Meagher & the Tricolour

The first era of the tricolour essentially starts with Meagher’s flying of the flag in Waterford in 1848 as a gesture and a symbol of independence. It ends with a large tricolour flying from the GPO during the Easter rebellion. During the interim period, the flag has a very low profile, surfacing again in 1898 for the centenary of the 1798 rebellion, generally in the form of badges and rosettes.

The Stokes tapestry, completed in 1853, contains the first visual vivid representation of the flag, and other symbols of Ireland (the harp and shamrock) are also contained in some of the panels. During O’Donovan Rossa’s funeral in 1915, the flag that draped his coffin was referred to as the Irish republican flag. Daniel O’Connell before 1848 was reported to have considered changing the flag of Irish nationalism of the time - the green flag with an uncrowned harp - to a tricolour.

These two flags were symbols in search of a new country. The green flag, according to the historian of Irish flags, Professor G. A. Hayes McCoy, was the flag of rebellions of 1708, 1803, 1848, 1867, of the Land League, of the “pre-1916” Irish Volunteers, and it was hoisted over Liberty Hall immediately before Easter week, 1916.

Thomas Francis Meagher, and the Tricolour, 1848

Meagher’s story is extremely important in the origins of the Irish tricolour flag, because of his central role in promoting it during 1848, and his role in the 1848 rebellion, establishing its relationship with the idea of an Irish republic.

He popularised the tricolour flag of green, white and orange that would eventually fly in Dublin during the 1916 rising. It became the flag of the new state in 1922, and was formally recognised in the 1937 Constitution as the flag of Ireland: ‘The national flag is the tricolour of green, white and orange’.

When he presented the flag in Dublin in 1848, he explained the meaning behind it - "The white in the centre signifies a lasting truce between the “orange” and the “green”—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".

Meagher flies the Tricolour in 1848

Thomas Francis Meagher flew an Irish Tricolour flag on 7 March 1848 from the Wolfe Tone Club in Waterford City in celebration of the 1848 revolution in Paris. After a visit to Paris, he presented a silk Irish tricolour to the citizens of Dublin in April 1848.

Meagher’s story is extremely important in the origins of the Irish tricolour flag, because of his central role in promoting it during 1848, and his role in the 1848 rebellion, establishing its relationship with the idea of an Irish republic.

First Colour Record of Irish Tricolour 1853

The Stokes Tapestry was the first colour picture of the Tricolour in 1853.

This large pictorial work featuring 250 figures was made by Stephen Stokes between 1833 and 1853 and illustrates his experiences in the British Army in Ireland and subsequently in the Dublin Metropolitan Police. It illustrates historical events during his lifetime, and popular personalities and characters of the early Victorian period.

It was the first visual record we had of Meagher’s tricolour flag. This very special tapestry by Stephen Stokes is now on display in the National Museum of Ireland at Collins Barracks.  

The Irish Flag in the 18th & 19th Centuries

The letter in The Irish Press drew attention to the importance of the green flag in the years before the 1916 Rising.

The letter writer is G.A. Hayes McCoy the historian who wrote "A History of Irish Flags from Earliest Times"

Fenian Flag captured at Tallaght in 1867

This Fenian Flag was captured from the Fenians at Tallaght, on 5th March, 1867. Made of green silk, it is 4 foot by 3 foot with four rows, each with eight golden stars embroidered.  The design, influenced by the American "Stars & Stripes", shows thirty-two stars in all, representing the thirty-two counties.

This is part of a collection of flags used throughout the centuries that can be seen at the National Museum of Ireland. A note in pen on the back reads "Flag carried by the Fenians on the night of 5th March 1867". HH:1966.22


The Easter Rising marks the start of the broad acceptance of the tricolour as the Irish flag. During the period 1916 to 1922, the tricolour was associated with the new, vibrant movement for Irish independence, and replaced the green harp flag as the symbol of Irish nationalists.

A single tricolour flew over the Henry Street corner of the GPO on Easter Monday, 1916, while a green flag with the words “Irish Republic” flew at the Prince’s Street corner.  Gerard O’Sullivan, from Cork, raised the tricolour, while Eamon Bulfin, born in Argentina, raised the green flag.

During the Easter Rising, a small number of tricolours were displayed alongside a number of green harp flags. One Irish Volunteer recorded that he placed a green harp flag on James Connolly as he lay wounded on a stretcher in the GPO.

The Rising was soon known widely as the Sinn Fein rebellion and the flag began to be referred to as the republican flag. After the Rising, the tricolour featured on many of the widely-distributed memorial cards for the executed leaders. The reactions to the use of the tricolour at political meetings or at the funerals of famous republicans such as Terence MacSwiney or Michael Collins also indicated the widespread acceptance of the flag by nationalist Ireland.



1921 Talks in Downing Street

A series of meetings were held in London in July 1921 between Eamon De Valera and Lloyd George. A report in the Irish Times referred to the tricolour as the Sinn Fein Flag.

When de Valera, Barton and Mr. Art O’Brien arrived at Downing Street, “cheers were raised, Sinn Fein flags were displayed, and the crowd sang Irish airs”. As the meeting went on, a “large crowd of Irish sympathisers knelt in the rain at Whitehall, at the end of Downing Street, recited the rosary, and sang several hymns. Before the prayers started they sang “Ireland a Nation”.

The reporter stated that the “singing of Irish songs and the praying never ceased”.

(The Irish Times, 15 July 1921, p5)

Eamon Bulfin and the Green Flag on the GPO

Eamon Bulfin (1892 to 1968) had been one of the first students in 1908 to enter St. Enda’s, the school founded by Patrick Pearse in Rathfarnham.  While a university student in 1912, he joined the IRB, and proposed the admission of Pearse into the IRB in the same year. On Easter Monday 1916, he was staying in St. Enda’s when he received his instructions to report to Liberty Hall. He took up his position on the roof of the GPO, and described his role in raising one of the two flags that flew over the GPO during the rising.

He raised the green flag with the words Irish Republic on it over the Princes Street Corner of the GPO.

Gearóid O’Sullivan raised the tricolour over the G.P.O. in 1916

Gearóid O’Sullivan (28 January 1891 - 25 March 1948)  raised the tricolour over the G.P.O. in Easter Week 1916. At the age of 25, he was present in the G.P.O, as aide-de-camp to Sean MacDermott. 

O'Sullivan was an Irish teacher, an Irish language scholar, a high ranking army officer, a barrister, and a T.D. from 1927 to 1937. 

Gearóid O'Sullivan continued to play a role in Irish politics up until his death in 1948.

Terence MacSwiney

In 1920, Tomas MacCurtain, the Sinn Féin Lord Mayor of Cork City was murdered in Cork by ‘unknown gunmen’. A later British inquiry placed the blame for his murder on the British Prime Minister, Lloyd George. His replacement, Terence MacSwiney (1st Commandant of the IRA in Cork), also Sinn Féin was arrested by the RIC and put in prison in Brixton, England. MacSwiney went on hunger strike and died after 74 days.

MacSwiney wrote before he died:

"Shall we honour the flag we bear by a mean, apologetic front? No! Wherever it is down, lift it; wherever it is challenged, wave it; wherever it is high, salute it; wherever it is victorious, glorify and exult in it. At all times and forever be for it proud, passionate, persistent, jubilant, defiant; stirring hidden memories, kindling old fires, wakening the finer instincts of men" (Terence MacSwiney, Principles of Freedom (Dublin, 1921) p243)

Funeral of Michael Collins 1922

When a soldier dies, the tricolour is laid on his body, as symbolic of the fact that he died in the service of his country … It is of greater still moment to die honorably in that sacred service, reflecting by one’s own death added lustre on the colours of the army and the nation.
(An tÓglách, 24 June 1922, P1)

"Down the steps came the great oak coffin, with its purple handles, bearing the tricolour flag and single white lily, the last gift of the dead General’s bethrothed.”
(Gen. Richard Mulcahy, oration)

Tricolour as the national flag

The Irish Free State did not legally adopt the tricolour as its flag of choice, and the 1937 Constitution first accorded legal recognition to the tricolour as the official Irish flag. With the split over the Anglo-Irish Treaty in 1922, the pro- and anti-Treaty groups adopted the tricolour as their flag, while nationalists in the newly created Northern Ireland looked to the tricolour as a badge of identity.

The Irish government also took steps to register the harp as a national emblem. The flag was used at many state occasions. The Irish army (Óglaigh na hÉireann) placed a big emphasis on educating officers and men about the protocols for using the flag. Since 1922 the flag was been an integral and valued part of life in Ireland.


The importance of showing respect for the flag is a constant theme throughout the period, with an emphasis on the role of schools. Irish governments have chosen not to insist on compulsory recommendations for schools in relation to the Irish flag, preferring to allow local communities to make their own decisions on the flying of the flag.

Adoption of Tricolour

The tricolour was adopted by the provisional government of the Irish Free State in January 1922. This illustration is from the first issue of An t-Óglach (the magazine of the Irish army) that was made available to the general public in June 1922, just before the start of the Irish Civil War. It shows the tricolour in the background and the the badge of the Irish army, with the Irish words, “Óglaigh na hÉireann"

An article entitled 'The Symbols of an Army' states, "When a soldier dies, the tricolour is laid on his body, as symbolic of the fact that he died in the service of his country. It is sweet to die for one's country, says the Latin poet, Horace. It is of greater moment still to die honourably in that sacred service, reflecting by one's death added lustre on the colours of the army and the nation".

National Identity

An English travel writer in 1934 suggested that he would publicise Ireland by showing how it was different from England.

"To the Englishman, the Irish watering-place is as foreign as Dinard or Knocke. If I did Irish ads for English hoardings, I would almost leave out mountains, lakes and ruined abbeys ... I would show a dancing platform at a crossroads or an Irish train with the Gaelic lettering of its destination board. I would show green pillar-boxes, the Irish Tricolour flag, anything that was different ... My posters would show an Ireland that was a foreign country."

1945 Military Tattoo

Over twenty thousand watched last night as the National Flag was raised to begin Tattoo at Ballsbridge. Just a few minutes before that the President and Mrs. O’Kelly had arrived in a Landau and drove through the grounds.  An Taoiseach and the Ministers of State were among the spectators. The President’s arrival was greeted by a fanfare of trumpets and the crowds stood and applauded.

The flag went up at 8:30 sharp. Then the massed bands … paraded on to the field amid wild enthusiasm. The stirring martial airs, played by hundreds of musical instruments, roused terrific national feeling.

The pipers, drummers and trumpets of the musicians, and their colours of green and blue and gold, made a fine spectacle.

A wild huzza rang out over the trim lawns when 800 Irish soldiers shouldered their guns and showed how fields were won in 1646 … this re-enactment of a battle in the tiny Tyrone village of Benburb which nearly changed the face of Irish history.

(The Irish Press, 28 August 1945, p1)

1954 Plough & The Stars Banner

In 1954, G. A. Hayes-McCoy, from the National Museum of Ireland, asked Sean O’Casey if he could assist him in identifying a banner showing the plough and the stars design that had flown over the Imperial Hotel in Dublin during the 1916 rising. O’Casey was a member of the Irish Citizen Army.

Sean O’Casey, almost forty years after the rising, described the Plough and the Stars flag that flew over the Imperial Hotel (now Clery's) as a “dear symbol of Ireland’s battle for political freedom in 1916.

Brian O’Higgins, the tricolour as the flag of a republic, 1957

Brian O’Higgins published a republican magazine, “The Wolfe Tone Annual” between 1932 and 1962, with a break of one year during the emergency when the censor authorities refused him permission to publish the 1944 annual.

In the issue for 1957, the annual had a special article on “The Flag of Ireland”, in which he suggested that many Irish people did not share his understanding of what the flag symbolised.

Renewed interest in the tricolour

The Tricolour was officially adopted by the Irish State in the 1937 Constitution. The 1937 constitution recorded that the “national flag is the tricolour of green, white and orange”. Despite this, 30 years after the Rising, multiple reports in the press outline a nation not quite at ease with the flag.

In 1946, the Catholic Boy Scouts of Ireland decided to include “instruction on the respect due to the National Flag in the booklet for recruits. (The Irish Press, 24 May 1946, p5)

The Munster Express complained that more respect should be paid to the Tricolour and it suggested that that it should be flown on St. Patrick’s Day over every government building (Munster Express, 4 April 1946, p5).

In 1946, at Mallow, the flag was not lowered after dusk on 18 March, and a Councillor complained that it “did not look very well on a public building”. The town clerk took responsibility, saying the caretaker was not agile enough to get on to the roof to take it down. (The Irish Press, 4 June 1946, p11).

The Flag in arts and culture

The Tricolour has been celebrated as a national symbol in poetry, literature, film, sport and art. Over the past 170 years, the history of the Irish flag has moved on from its original political associations for Thomas Francis Meagher to encompass a much wider frame of reference and meaning while still retaining very important historical and political associations.

The Tricolour in Robert Ballagh's art

Born in 1946, Robert Ballagh has produced numerous commentary art pieces on politics and life in Ireland.  Guided by a moral compass that is no way uniquely Irish, but does stem partly from the traumas of Irish history and society, Ballagh’s life and work reflects a belief in the power of the people and the importance of visionary leaders. His choice of sitters, a personal pantheon of cultural and political heroes, reflects also his individualistic approach and reveals an optimism for the future.

From his early days when he was inspired by American Pop Art, to his stamp and banknote designs, to his modern portraits, he enjoys precise, accurate rendering of his subjects. So much so that some of his paintings elicit a double-take; is it a painting or a photograph? But the depth to the work, the character in the face, the twinkle in the eye, the vibrancy of the colours and the precision of the lines belong to the creation of an artist who has mastered his craft.

This is one of a number of his paintings that feature the Irish Tricolour and may have been based on this photograph from around 1913 of the Irish Volunteers.

(taken from

Sir John Lavery, 1920

John Lavery, born in Belfast to a Catholic family, was orphaned early in life. He moved to Glasgow and worked as a photographers assistant, before taking art classes at the Haldene Academy. In 1881 he attended the Academie Julian in Paris, and, on a visit to Grez three years later, was influenced by the work of Frank O'Meara and other 'plein air' painters who worked there.

In England, his fashionable portrait practice thrived, particularly after he painted the British Royal family in 1913. Lavery was an official war artist for the British Royal Navy during the First World War. He was a highly versatile artist and moved freely in the highest echelons of society, both in Britain and on the Continent. It is interesting then to see this oil on canvas with the light shining on the Tricolour, at the Funeral of Terence MacSwiney, Lord Mayor of Cork in 1920.

Cartoons depicting the Tricolour in Irish Papers

Martyn Turner regularly includes the Irish Tricolour in his cartoon's in The Irish Times.  Usually prompted by a latest political or social event, they hone in on our sometimes uniquely Irish approach to getting things done.

This particular cartoon is inspired by press coverage during the EU debt bailout. A group of Irish football fans had turned up at the Euro 2012 tournament bearing a flag emblazoned with the phrase: 'Angela Merkel thinks we're at work'. Turner puts a further political spin on this message in 2014

Illustrator's from other papers also use the Tricolour in their cartoons.

Pride in our sporting achievements

The first time the Irish tricolour was flown in an Olympic gold medal ceremony was in 1928 when Dr. Pat O’Callaghan won the hammer throw.

It may be as recent as the UEFA Soccer championships in 1990, that the tricolour was widely adopted by the people to support our sporting heros. 

In video footage of the great win by Ronnie Delaney in the Melbourne Olympics in 1956, and the honouring of world featherweight champion, Barry McGuigan in Dublin in 1985, no sign of the tricolour is witnessed as you would see it today. Delaney, though, did carry a tricolour around the track afterwards, and he later presented it to the Army Cadet School in the Curragh.

However since Italia 1990, it seems that our pride in the Tricolour knows no bounds.




In general, the attitude to our flag is a mixture of pride and detachment, with our outlooks made uncomfortable or else reinforced by the political struggles of the past century. Yet even historical sentiment goes only so far - the only full-size tricolour that survives from the 1916 Rising failed to sell at auction in New York recently.

The importance of showing respect for the flag is a constant theme throughout the history of the state, with an emphasis on the role of schools. Irish governments have chosen not to insist on compulsory recommendations for schools in relation to the Irish flag, preferring to allow local communities to make their own decisions on the flying of the flag. Coming up to the 2016 centenary celebrations, every school in the country will be presented with an Irish Tricolour.

Respecting the Tricolour

The tricolour was adopted as the flag of the Irish Free State. This editorial from An tÓglach, the magazine of the Irish army in 1923, describes how difficult it was to introduce high levels of respect for the flag in the army.

An tÓglach” … wants the flag to receive more care and attention from those who have the honour of flying it over camps, barracks and outposts. Above all, it wants the flag to receive the full meed of respect that is its due.

1968 Flag Wallchart for Schools

A wall chart for all schools outlining the protocol for the national flag was produced by the National Savings Committee, as well as a booklet in Irish and English that contained a history of the flag.
(The Irish Press, 31 October 1968, p13)

The Flag in Modern Times

The protocol section of the Department of the Taoiseach lays down guidelines for the handling of our national flag. It specifies that the flag should not touch the ground when it is being hoisted or lowered, and that it should be replaced when it becomes ragged or frayed. The guidelines also state that the tricolour should not be draped on cars, trains, boats or other modes of transport, and should not be carried flat except when used to drape a coffin. There are also provisions in relation to the dimensions, colouring and flying of the flag. Often, though, these guidelines are paid little heed when the national flag is used on unofficial public occasions.

See the Protocol Document from the Department of the Taoiseach.

The Department of the Taoiseach has general responsibility in relation to the National Flag. This responsibility is primarily concerned with the protocol for the flying of the flag.

The Defences Forces Ireland website also has an excellent section on the protocol associated with flying the flag