Sunday, 8 February 2015

Development & History of Irish flags Pt11: the Fenian Brotherhood

The Fenian and Irish Republican Brotherhoods was a militant republican organisation founded in 1858 with a large following and support among the recently arrived immigrants in the United States of America. The name Fenian was adopted from the Fianna a band of warriors in irish mythology who were led by the giant Finn McCool. Modern use of the word is as a derogatory name for Republicans and is generally seen as an insult. (it is also oddly enough used to describe a member of the Australian Labour party with republican views.) The use of the name Fenian here is of course in the historical context. In the late 1860s the Fenians conducted various raids/risings and actions which we in the modern world would call terrorism, around the British Isles and North America. Naturaly they had their own flags and emblems, some of which are still used today. The most common Fenian flags can be divided into three categories:

  1. Green Harp flags
  2. Stars and Stripes flags
  3. Sunburst flag

Green Harp flags

The green harp flag being seen as the flag of Ireland was naturally used. In County Dublin in 1867 insurgents raised a green harp flag over a police station. Above the harp was the inscription "For God and our Country" and below it "Remember Emmet" Robert Emmet led an insurrection in 1803 and was executed for treason. Such slogans were common on the Fenian flags "God Save Ireland" and references to the so called Manchester Martyrs, who were executed for murdering police officers in England were also common.  Between 1866 and 1871, American Fenians many of them Civil War veterans (some even wore their blue US army uniforms!) conducted invasions of Canada, The idea of the "Fenian Raids" was to gain Irish independance from the United Kingdom by holding Canada ransom. They were ultimately no match however for the British garrison troops and Canadian militia many of whom were of Ulster-Scots Protestant origin, Alexander Muir for example who was a member of the Orange Order and wrote the Canadian anthem the Maple Leaf forever, served in the Queens own Rifles of Canada at the battle of Ridgeway,which brings us back to the green harp flags. It is at this confrontation between Fenian and Canadian troops we see a most interesting flag. A 1869 illustration of this engagement shows the Fenians under green harp flags, one of which has the letters "I.R.A." above the harp! It is uncertain if these letters actually stand for "Irish Republican Army" the name used by the revolutionaries of the 1919-21 and various terrorist groups since. Although in the book "1916: The Easter Rising" by Tim Coogan it states that when they surrendered to awaiting US authorities they were described as the "Irish Republican Army" if true this is probably the first use of that infamous name.
Fenians' "IRA" flag at battle of  Ridgeway. The Union Jacks of the Canadian troops are also odd

Stars & Stripes

The American influence on the Fenians in Ireland is also evident in their flags, there are a handful of examples that are clearly inspired by the flag of the United States. On such flag captured in 1867 at a place called Tallaght, is a green field with 32 gold, eight pointed stars, representing the counties of Ireland. A flag rather similar to the American jack (ironically called the Union Jack) flown by Federal vessels and prior to 2002 the US Navy. It is unclear if this was meant to be part of a larger flag or not. Other flags would suggest that it was originally meant to form the canton of a flag, but it appears for one reason or another it was used individually.
A flag found in Dublin on St Patricks Day 1858 had the arrangement of stars already mentioned in the canton, and four stripes, presumably for the provinces of Ireland in the rest of the field.

A flag found by police in the possession of a Mr Micheal Moore a Fenian supplier in Dublin in 1865  had eight stripes, alternating between green and white. Presumably the green stripes represented the provinces with the white being used to separate the green stripes.
Another design I found, has the stars in the canto arranged as a saltire, I can't vouch for it's authenticity but it is certainly interesting:

The Sunburst

Flag of the County Sligo Light Horse
The device of a sun rising from clouds was the most recognizable Fenian symbol. This is a symbol we have seen before in this series, in the 18th Century Volunteers flag of the County Sligo Light Horse. The motto translating as "After the clouds Sun"The symbolism of the Sun shining through the clouds symbolising the dawning of a new day, has clear republican symbolism. There was also a though by some to be a reference to Ireland's pagan past. One song called for people "whose pagan fathers adored the bright sun," to "Send your loud war-cry o'r the main, Your sunburst to the breezes spread."  There may also have been a flag as early as 1731. Far from being a uniquely Irish symbol there are various examples in 18th and 19th century European Vexillology of cloud and sun devices on flags, some even had arms with daggers emerging. it was a common revolutionary symbol.  However unlike other revolutionary movements in Europe and the Americas, the symbolism of the sunburst was used in poetry, song and art.
 I have used Irish-American greeting cards frequently in this series, If you look at them again, many have a sunburst in the background.  The symbol appeared on depictions of flag in the Republican magazine The Nation in throughout the Victorian period. The standard design seemed to be a green flag with a half sun, in the centre. Sometimes clouds were depicted at the bottom of the sun. The oriental look these flags have to us would have been lost on most of the Fenians. Most of Fenian Sunburst flags appear to have been American ones, but there are some examples of such flags being used in Ireland.  In April 1867 a number of Fenians were arrested returning from Dublin, from skirmishes at Tallaght on the 6th, One of the people in this group was found to have "a green flag,which was provided for this grand military display, and which had a sunburst with ireland and a harp painted on it." This description seems to match this this rare example of a similar Fenian flag:
Although the primary symbol is a harp, the sunburst at the hoist is an example of combining symbols. This flag has a colourful history, it was used by the land league of the 1860s. It was hidden in a sack of flower during the 1919-21 conflict, to escape being discovered and potentially destroyed by the Royal Irish Constabulary Auxiliaries. It was recently sold at auction to a private owner 52,000 Euro. 
It should be said though that the primary use of the sunburst in this period was in an American Context. It was as will be seen later in this series to decorate the Irish colours of the New York regiments in the Civil War.It was in the decoration of the title of the American newspaper the Fenian Volunteer and was flown over the Fenian Congress in Philadelphia in 1866. It was also used by the Fenian raiders of Canada. The flag Buffalo Fenians is particularly interesting. It was a green flag with the sunburst in the canton. In the fly was the inscription "Presented by the Fenian Sisterhood of Buffalo May 16th 1866" suggesting it was made by the ladies for the men. Diagonally across the field was the unit's name. Which called itself "Buffalo 7th Regt Irish Army of Liberation" Later a "battle honour" of  "Ridgeway & Fort Erie June 2nd 1866."
  It would be interesting as the style of this flag suggests a uniformed set of unit colours, however I haven't found any evidence to support this. This flag was owned by the Fort Eire Historical Society.
The most notable use of the sunburst was on the mainmast of the Erin's Hope a ship that was acquired by the American Fenians in 1867, to take funds and weapons to Ireland. Initially it was called the Jacmel and was taking its cargo to the revolutionaries in Cuba. This was a front and the ship and its cargo was diverted to Ireland. On Easter Sunday(21 April) about eight days off the US coast, a salute was fired, the vessel renamed Erin's Hope and two flags run up the mastheads. The sunburst from the mainmast and green harp flag from the foremast. There's no suggestion in accounts though that these replaced the national colours of the vessel, so one can assume the US flag continued to be used as the ensign. (this way the ship didn't violate any law of the sea regarding national flags)

The sunburst is still a relevant symbol in Irish Republicanism. It was as well be seen used in the colours of the Irish Volunteer Force, and is used in colours of the Irish Defence Forces and flags of Paramilitary groups. 

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