Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Republican History: The Flag of the Fianna

In the latest instalment of the Republican History series, the origins of the Fianna’s famous sunburst flag are explored.

From their earliest days, Fianna Éireann carried Irish national flags on their outings and when trying to recruit new members. About 1910 [a year after the Fianna had been established], Countess Markievicz set about designing a distinctive flag for the organisation.

The flag she designed had a golden sunburst either placed centrally or emerging from the bottom right hand corner. The background colour was blue and the words Na Fianna Éireann were inscribed above the sunburst in gold lettering. The 15 points of the sunburst represented the 12 points of the Fianna’s Code of Honour and the three elements of the Fianna motto, “purity in our hearts, strength in our arms and truth on our lips”.

A photograph of those attending the 1912 Ard Fheis of the Fianna shows the delegates gathered outside the front of the Mansion House. In the background, two flags are displayed. Alongside the traditional green harp flag is a Fianna flag proudly displayed. A Fianna flag from the period is today held by the National Museum in Dublin and is as described above except that it has “B Company” [the company probably being part of the Dublin Brigade of the Fianna] written in black on the sun.

The flag that Markievicz designed was based on the banner of Fionn and his earlier Fianna; this had also had a golden sunburst on a blue field and was carried aloft by Fionn’s Fianna when going into battle. The O Rahilly, who was later to be killed in action in Easter Week, described the use of the rising sun as representing the coming of Lugh [the ancient Irish sun god] from the Kingdom of Manannan [the sea] to rescue Ireland from its enemies.

Other nationalist organisations had already taken inspiration from this tale before the Fianna. Pádraig Pearse’s St Enda’s school, for example, had chosen a blue poplin banner emblazoned with a sun disc as its standard.

Markievicz, herself, probably first came across the idea when she was a member of the nationalist women’s organisation Inghinidhe na hÉireann. As they didn’t have a uniform, the women would wear sashes on public occasions to distinguish themselves from other citizens. The sash was blue in colour with a golden sunburst embroidered in the front and was fastened at the shoulder by a penannular broach.

The sunburst had also been an emblem on Fenian flags used on both sides of the Atlantic. During the Rising in 1867, Thomas F Burke was arrested in Tallaght in possession of a green flag which had on it a sunburst and, on the reverse side, an image of Ireland and a harp.

In the year following the foundation of the Irish Volunteers, a committee of historians was put in place to make recommendations in relation to appropriate uniforms and flags. They recommended the Volunteers should also use the sunburst emblem, with the flags being blue and a nine-pointed golden sunburst overlaying this. In the top right corner, the logo of the particular regiment was to be embroidered.

Some banners were created to this specification but controversy, with prominent nationalists such as Francis Biggar criticising the idea, and the split in the Volunteers in September 1914 meant that it didn’t become its national flag.

The flag’s fame today is due to its association with Fianna Éireann and, although it usually appears now without the inscription of the organisation’s name, with a quarter rather than half a sunburst and with orange being used instead of gold, most republicans associate the banner with militant republican youth.

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