Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Development & History of Irish flags Pt9: the Rising of 1798

Seal of the United Irishmen
1798 the year of the United Irishmen's Rebellion. The moment which modern Irish nationalism traces its origins to. Inspired by successful revolutions in France and America, all of Europe including Ireland was in revolutionary mode in this period. In fact it was not uncommon to see French and American flags flying in Ireland as a show of solidarity. The society of United Irishmen was launched in 1791, as a liberal political party opposed to the so called "Protestant Ascendancy" and Penal Laws. It was comprised primarily of Catholics in the South although much of its leadership were Protestant Presbyterians, in Ulster many of the rank and file were also Presbyterians, who were also discriminated against by the Penal Laws. In 1798 rebellion broke out, and although put down by government forces (much of it including the Militia & Yeomanry of the last post) the effect of this  rising would be far reaching into the next century. The colour of the moment was green, and the emblem was the harp. But these were not the only symbols or colours of this event.
The Liberty Cap, a symbol borrowed from the French Revolutionaries featured in the Society's Seal. This had also featured in some of the flags of Volunteers (many former Volunteers joined the rebellion, although most fought in the government militia), as was the harp. Both version of the Irish harp was used by the rebels, the winged maid of Erin and the one with the plain pillar. In popular culture Éire Go Brách(Ireland forever) was the main motto or slogan used. But there were others. On the flags this cry did appear, it was often written in poor Irish, with "Brách" in particularly being misspelled as "Braugh" or "Bra" and "Éire" appearing as the more anglicised "Erin." The society's motto on its seal was simply  "Equality" and "Its new strung and shall be Heard" a reference to the harp, representing the people. The majority of the other slogans were in English or sometimes latin. "Liberty and Equality being one of the more popular, The Catholic rebels of Wexford chalked JHS on their hats (Jesus Hominum Salvator, latin Jesus Savior of mankind).
The green harp flag was widely used in this rebellion, and although there are earlier examples of such flags, this was its first widespread use. The result was that it was firmly established as the de facto national flag until the 1916 rising.  Many modern Irish people may have the impression that their colour was always "their own beloved green" but this was also the first large scale use of the colour green as the national colour. Historically the national colour of Ireland was blue, as this was (and still is) the colour of the national coat of arms. Blue was also associated with St Patrick with a shade being known as 'St Patrick's blue' there is no St Patrick's green.
Why green was adopted is not entirely clear, It has been suggested that it was Protestants in the North who chose the colour by combing blue and orange. However the most accepted and probably more likely explanation is that it's a reference to the shamrock. It is also interesting to note that green was not just used on flags. While most rebels were not issued with uniforms there was an attempt to provide ones, mostly these were white britches, a green tunic, and a black hat with green plume. The green harp flag was carried by the insurgents in Wexford, Wicklow, Kildare, Down and Mayo, but their is no direct evidence they were used elsewhere.
Battle of Vinehill note the plain green flag of the rebels
It does appear though that green flags of some discription were raised wherever rebels assembled. Green Colours were ordered by the would be insurgents of Ulster in preparation before the rebellion, and the United Irishmen's proclamation spoke of "the National flag of the Sacred Green." Many of the songs of the time speak of raising "the green flag of liberty" and state "The green flag would be hoisted through town and counterie." It was reported when rebels entered Wexford in May 1798 the had "green banners flying" and hoisted "a large green flag above the barracks." They also found the houses of the town decorated with green bunting. It is also reported that they had banners "of all colours apart from orange." A Mr Edward Hay who was in Wexford at this time reported that the flags were made by lady sympathisers, who made the flags out of their coloured petticoats, and decorated them "according to their different fancies" so that no two flags were alike. There are also reports of white flags being used, Wexford rebels marching in Carlow were said to have "two stand of white colours." Plain green flags appear to have been the most prominent emblem of the rebels.

There were other devices on rebel flags as well as harps we know of three flags that were present during some of the more sinister events of the rebellion, that tainted how it is viewed by Protestants to this day. The most well known of theses is the flag carried at Arklone by a rebel priest Fr Michael Murphy, who led a charge carrying the flag, and was killed thirty yards from the government barricade. This flag is described as "a fine standard with a cross and Liberty or Death inscribed on it. We are not told the flags colours but green has been attributed to it.
Another flag with a cross was carried by the followers of Thomas Dixon when they murdered more than 70 Protestant prisoners on Wexford Bridge on 20 June. It was a black flag with a "bloody (red) cross" on one side and a white one on the other above which were the letters "M.W.S." What the letters mean is unclear but one source Mr George Taylor who was in the town at the time, attributed them to meaning "Murder without Sin," implying that the insurgents thought there was nothing wrong with killing Protestants. Judging the horror he saw and lived through you can understand why Mr Taylor might make such a statement, and the actions of those rebels certainly don't disproof it, it is unlikely that is what the letters ment. A Mr T Crofton Croker who made inquires about the event five years after it happened was told that the letters ment "Marksmen, Wexford, Shelmailer" which is also probably not true. Another rebel leader Joseph Holt had his men carry a green flag with a harp on one side and his initials "JH" on the other.
A print of an engagement between the military and rebels near the hills of Kilcullen, Co Kildare, clearly shows two rebel flags. One depicts the letters "IU" within a wreath, what the wreath is made of isn't clear. In the canton it has a saltire and harp, on the bottom of the flag was the battle cry "Erin go Bra." The other flag has a harp in the centre and cross in the canton. The latter flag also seems to appear on a print of the battle of New Ross. The letters "IU" on the former is thought to stand for "Ireland United." The saltire is interesting it could be a St Patrick's Saltire, or possibly the unit number in Roman numerals, or this might be the case with the "IU" which could be supposed to be "IV." Although this is just speculation.  On a final note to the rising of 1798, it should be remembered that the rebels were supported with arms and military assistance from the fledgling French Republic. The French landed in Mayo and set up their headquarters in the residence of the Bishop of Killala, where a green flag, beraing a harp and the inscription of "Erin go Braugh" was flown over the building. It is not clear if this flag was brought by Irish who landed with the French, or if it was provided locally. A french unit colour of the 70th Demi-Brigade was captured by the Armagh Militia in Co Longford when the French surrendered on 7 September. This flag is preserved in Armagh Church of Ireland Cathedral. It is a white flag with "Republique Francaise" embroidered within a laurel wreath. It also depicts a variant of the national emblem of France.
A mention should also be giving to the attempted uprising of Robert Emmet in 1803, shortly after the Act of Union with Great Britain. A flag almost certainly used in 1798 was found by the authorites in the building he was storing his equipment for rebelion. This was a green flag with a golden winged female pillar, behind which was a pike with a Liberty cap, and the cry "Erin go Bragh" on a scroll.  This is the flag pictured at the top of this post.

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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