The Irish Tricolour – A Flag of Diversity

Jim O’Callaghan TD 

Waterford Ógra Summer School 

24 July 2022


I want to thank the Cathaoirleach of Ógra Waterford for inviting me to give  this address this morning. This is the second time I have been in Waterford  in recent weeks, having attended earlier this month the funeral of  Councillor James Tobin. That was a very sad occasion but it gave me an  insight into the affection and support that Waterford people give to those  elected representatives who serve them well.  

Today is a happier occasion and I am very honoured to give this address  which seeks to honour the Irish Tricolour that was first flown in Waterford  by Thomas Francis Meagher from the headquarters of the Wolfe Tone  Confederate Club at 33 The Mall during the 1848 Rebellion. This Summer  School wants to focus on the inclusiveness and diversity of Irish  Republicanism, as symbolised by its flag. 

In order to appreciate this inclusivity and diversity we need to reflect on  the important decision that Meagher made in 1843 when he decided to  join the Young Irelanders. This group of young radicals expressed their  Republicanism through the newspaper they published called “The  Nation”. The people behind this newspaper were Thomas Davis, a Cork  protestant; John Blake Dillon, a Mayo Catholic; Charles Gavin Duffy, a  Northern Catholic and subsequently John Mitchell, a Unitarian Minister.  Along with Meagher they represented the diversity of Ireland in the mid  19th century, and they were united in their desire to end the oppression of  Irish Catholics and the governance of Ireland from Westminster. Although  such a group of men may not be viewed today as diverse, the breadth of  their backgrounds and the elevation of their political beliefs above their  religious or personal interests was a real mark of diversity in mid-19th century Ireland.  

Jim O’Callaghan attending the Cathaoirleach of Ógra Waterford

Receiving the Tricolour 

In January 1847 Meagher helped inaugurate the Young Ireland  Confederation which resulted in many Confederate Clubs being  established throughout Ireland to encourage political debate. At the end  of March 1848 Meagher, William Smith O’Brien, John Blake Dillon and  others traveled to France for the purpose of gaining support from Alphonse de Lamartine, head of the Provisional Government of the  Second French Republic. This was the French Republic that abolished  slavery in its Territories and established universal male suffrage. Unfortunately, the revolutionary promise of the second French Republic  was of little help to those who sought an Irish Republic. Having praised  the Irish people, the French politician informed the Irishmen that nothing  could be done by France since Ireland was an internal British question.  Meagher and the others went home disconsolate but with one remarkable  gift. A committee of French woman presented Meagher with a tricolour in  Ireland’s colours: orange, green and white. When Meagher subsequently brought it to a meeting of the Confederation John Mitchell allegedly said:  “I hope to see that flag one day waving as our national banner”. 

On 7 March 1848 Meagher flew it for the first time from 33 The Mall in  Waterford. It is important to recall what that flag stood for and why it was  presented to and chosen by Young Irelanders. The tricolour he brought  back was orange, green and white because green represented Ireland’s Catholics; orange represented Ireland’s Protestants and white  represented the unification of them. In April that year Meagher stated: “The white in the centre signifies a lasting truce between Orange and Green and I trust that beneath its folds the hands of Irish Protestants and  Irish Catholics may be clasped in generous and heroic brotherhood.” 

That was the flag that became the flag of revolutionary Ireland and that  was flown during the Rising of 1916. It came to be accepted by the people  of Ireland as their national flag. In the Irish Free State it was used officially  as the flag of the State and in 1937 Article 7 of the new Constitution stated  that “The national flag is the tricolour of Green, White and Orange”. 

Jim O’Callaghan attending the Cathaoirleach of Ógra Waterford

Understanding the Tricolour

We should never lose sight of the fact that the Republican cause in Ireland  was founded on the desire to unite Irish people and thus to empower them  to govern themselves. These were the objectives that motivated the  United Irishmen. It was Belfast’s Samuel Neilson who in early 1791  established the Northern Star newspaper and who along with Belfast  Doctor William Drennan sought to establish the Independence of Ireland  as a Republic in which all citizens would be treated equally. They were  the Belfast Radicals and their cause was complimented by similarly  minded people in Dublin, led by Wolfe Tone. They all identified themselves as the Society of United Irishmen. This was not a movement that sought the repeal of the penal laws on simple grounds of Catholic  self-interest. It was a diverse movement of people from different religious  and geographical backgrounds that wanted to emulate what had been  achieved through the establishment of a Republic in France. Although the  1798 Rebellion had failed militarily, it did inspire the cause of Irish  Republicans throughout the 19th century. 

Between the time that Meagher raised the flag in 1848 and today there  have been many occasions when the cause of Irish Republicanism has  been misrepresented and indeed debased as a narrow, sectarian,  exclusively Catholic enterprise. Regrettably, that is the perception that many in Northern Ireland have, inspired in part because of the violence  perpetrated in its name in the latter part of the 20th century. Nonetheless,  that should not obscure its true meaning. Nor should it obscure its ability  to convey a symbolic message of unity as it sought to do back in 1848. 

Diversity and the Tricolour 

The traditional definition of Republicanism can be identified in the rallying  cry of France’s Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité. A constituent part of modern  equality, however, is diversity. Traditionally, equality was viewed exclusively as meaning that people would not be discriminated against or  excluded from doing what an appropriate comparator was permitted to do.  In our modern society diversity means that all groups within our society  play a participating role. It is not simply a case of all groups being equal  but rather that such equality is only really present when there is diversity  within each part of the State.  

In Ireland in the 21st century it means that the important institutions of  State should reflect the society that they serve. Traditionally, Ireland, like  other countries, was not concerned about its government reflecting the  diversity of its society. That was because of the dominance exercised by  those who governed Ireland both before and immediately after  independence. When Ireland was a colonised country it was subject to the  oppressive control of those who represented the interests of the colonial  power and its state religion. When Ireland was an independent country its  early governments became too subservient to the interests of the Catholic  Church. When Northern Ireland was established its governments’ clear  political objective was to retain Protestant hegemony within its jurisdiction.  

In all of these eras most of the important functions and roles were filled by  very similar people who served the political objective of the governing powers. Nonetheless, modern societies require more. The dominant  control of any one political ideology is gone. Societies should now be  governed by those who take into account the diversity of modern  societies. This requires that those who occupy important roles and  functions reflect and represent the diversity of the society in which they  operate.  

In many ways the Irish tricolour was a precursor of the rainbow flag since  it is a symbol of inclusivity and liberation. That flag is as much the property  of all the people of Northern Ireland as it is of Ireland. Although this State  in its early years afforded too much deference and control to the Catholic  Church, it has now become a society in which no religion is given  preferential treatment and those of no religion are treated the same as  those who profess a faith.  

Explaining the Tricolour 

Why then is this flag of diversity and inclusivity viewed with such negativity  by a large section of people who live on this island, namely those whose  allegiance is to maintaining the union with Great Britain. The most obvious  reason is that those who support the union view the flag as representing a political viewpoint that they oppose and which would see an end to that  union. However, an opposing political viewpoint should not arouse the  hatred or the animosity or the desire to burn a flag on bonfires along with  effigies of those who support its political objectives, as is frequently seen  in Northern Ireland. The actual reason, unfortunately, is that politics in  Northern Ireland has been defined, both before and after partition, by the  contest between green and orange rather than the strength that derives  from the combination of green and orange. If an objective person from  outside the island of Ireland was asked to design a flag that sought to  bring together green and orange on this island there could be no more  obvious product than our national flag. Nonetheless, its association in the  mind of Unionism with a threat to its political existence and its association  with violence in the latter part of the 20th century has had long-term and  potentially irreparable consequences for the flag in the mind of unionism.  But their assessment of the flag is wrong, just as the assessment of the  flag by those who used it as justification for sectarian violence is wrong.  

Reunifying Diversity 

Invariably when people discuss a United Ireland they resort immediately  to questions about what flag, what anthem, what symbol. Although these  are symbolically important they are not consequential for people’s lives.

The reason why there should be Irish reunification is because it will enable all the people of this island to prosper economically, culturally and socially  in a new political entity that will inevitably provide greater and broader  opportunities for young people. 

Irish Reunification is not an objective in itself. There is nothing to be  grained by rectifying what many view as a historical wrong. What is worth  achieving, however, is a country that recognises and cherishes the  diversity of its people. It would be extraordinary, remarkable and inspiring if two post-colonial jurisdictions, divided by imperial design, were able,  notwithstanding their anachronistic divisions, to reunify in order to  enhance and promote their diversity. The partitions that occurred in the  20th century in post-colonial contexts – India, Ireland, Palestine – all arose,  in part, as a result of an imperial belief that natives could not govern  themselves once Britain departed. It would be an astonishing promotion  of diversity if Ireland could show that this legacy of empire no longer  subsisted on this island, and if peoples who divided because of their  religious and cultural differences decided to reunify because of the  richness and wealth of that diversity that was previously viewed as a threat  but was in fact their greatest asset.

Latest news

All news