux Tapestry which tells the story of the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, depict King Harold's Anglo-Saxon troops fighting under a dragon standard, that resembles a child's balloon animal. Although it is hard to say for certain, it is almost certainly a 3D object, rather than a cloth flag like what the Normans are using in this period.  It is thought that the flag of Wessex may have its origins from this 3D standard.This suggests it may have been in use in other parts of the British Isles, including Gaelic Ireland.
This could also explain why the ancient Irish word for standard seems to be interchangeable with beast. 
At least some of these 'banners' or 'standards' may have been the more conventional cloth flags. Accounts of the Battle of Magh Rath describe's "streaming, floating consecrated, satin banner,"  Around which were "banners of all the chieftains of Erin." which were "satin on war poles." Of course these may simply have been streamers or tassels, from the 3D standards, which was normal.
 Accounts say that the flag of Congal was a gold lion on green Satin, suggesting it may have been made of cloth, in which case might have looked like this:
.  Could this be the first flag of Ireland? Probably not but one can only imagine
Whether the three dimensional figures were used, or cloth standards or both, one thing is for sure. This was the start of the long and sometimes controversial heritage of Vexillology, that is so rich in all the traditions of this island.

For more in this series see the links below or click the label History of Irish flags:

Also in the Series

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