Long before the Irish tricolor became the official flag of Ireland, before it was waved over Dublin’s GPO during the 1916 Rising, the tricolor was flown in Waterford City for the first time recorded in history by one of Ireland’s most important figures: Thomas Francis Meagher.
Meagher would go on to achieve renown and respect in America, fighting as a Brigadier General with the Union Army in the American Civil War, and becoming Lieutenant Governor of the Montana Territory before his untimely and mysterious death in 1867 at the age of 43.
In Ireland, Meagher had been fierce Irish nationalist and a proud member of the Young Ireland movement, helping to lead the Young Irelander Rebellion of 1848.
Thanks to Meagher, the Irish flag (Bratach na hÉireann) – also known as the Irish tricolor – was flown publicly for the first time during that same 1848 Rebellion, on March 7, in Waterford City, at the Wolfe Tone Confederate Club (now 33 The Mall). It boldly flew for eight days and nights until it was taken down by the British.
At that time, the tricolor was not in wide use as a flag of Ireland. In fact, until the Easter Rising of 1916 the primary flag of Ireland was green with a harp in the center (the harp remains Ireland’s national symbol; Ireland is the only country in the world that has a musical instrument as such). That flag was used as early as 1642 by Owen Roe O’Neill, an Irish soldier and leader of the O’Neill dynasty, and both flags were flown above the GPO during the 1916 Rising.
After the Rising, the tricolor was adopted by the IRA during the Irish War of Independence (1919 – 1921), was a symbol of the Irish Free State from 1922 – 1937, and then, when the Irish constitution came into law later that year, it was confirmed as the official flag of Ireland by Article 7, which reads: “The national flag of Ireland is the tricolor of green, white and orange.”
Leading up to the first public flying of the tricolor, Meagher and his fellow Young Irelanders had been inspired by the 1848 revolutions across Europe. In April of 1848, a contingent of them traveled to France to congratulate the rebels there on overthrowing King Louis Philippe I. There, Meagher was presented with an Irish tricolor woven out of French silk.
Upon returning to Ireland, he, in turn, presented it to the Irish people, explaining the symbolism of the flag’s three colors. “The white in the center signifies a lasting truce between the orange and the green,” he said, “and I trust that beneath its folds the hands of the Irish Protestant and the Irish Catholic may be clasped, in generous and heroic brotherhood.”
The green represents Irish nationalism; the orange, Ireland’s Protestant minority, and the Orange Order; the white, lasting peace between the two.
For his role in the 1848 rebellion, Meagher was tried for treason and sentenced to death, but this sentence was commuted to banishment to Van Diemen’s Land in Australia. He would later escape to a new life in the United States.
The first ever permanent exhibition on the Irish Flag will be opened by the Dáil Éireann House Speaker (Ceann Comhairle) Sean O’Fearghail on Friday, February 23 in the GPO Witness History Visitors Centre. This exhibition will include details on the history of the flag, Thomas F. Meagher and also information on the Thomas F. Meagher Foundation, which works to promote pride in and respect for the Irish Flag and active citizenship.
Included in the exhibition is a monument honoring the 1916 Proclamation including the lines “summons her children to her flag” and Thomas F. Meagher’s quote (referenced above) on the meaning of the flag.
Speaking at a recent flag presentation in Leinster House, the seat of the Irish government in Dublin, Senator Mark Daly, co-founder of the Thomas F. Meagher Foundation said, “I am honored to be here with the Ceann Comhairle today as he presented the Deputy Head usher of Leinster House with a flag which has been flown from 33 The Mall to fly over the parliament of the Irish people during this year of the 170th anniversary of the first flying of the Flag by Thomas F. Meagher.
“I am delighted the Ceann Comhairle will officially open the first ever permanent exhibition on the Irish Flag in the GPO Witness History Visitors Centre. Thomas F Meagher was an American and Irish Patriot and his words of the true being of the flag being peace between community could not be more important today.”
Will you be celebrating the 170th anniversary of the flying of the Irish flag? Tell us in the comment section.