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Ireland before the Partition of 1922

Last modified: 2012-06-06 by rob raeside
Keywords: ireland | green flag | harp | union jack | congested districts board |
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The 'green ensign'

[The 'Green Ensign'] by Randy Young

The 1917 National Geographic Flag Book has a depiction of an Irish ensign with a green fly and a square English Cross of Saint George in the canton. It bears a gold harp in the lower right fly. The text describes it as the 'Irish ensign at the beginning of the eighteenth century'. The text on page 399 states that the flags in this section were prepared from the black and white drawings (with color indicated) in a book by John Beaumont (third edition) published by John Motte in London in 1701.
Kevin McNamara, 28 October 1998

A similar type of ensign was supposed to have been used in Irish waters between 1688 and 1694; a green flag with a gold harp in the fly but with a St Patrick's saltire in the canton. It is illustrated in a small pamphlet on flags produced by the Royal United Services Institute in about 1895, written by Rear-Admiral R.M.Blomfield. No indication of the source of the information. A bit suspect in my estimation.
David Prothero, 3 November 1998

In a French flag chart from 1799 called 'Flags of All the Nations' I saw a 'green ensign' with an English flag in the canton (and not the Union Jack as on the other British flags), and a golden harp in the lower fly. This flag was labeled 'P[avillon]. de Irlande'. The example of this flag shown above has a square canton, instead of a rectangular canton as on the chart. Unfortunately I can't remember if the canton was 1:2 or 2:3.
Jostein Nygård, 10 June 2001

[The 'Green Ensign'] by António Martins

The flag book Flaggen Aller Seefahrenden Nationen (1990 reprint: ISBN 3-89225-153-3) dates from 1848 and shows a 'green ensign' captioned simply 'Ireland'. Presumably used for Irish merchant shipping, and presumably official, it is green, with the Union Flag in the canton and a golden Irish harp in the fly.
Stuart Notholt
, 8 January 1997

The Irish sources of the period do not support the view that the 'green ensign' was ever in popular use, and it can be said with absolute certainty that it was never official: Ireland was an integral part of the United Kingdom and there was no officially-approved flag for the country during the period of the union. The symbolism of such a flag, combining the separatist Green Flag with the Union Flag would have repelled both nationalists and unionists.
Vincent Morley
, 8 January 1997

Believe it or not there is a 19th century version of this green Irish ensign in the Mutare Museum in Mutare, Zimbabwe. Michael Faul, secretary of the Flag Institute, saw it on a recent visit to Zimbabwe. In a recent letter he writes: 'Variations of this flag appear on charts in the 18th and 19th centuries, but William Crampton has assured me that the flag was apocryphal and never existed. Well it did, and I have seen a 19th century example in Mutare.'
Bruce Berry
, 28 May 1996

I imagine William Crampton meant that the flag was not used in Ireland. It is, of course, impossible to prove that a flag didn't exist, but I find it difficult to believe that no example of the flag and no illustration of its use should have come to light in Ireland had it really been in use here during the 19th century. The big problem with 'ghost' flags which appear on flag charts is that people in distant parts of the world are likely to accept them and to reproduce them in good faith.
Vincent Morley
, 2 April 1997

I did some checking on this 'green ensign' last night and I found the following. The green ensign with the gold harp for Ireland is found in:

  • 1830's, Map of the Old World with border of flags (US published).
  • 1851 and 1858, A chart of National Flags by Henry Bill, New York.
  • 1856, Ballou's Drawing Room Companion print of world flags (US).
  • 1858, French admiralty flag book Pavillons, by le Gras.
  • 1861 and 1863, Johnson's New Chart of National Emblems, New York.
  • 1863, Colton's National and Commercial Flags of All Nations
  • 1880's, Standards and Flags of All Nations, Brown & Son, UK (predecessor to the Brown, Son & Fergusson charts of the 20th century).
  • 1917, National Geographic (with a St. George's Cross in the canton), in a section reproducing flags from a 1705 chart. It is described as being 'entirely appropriate' for the Emerald Isle.
It is not found in the following:
  • 1889, British admiralty Drawings of Flags of All Nations.
  • 1899, US navy Flags of Maritime Nations.
  • 1916, edition of the Brown, Son & Fergusson chart.

Nick Artimovich, 9 July 1997

The flag does, of course, appear in many foreign flag books and charts. The earliest of which I am aware is a Dutch flag book of 1693, when the canton naturally contained a St George's Cross rather than a union flag. But these are all secondary sources: illustrations made by authors who, it is probably safe to say, never set foot in Ireland. I am unaware of any contemporary evidence for the use of the flag in Ireland. We are left with two possibilities:

  • The 'green ensign' was so widely used in 19th-century Ireland that it came to the attention of foreign vexillologists much more readily than did the Green Flag, the Tricolour, the St Patrick's Cross, or the Sunburst. But, through the mysterious operation of chance, the evidence for its extensive use has vanished from the historical record.
  • Vexillology abhors a vacuum. Having included the flags of England and Scotland in their books and charts, foreign vexillologists wanted to have a flag for Ireland too. But no such flag existed officially, and the flag in popular use (the Green Flag) was regarded as a subversive emblem by the British authorities. The 'green ensign' was devised to fill the vacuum.

Vincent Morley, 9 July 1997

I've been intrigued as to why this flag was so widely featured on flag charts. My own theory, at one time, was that it started as a harp on a blue ensign with a St.George's cross canton (a known Cromwellian naval ensign), at some stage had the field colour mistakenly changed to green, and was progressively "up-dated" by having the canton flag changed to a 1707- and then an 1801-Union Flag.
David Prothero
, 10 July 1997

In March 1871 the flag manufacturers Hounsell prepared drawings that were to be published in a book of flags and signals, and arranged that the Admiralty would 'verify correctness' and purchase some copies. Admiralty Naval Stores Branch sent drawings or proofs to relevant authorities asking for verification. A print of the Green Ensign was sent to the lord lieutenant of Ireland. His reply, dated 24 April 1872, stated that 'the Green Ensign is not correct' and was accompanied by a paper from Sir J. Barnard-Burke, Ulster King of Arms, which starts:

Question of the Irish National Colour was raised a short time since in connection with the State Prosecutions in Ireland and was nearly becoming the subject of legal controversy. That I might reply correctly I made every possible enquiry, I examined carefully the old Celtic authorities, I searched through the Annals of the Four Masters, the Bardic remains etc. and I sought information from all the sources that I thought likely to afford it.
He continues with references to Brian Boru's banner at the battle of Clontarf being red, and writes that the popular colours were crimson, saffron and blue, and that from the advent of the Normans, the field of the national arms, and consequently the national colour, was blue. Refering to the Plantagenet era, he writes that the arms of St. Edmund, 'azure three crowns or' were borne with those of St. George and the Royal Standard when Edward I captured Carlaverock castle, but that the three crowns were replaced with the harp by Henry VIII, in case they were mistaken for the Papal tiara. He goes on about the colour for the Knights of the Order of St. Patrick being blue, and that the facings of the Royal Irish Regiments were generally blue, never green, and that the uniform of the Irish Brigade in the service of France was red, and ends:
... prior to the Anglo-Norman invasion there was not any one colour or Banner adopted for Ireland at large: since the introduction of English rule the National colour has been blue.
Accompanying this was a drawing of the Union Flag, which was described as the flag of Ireland since 1801, and a drawing of a yellow harp on a blue field which was annotated, 'There is no separate Standard for Ireland: the above is that part of the Standard of the United Kingdom which is borne for Ireland'.

As a result of this communication a letter was sent to Hounsell's on 14 May 1872 stating 'that in view of the report, no separate flag for Ireland should be inserted in the Flag Book'. George C.Hounsell's book was published in 1873 by Field and Tuer and was the forerunner of Drawings of the Flags in Use at the Present Time by Various Nations published by HMSO for the Admiralty in 1875, which itself led on to the series of Admiralty Flags of All Nations starting in 1889.
David Prothero
, 15 August 1997

The idea of a green ensign with an 1801 Union may have arisen from a short-lived flag, the ensign of the "Western Yacht Club" of Ireland. It was formed in 1832 and the secretary wrote to the Admiralty: "..a white ensign has been granted to the Royal Yacht Club, a red ensign to the Royal Cork, a blue ensign to the Royal Northern, and as the only unoccupied national flag we have assumed the green ensign."

However they were informed "You may have as the flag for this Club either a red, white or blue ensign, with such device within as you may point out, but that their Lordships cannot sanction the introduction of a new colour to be worn by British ships."
David Prothero
, 3 November 1998

Documents in the Public Record Office that show that the Green Ensign was a real, though unofficial, flag which was flown by Irish vessels in the 19th century.

1846. In February it was being flown at Cadiz by a small trading brig belonging to Harding & Co of Dublin. Described by an Admiralty Agent as a green ensign with a harp and crown in the fly and a Union Jack in the corner. The Agent wrote to the governor of Gibraltar that the flag had been confiscated from the same vessel on two previous occasions in Ireland. [HO 45/1557]

1888. British consul reported to the Foreign Office that the schooner "Guild Mayor" of Drogheda had entered Dunkirk on 19th October wearing an Irish Ensign, a green flag with the Union Jack in the corner but without the harp. In a letter to the consul the Master of the schooner apologised and wrote that it was the flag generally used by vessels from Drogheda when entering English ports, usually in the Mersey, and that he had never been told that it was wrong. [MT 10/529]
David Prothero, 5 August 2001

The results of David's researches are valuable, but what he has done is not so much to provide evidence for the use of the "harp ensign" as to discover two hitherto unrecorded flags: a "crowned-harp ensign" and an uncharged green ensign. The crowned harp was used as a symbol during the agitation for repeal of the union between Britain and Ireland led by Daniel O'Connell in the 1840s and I think it likely that use of the crowned-harp ensign was intended as a gesture of support for that agitation. It is unlikely that its use would have continued for long after the failure of that agitation.
Vincent Morley, 11 August 2001

My family has a variant of this Irish flag that is green (with maiden harp and union jack).  The flag came to South Africa with my great grandfather in 1899/1900.
Derek Townshend, 16 August 2001

A letter of 19 February 1908 from the Public Record Office of Ireland referred to a letter of 1785 written by the Duke of Rutland, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, in which he observed that a harp and crown on a green flag with a Union canton was carried by Irish trading vessels, adding that this was an unauthorised flag. The date 1785 suggests that this might be a reference to the incidents noted by Perrin on page 53 of 'British Flags'. "In February 1785 a brig from Dublin hoisted at Antigua a green ensign with the harp and crown in the centre, which was seized by Collingwood's orders, and later in the same year another ship from Belfast, flying a similar ensign, was detained until the master had gone ashore and bought proper colours for the vessel." The same badge, presumably on a red field with a Union canton, was flown by Revenue cutters. 17 December 1768. Orders of Irish Board of Customs and Excise. Pendants not allowed to Revenue cutters; only Jack or Ensign with harp and crown, the seal of office, in the body.
6 June 1797. Irish Consolidation Act [37 Geo III cap.30] included a section that was the same as the 1784 British Act, 24 Geo III chap.46, secs.23 and 24. This stated that Revenue cruisers, when ordering smugglers to heave-to, were to hoist an ensign and pendant, "with marks previously used, on a blue field". [Public Record Office, Kew; CUST 143/11 and /12]

David Prothero, 17 March 2003

The Green Ensign with harp is illustrated in various flag charts from the 17th to the 19th Century, and those given are: Downham 1685, Lens 1700, Dutch Atlas Mid-18th Century, Augsburg 1793, Laurie 1842 and Norie and Hobbs 1848.
Christopher Southworth, 17 March 2003

I have a book chronicling the history of the Ulster Steam Ship Co. (Head Line) by W J Harvey ISBN 0 905617 53 3. This book was written with information provided by the company records. I provide a quote from page 17:

"During the early part of the 20th century some of the vessels flew the Irish flag, described as being the same pattern as the 'Red Ensign' but with a green field and the Union Flag in the top corner nearest the hoist. A harp was depicted on the green field. This fact was only brought to light when someone wrote to the company just after World War 2 to enquire if his eyes had been deceiving him when he was a boy in New Orleans. He was in doubt as to whether or not he saw a green ensign being flown. In a reply to his letter someone confirmed that he had not been seeing things, but no explanation was offered. As further confirmation of the fact, the HOWTH HEATH, under the command of Captain J. R, Moore, found herself in a bit of trouble at Galveston during 1908."
The book then lists the lyrics of a song commemorating this occasion when the boat flew the Green Ensign above the Stars and Stripes causing threats from the US coast guard.
The book also has a print of a colour painting on the inside of the HOWTH HEATH at sea flying the green ensign.
Neil Kimber, 12 February 2005

[Congested Districts Board, 1893] image located by Bill Garrison, 24 November 2007
[Click on image for larger version.]

Posted on eBay: "This is a rare original World War I or WWII era Irish flag (I was told it is a pre-1926 Naval Flag but I can find no information on it on the Net) in excellent original condition. The green wool body measures approximately 53" x 108". The center piece showing a young girl on a harp is sewn to the body of the flag, one to each side. The Union Jack and a quarter is also separately printed and sewn to the flag. The bunting is heavy cotton and is unmarked."

And added later by Bill Garrison: I am re-emailing this as I have just researched it in FOTW....but I have some questions about it (as does FOTW).
I just read the various comments (above) which implies the attached eBay image may be the only existing image of this flag (except the on in a museum in Zimbabwe). According to the FOTW comments this is a most mysterious flag. The image depicted in FOTW shows the Green Ensign with a St. George canton, instead of the Union Jack. The Irish "Green Ensign" is different from the "Irish Green Flag". Can the eBay flag be "real" or is it a speculative "repro"?
Bill Garrison, 24 November 2007

The harp on this flag is identical to the harp in a black and white photograph of a flag on page 186 of Hayes-McCoy's book "A History of Irish Flags". A spray of shamrock is below the harp, both described as yellow, on an otherwise plain green flag. "Flags like this one, commercially produced in various sizes, were to be found in many Irish Nationalist homes in the early years of the twentieth century." This suggests that the component parts of the eBay flag were readily available, at the beginning of the 20th century, to anyone who wanted to construct a flag to their own design.

The particular flag in the Hayes-McCoy photograph is said to have belonged to one of the Irish Corps that fought with the Boers against the British in the South African War of 1899-1902. It was preserved in Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe) and then went to the Irish National Museum
David Prothero, 24 November 2007

I recently came across this flag which belonged to my grandfather. He served on HMS Valiant in the battle of Jutland and was very much an old sea dog. He was from Wexford and had this flag draped on his bedstead. It has been lovingly darned by my grandmother like everything else with anything resembling a hole in it.
Garrett Browne, 27 December 2007

I would like to contribute briefly to your site's discussion of the Irish or Green ensign. I was until recently Curator of History at The Rooms Provincial Museum in St. John's Nfld, Canada. We purchased one of these ensigns about two years ago from a local resident whose understanding of its provenance was that his father or grandfather (unclear) brought it back from Ireland in the early 20th century. This jibes nicely with some of the latest discussion of the ensign and our version is very similar to the one depicted Nov. 2007.
     St. John's and Newfoundland and Labrador have a large Irish population, about 50% of the province's total, and a long history of Irish connections and Irish-English political tensions. Many Irish ships from the southeastern ports, esp. Waterford City, called here from the late 1600s through to the mid 1800s.  It is also worth noting that this flag was a common enough sight in St. John's harbour to appear in a locally and commercially produced 1894 "Code of Signals" by John W. Hayward. On this illustration the ensign is simply described as signaling a ship from "Ireland" or, read another way, as being the "flag of Ireland".
Mark Ferguson, 6 February 2009
Manager of Collections & Exhibitions, The Rooms Provincial Museum

[The 'Green Ensign'] image by Clay Moss, 27 February 2010

This Irish Green ensign pops up on eBay and I thought that it might be nice to have a drawing of the harp badge made. It turns out that the image from the eBay ensign and the picture posted above by bill Garrison are the same badge. Who knows, it could be the same exact ensign. Either way, here is my rendition of the badge if you think that it could be of use. I have seen probably a half dozen Irish green ensigns in my life time and I'm pretty sure that they all had this particular harp badge. My guess is that they were all made by the same manufacturer.
Clay Moss, 27 February 2010

This flag is also describes as "Saunders and Sweetman House Flag" in an article in The Charter, a Placentia, Newfoundland local newspaper.
"David", forwarded by Peter Orenski, 20 March 2012

I have actually found two (unequivocal) instances when such ensigns were flown aboard ship - on two separate occasions at Antigua in 1785, one brig from Dublin and another from Belfast had their ensigns seized (under the orders of Admiral Collingwood) until proper colours (red ensigns) could be purchased by their masters.

The fact that these two instances both occurred in one location, were both reported by the same flag officer, and were flown by two different ships from two different ports of registry, indicates that the practice of flying such ensigns was not as theoretic as I indicated, and that many more incidents may have occurred upon which no action was taken by the relevant authorities, or which remained unreported.
Christopher Southworth, 23 March 2012

In my family there is watercolour of the "Nora Creina" which was the first steamship to enter Waterford in about 1834 and belonged to my great-grandfather. It was clearly flying a Green Ensign.

There is a letter by Daire Brunicardi published in History Ireland magazine, May/June 2011 about the flying of the Irish national flag at Waterford. He recounts:
“The following July the captain of HMS Lucifer, based in Waterford, succeeded in capturing a green ensign displayed on a schooner, the Nora Creina, anchored in Passage and bound for Newfoundland. His letter reporting this incident to the admiral at Cove was written in 1845 – on this day.”
So it seems that it was regarded as illegal!
Nicolas Bellord, 22 March 2012


Congested Districts Board

[Congested Districts Board, 1893] by Vincent Morley

[Congested Districts Board, 1907] by Vincent Morley

The only Irish Blue Ensign that I've seen illustrated is the one used by the Congested Districts Board. This had 'C.D.B.' with a crown above and a harp below, all in gold. In the 1907 Admiralty flag book this had been changed. The crown now appeared directly above the harp, with 'C' to the left, 'D' above and 'B' to the right of the crown. The whole group was placed on a blue background inside a lozenge outlined in red. I'm not sure that lozenge is the correct term: it was a square rotated 45 degrees.
David Prothero
, September 1997

I have made drawings of the Congested Disticts Board ensigns, which David Prothero has kindly checked.
Vincent Morley
, 14 September 1997

I found more about the two flags of the Congested Districts Board in the Public Record Office, ADM 116/371 and ADM 116/1063C. The first flag was in use from 1893 until 1907. The application was for a warrant to fly a Blue Ensign on the yacht Fingal, but was issued for vessels belonging to the Board. In 1906 it was pointed out that the crown and harp should not be separated by the letters. The first flag was cancelled and replaced by the second design which was used until 1916. There is a reference to it being used on the Board's steam ship Granuaile.
David Prothero
, 11 October 1999


Department of Agriculture

[Department of Agriculture, 1900] image by Martin Grieve, 16 August 2009

The flag of the 'Department of Agriculture, Dublin', to give it its correct title, does not appear in the Admiralty flag book of 1889 but appears in the editions of 1907 and 1916.
David Prothero
, 11 November 1997

The Department of Agriculture ensign was applied for in 1900.
David Prothero
, 11 October 1999

[Department of Agriculture, 1900] image by Martin Grieve, 16 August 2009

The style of the winged lady is as illustrated in the Admiralty flag books of 1907 and 1916.
Martin Grieve, 16 August 2009


Lord Lieutenant of Ireland

[Lord Lieutenant of Ireland] image by Martin Grieve, 4 July 2009

The Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland probably did not have a distinguishing flag before 1821 when a Union Jack defaced with the Arms of Ireland was introduced by a royal warrant of 9 January 1821 for ships "within harbours and waters of Ireland when Lt-General and Governor-General embarked." When published in the Dublin Gazette of 22 March 1821 it was described as a Flag for the Lord-Lieutenant, and the area of use included St George's Channel (between Wales and Ireland).

The flag was introduced when the Admiralty objected to the practice of flying the Union Jack at the main masthead of any ship in which the Lord-Lieutenant was embarked. "In former times the the Lt-General and General Governor were in the practice of wearing the Union Jack. In latter times the Union Jack has been appropriated to designate Military Command of the Admiral of Our Fleet and other Commanders-in-Chief. It is reasonable and necessary to make a difference between such a military flag and the honorary flag of the Lt-General and General Governor of that part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland called Ireland." At sea the flag was third in precedence after the Royal Standard and the Flag of the Viceroy of India, and was "to be always hoisted at the main, the flag of an Admiral or the broad pendant of a Commodore, if necessary, being shifted to another mast or ship as the case may require."

The flag was also flown at the Viceregal Lodge when the Lord-Lieutenant was in residence, and at Dublin Castle when he was in residence or visiting, and on certain holidays. There may also have been a version of the flag, as used on land, that included a crown. In December 1902, Sir Arthur Vicars, Ulster King of Arms, wrote that an unauthorized flag of the Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland was sometimes used consisting of the Union Flag with a crowned harp in the centre, and in October 1924 T.P. Le Fanu at the Dublin Office of Public Works wrote that the flag that had been flown at the Viceregal Lodge when the Lord-Lieutenant was in residence was the Lord-Lieutenant's flag, a Union Jack with badge of harp and crown. [National Archives (PRO) ADM 116/1063C, HO 267/5]
David Prothero, 4 July 2009

Flag shown by Norrie and Hobbs (1848) is a union jack with a yellow harp on a white (? or grey or silver) shield. Since such a shield would be metal on metal, it might be the field ought to have been coloured. 
Peter Hans van den Muijzenberg, 12 November 2001

Detail of Badge

[Lord Lieutenant of Ireland] image by Martin Grieve, 4 July 2009


Governor General of Irish Free State

Between partition in 1922 and its demise in, I believe, 1937, the Irish Free State had a Governor-General. What flag, if any, did he fly? Did Southern Ireland (Eire) continue to have a Governor-General between 1937 and the establishment of the Republic in 1949 and, if so, did he fly the same pre 1937 flag?
Peter Johnson, 22 February 2005

I have never seen a reference to a special flag for the Governor-General of the Irish Free State. If there had been one, it would have been a defaced Union Jack until the early to mid-1930s, and then changed to a blue flag with royal crest and scroll. However I think it more likely that he used a plain Union Jack. In 1937, what was then called Eire, had a High Commissioner in London, so I presume that the British representative in Dublin would have had the same title ? I do not know whether he would have used a plain Union Jack or the flag of a British Ambassador, the Union Jack defaced with the royal arms. What flag does a British High Commissioner in a Commonwealth country use these days ? He is an Ambassador in all but name, but does he have an Ambassador's flag ?
David Prothero, 24 February 2005

I do not know what flag, if any, the GG of the Irish Free State flew, but numerous sources all confirm that the 1936 constitution, which took effect in 1937 abolished the office of Governor General and replaced it with a President as the head of state. For example, see http://worldatwar.net/timeline/ireland/18-48.html, http://www.ark.ac.uk/elections/gdala.htm#g4, http://www.regiments.org/nations/europe/ireland.htm, or http://www.loyno.edu/history/journal/Hennessy.htm among many others.
Ned Smith, 27 February 2005

A 1928 Dominions Office Minute.
"The Union Flag is flown at all Governor-Generals' residencies in all Dominions except the Irish Free State where it is replaced by the Irish Free State flag."
[National Archives (PRO) DO 117/100]

This was before the introduction of a blue flag with royal crest and scroll for Governor-Generals, but I have not seen anything to suggest that a flag of this pattern was ever produced for the Irish Free State.
David Prothero, 1 April 2005