The national flag of Ireland is a vertical tricolour of green, white and orange, what we’ve come to know and love as the tricolour.

Officially, the tricolour has no meaning in the Irish Constitution, but its symbolism is widely known the world over: green representing nationalism, orange reflecting the majority tradition in the north while the white of peace rests between them.

The flag was originally presented in 1848 as a gift to Thomas Francis Meagher by a small group of French women sympathetic to the Irish cause?

It was not until the Easter Rising of 1916, when it was raised above the GPO in Dublin, that the tricolour came to be regarded as the national flag.

Meagher was the son of Newfoundland-born mayor of Waterford, Thomas Meagher Junior.

There are, however, two theories on his inspiration for the flag; the similarly-symbolic Newfoundland Tricolour created in 1843, and the French Tricolour.

The flag was adopted in 1919 by the Irish Republic during the War of Independence, and subsequently by the Irish Free State, later awarded constitutional status under the 1937 Bunreacht na hÉireann.

The tricolour is regarded by many nationalists as the national flag of the island of Ireland, a long-standing bone of contention with Unionists and Loyalists in Northern Ireland.

The tricolour was predated by a green flag bearing a harp, dating back at least to Confederate Ireland and the pursuits of Owen Roe O’Neill from 1642.

It was subsequently widely adopted by the United Irishmen and, 120 years later, the Irish Volunteers.

Up north, the all-male, all-Protestant Orange Order was founded in 1795 in memory of King William of Orange and the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688.

Following the 1798 Rebellion which pitted the ‘green’ United Irishmen against the Orange tradition loyal to the British Crown, the ideal of making peace between both traditions in a self-governed Ireland was first mooted. Some 210 years later, at least the peace has largely been won between green and orange.

The oldest known reference to the use of green, white and orange as a nationalist emblem dates from September 1830 when the colours were used for rosettes and badges.

Since that historical period the use of the tricolour became the preferred mark of a republic in national flags. However, widespread recognition was not accorded to the flag until 1848.

At a meeting in his native Waterford on March 7th 1848, the Young Ireland leader Thomas Francis Meagher first publicly unveiled the flag from a second-floor window of the Wolfe Tone Club (33, The Mall).

The flag flew proudly while he addressed a crowd gathered on the street below who were celebrating news of the French Revolution.

Speeches made at that time by Meagher suggest that it was regarded as an innovation and not as the revival of an older flag.

From March of that year Irish tricolours appeared side-by-side with French ‘tricolores’ at meetings held all over the country.

John Mitchell, referring to the provisional Irish banner which Meagher had presented at a meeting in Dublin on April 15th 1848, said: “I hope to see that flag one day waving, as our national banner.”

Although the tricolour was not forgotten as a symbol of a free Ireland, it was rarely used between 1848 and 1916.

Even up to the eve of the 1916 Rising, the green flag featuring a harp held undisputed sway. Neither the colours nor the arrangement of the early tricolours were standardised.

All of the 1848 tricolours showed green, white and orange, but orange was sometimes put next to the staff, and in at least one flag the order was orange, green and white.

In 1850 a flag of green for the Roman Catholics, orange for the Protestants of the Established Church and blue for the Presbyterians was proposed.

In 1883, a Parnellite tricolour of yellow, white and green, arranged horizontally, was proposed. Down to modern times, yellow has occasionally been used instead of orange, but by such substitution tarnish’s the tricolour’s fundamental symbolism.

Associated with separatism in the past, flown during the Easter Rising of 1916 and capturing the national imagination as the banner of the new revolutionary Ireland, the tricolour became the de facto national flag.

It was used by Cosgrave’s Free State government, but not necessarily with the intention that it should become the national flag.

The Republican movement began to use the tricolour in an overt political way claiming it as the emblem of their identity.

Subsequently, the Free State government forestalled its use by anti-treaty ranks, while leaving itself free to adopt a more suitable emblem in later years – but it continued to be used between 1922 and 37. But through the new Constitution, the colours were formally confirmed as our national flag.

Incidentally, I see that the last full-sized Tricolour of the Easter Rising still in existence is to go under the hammer soon in a New York auction room for an expected €500,000. Now that’s what I call holding your flag dear!

Beannachtaí na Féile Libh