A leading Orangeman has spoken about the symbolism of the tricolour. Dr David Hume, one of the (now scarce) educated leaders of Orangeism, raised the subject at a Twelfth demonstration. Of course nobody listens to speeches at the “field” but Radio Ulster played a brief clip.
The context wasn’t entirely clear but you can rest assured Dr Hume wasn’t suggesting the brethren should adopt the Irish flag. It’s none the less gratifying that at least one Orangeman recognises its intended symbolism.
When the tricolour was first unveiled, Young Ireland leader, Thomas Francis Meagher (1823-1867) said: “I trust beneath its folds the hands of the Irish Protestant and the Irish Catholic may be clasped in heroic brotherhood.” Meagher was addressing an audience in the street from an upstairs window in Waterford in March 1848. His movement was preparing a rising in what would later become known as Europe’s Year of Revolution.
The green in the flag represents the Gaelic and the Anglo-Norman elements of the island’s population. The orange, not yellow or gold, as it’s sometimes erroneously described, represents the Protestants and the descendants of planters. The white symbolises a “lasting truce” between the two. Following the failure of the rebellion the tricolour fell out of use but it re-appeared in 1916 and was adopted more widely again between 1919 and 1921.Thomas Francis Meagher was sentenced to death for his part in the rising but the sentence was later commuted to transportation. He escaped from Van Diemen’s Land, (now Tasmania, Australia) and became a brigadier on the Union side in the American Civil War.
Incidentally, another leader of the rising was William Smith O’Brien (1803 – 1864). O’Brien was the son of an Orangeman. He had been educated at Harrow and Cambridge University and was actually a descendant of Brian Boru, the 11th century High King of Ireland. O’Brien, like Meagher, was sentenced to death but the government eventually responded to 166 different petitions for clemency and he too was transported. It was one of the first ever examples of effective mass petitioning. Here in Derry, 313 people signed and also, across the country, a number of Orangemen signed.
The abortive 1848 rebellion happened towards the end of the Great Famine. It was less than 100 years before the Second World War. Does 100 years seem like a long time or is that a silly question?
Obviously it’s longer than most of us will live, so in that sense it is a long time but in historical terms it’s like yesterday. When we think of the famine we’re inclined to think it happened back in the dim and distant past. It pulls us up sharply to realise that it only slipped outside living memory around the time many still alive today were born.
The point is that we have too many people, including political leaders, who have no sense of history.
Now that Sinn Féin and the DUP have finally got around to promoting a shared future, as distinct from a divided-out future, it’s challenging to think the Irish Tricolour would be their perfect symbol.
Too often Ireland’s National Flag is used to mark out territory in a divisive, sectarian way. It’s demeaning to the flag. It’s meant to represent so much more.