Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Development & History of Irish Flags Pt4 St George in Ireland.

Enniskillen Castle, Co Fermanagh still flies the flag of St George
A flag that is not often associated with Ireland, however it is one that has a long, complicated, and sometimes misunderstood and to a degree still controversial history on the island. In a way it is the oldest Irish flag still in use today. (by Irish flag I mean used in Ireland)  By the sixteenth century the red cross of the patron saint of England was well established as the national banner in Ireland, although it was possibly the Normans who were first to use this flag in Ireland. In 1515 the order went out the government forces in the Pale region (most of Leinster) the region of Ireland under the direct rule of the crown (the king ruled most of the island indirectly via Anglo-Irish-Norman nobility and loyal gaelic chieftains), should march under "a standard of the arms of Saint George" and a guidon of the arms of St David. (probably the Welsh dragon on the tudor colours of green and white, rather than the later St David's Cross), "in token that the King of England and of France (English Kings had a long standing claim to the French throne sine the Hundred Years War) is Lord of Ireland."
In 1537 a Portuguese ship carrying a cargo of wine fir Wexford took shelter from a storm in Co Cork. she was captured by the local chieftain who stole most of the wine. Following a rescue mission the government garrison in Waterford returned, destroyed a village and "put up St George's Standard" on the castle.
In 1557 each of the baronies of County Dublin were ordered to provide themselves "a convenient and warlike ensign with a red cross of St George therein against the day of musters." These flags were of course to be provided at the baron's own expense.
Example of Tudor ensign (not an original)
 similar flags may have been used by armies.
Government forces throughout the sixteenth century followed the practice of the English in displaying a red cross in their company colours and calvary guidons. The flags of infantry companies were usually a large square flag (although there are also reports of triangular ones) with the cross of St George in the canton, the rest of the flag was either plain or consisted of a series of horizontal stripes, the number and colours of which varied from unit to unit, but presumably not unlike the tudor naval ensigns. The flags of infantry units at the battle of Blackwater are described as having "fawn, white, red and lime yellow stripes."
The flags of this period were rather large with relatively short poles, compared to todays standards. Not much more than a handgrip or two below the flag. Accounts tell that when a company or battalion were in action, the flag bearer would hold his flag at arms length from himself and twirl it over his head! Sounds like something you might see at an American high school sporting event, rather than an Irish battle field! Exactly how this was done, or the significance or meaning behind it is not clear. Standard and guidon bearers were well paid soldiers many getting around a shilling a day, and some up to three shillings.
Depiction of an Irish battle, note the flag bearer appearing to twirl St George's Cross.

The cross of St George also appears on many of the artistic maps of Ireland, particularly those from the late sixteenth/early seventeenth centuries. In many of these the cross is accompanied by the harp. however it is interesting to note that on these maps the cross of St George occupies the position of honor. In fact it may appear that the harp only compliments the cross like a regional  sub-national symbol, while the cross is the national emblem. Sometimes both symbols are impaled on the same shield, like the arms of a married woman.
By the seventeenth Century the Cross of St George could be found flying over government garrisons, forts, towns and cities in all the four provinces of the island. Although Irish infantry colours in the 1600s grew into something distinctly different from English colours, the flag flown from garrisons was still St Georges Cross. It could be found on castles up and down the kingdom. It is even depicted on an artistic map flying over the ruins of the castle of Hugh O'Neill the former Earl of Tyrone, who led a nine year rebellion against Elizabeth I. Also depicted on this map is the stone chair which the chief of O'Neills were crowned. The symbolism clearly saying who was now in charge.
St George's Cross was probably used as a garrison flag until the Union Flag replaced it in 1707. One castle is known to still use it today though. The castle at Enniskillen in County Fermanagh flies the 'flag of St George almost daily'
the founding of the Inniskings 
In 1688 a regiment was raised in Enniskillen for the town's defence from the Jacobites of James II. Originally called Tiffins Inniskilling Regiment of Foot, it would become the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, (the incorrect spelling of Enniskillen stayed throughout the regiments history) and serve with distinction at the battle of the Boyne two years later. King William III was so impressed by the regiment that he gave them permission to use the image of a castle flying St George's Cross on their regimental colours and insignia. This castle represented Enniskillen castle were the regiment was formed, the inclusion of St George's Cross was because this was the flag they fought under in the defence of their town. This insignia was used as the regimental badge right up until 1968 when it was amalgamated with other Irish units to form the Royal Irish Rangers. However this regiment still wore the castle with St George's Cross on the collar badge of their parade dress uniforms, a tradition still carried on today by the Royal Irish Regiment.

Information board about the flag at Enniskillen Castle
Cap badge of Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers
depicting Enniskillen castle

Another place that annually flys St Georges Cross is the garrison city of Londonderry. Here it is flown with other flags on the city walls on the anniversary of the beginning and end of the Siege of Derry 1688-89. All three flag are those used at the time of the siege:
The green flag in the above clip is an early green ensign, the Irish flag used by ships, this flag will be covered in more detail in the Chapter about flags at sea, but as can be seen it also has a St George Cross in the canton.
Colour of the Foot Guards Regiment of Ireland
Colour of Bulkeley's Irish Regiment in the French Army
While St George's Cross on a white field was a universal garrison flag, the same was not so of the colours of Irish regiments. By the mid-late seventeenth century Irish military colours had evolved into their own unique style from the earlier striped designs of the late 1500s. The common Irish colour featured a red cross of St George with white fimbriation, The field of the flag was one or two different colours. A crowned harp was a common symbol in the middle of these flags. A symbol may also have been in the corners these varied depending on the unit, but crowns, crosses or heraldic arms were common. The Food Guards Regiment of Ireland had the arms of England, Scotland, Ireland and France in each corner. It is notable that in this divided period of Irish history, this style was used by all sides. In the glorious revolution both the Irish Jacobite army of James II and the Irish and Ulster-Scots regiments of William III used this style. This style was used until the 1707 act of Union when the Irish regiments became part of the new British Army and adopted a more standardised style. However the Irish regiments that followed James II into exile and fought in the French army's Irish Brigade continued to use this style of flag.

Flag of the Commissioners of Irish Lights until 1970
former NI flag still in  unofficial use
There are still some examples of St George's Cross in use in Ireland today, or at least its influence on modern flags. The flag of the Commissioners of Irish Lights, featured a cross of St George right up until 1970. The same basic design is still used by Irish Lighthouses, north and south but St George's Cross was changed to a St Patrick's Saltire. The cross of St George was used on the Northern Ireland flag from 1952-73, a flag still used as a de facto NI flag especially in sport and still  popular among Ulster unionists.
Likewise the Orange Banner a historic flag popular with the Orange Order and loyalist marching bands all over Ireland and Scotland feature a St George Cross in the canton. Although said to have been carried before William III at the battle of the Boyne, there is no reference to it being used by an Irish or Ulster-Scots unit. Its not just Northern flags as already seen by the Irish Lights flags the cross of St George in Ireland also has a nautical history, and a red cross still features in the flag flown from Lifeboat stations not only in the United Kingdom but also in the Republic of Ireland.

Although it may not have been a symbol unique to the island, St George's Cross could arguably be said to be the first national flag of Ireland, in the sense it was the first flag to be used by an authority for good or ill over the whole island. It is certainly a flag that has influenced other flags in Ireland directly and indirectly, and if one is to fully understand the development of flags in Ireland cannot overlook it. 

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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