Saturday, 19 March 2011

Cross of St Patrick controversy

For many years Down District Council has used the Cross of St Patrick, a red saltire on a white backbround, as the principal flag at the St Patrick's Day parade in Downpatrick.

However this year Sinn Fein councillor Eamonn Mac Con Midhe objected to the use of the Cross of St Patrick and walked at the front of the parade with an Irish tricolour.  According to a report in the Belfast Telegraph (18 March) he claimed that the Cross of St Patrick had 'a military background'.  A report in the Down News (11 March) stated that he objected to it because it has 'associations with the Protestant Ascendancy'.

Some years ago in Belfast, when Caitriona Ruane ran the West Belfast Festival, she objected to the use of the Cross of St Patrick at the St Patrick's Day parade in Belfast and gave as her reason that it was linked 'with a regiment of the British army and the fascist Blueshirts'.  The former was a reference to the Irish Guards  and the latter to General O'Duffy's Blueshirts, who became part of Fine Gael, now the leading partner in the government of the Irish Republic.

Both she and her Sinn Fein colleague in Downpatrick omitted to say that the Cross of St Patrick has also been used by the Catholic Boy Scouts of Ireland, Irish Freemasons, the Church of Ireland and the former Irish state-owned shipping line Irish Shipping Ltd.  It also appears on the arms of Queen's University, Belfast, and the badge of the PSNI.

Moreover, if Councillor Mac Con Midhe is going to follow Caitriona's line and condemn flags because of their associations, he might reflect on the fact that the Irish tricolour, which he carried in the parade, was formerly known as the 'Sinn Fein flag' and was used by IRA terrorists.

So for the benefit of Eamonn Mac Con Midhe, here is the background to the Cross of St Patrick and for further information he may wish to refer to A History of Irish Flags from Earliest Times, which was written by Professor G A Hayes-McCoy and published in 1979. 
  1. The red saltire, which is described as the Cross of St Patrick, was used to represent Ireland in the Union Flag, which dates from 1 January 1801.  However it was used long before that.
  2. The Cross of Saint Patrick was incorporated in the coat of arms of the Order of the Knights of Saint Patrick, which was instituted in 1783. It is sometimes argued that it was borrowed for this purpose from the arms of the Fitzgerald family but there is much evidence for an earlier use of the Cross of St Patrick.
  3. A book entitled De Doorliughtige Weerld, published in 1700, described the flag of Ireland as a 'white flag with a red St Andrew's Cross'.
  4. A book published in the Netherlands in 1693, Neptune Francois illustrated the flags of the nations of europe and described the 'Ierse Irlandois' flag as a white flag bearing a red saltire.
  5. A contemporary map of the siege of Duncannon Fort in County Wexford in 1645 shows the Roman Catholic Confederates marching behind a red saltire.
  6. The earliest extant seal of Trinity College in Dublin dates from 1612 and shows two flags flying from the turrets of a castle.  One is the Cross of St George for England and the other, which was undoubtedly intended to represent Ireland, is a saltire.
  7. A saltire also appeared on an old seal of the Dean and Chapter of Armagh.
The Sinn Fein councillor was also quoted in the Mourne Observer as saying, 'I have always wanted to fly the Irish flag and I believe it should be done. In all my years as a councillor I have not heard one positive word about [the Cross of St Patrick]. It does not represent St Patrick.'  But then does the Irish tricolour represent Patrick?  Of course not.  It is the flag of Irish nationalism and Irish republicanism and Patrick was neither an Irish nationalist nor an Irish republican.  Indeed the tricolour first appeared on 7 March 1848 when it was unveiled in Waterford by Thomas Francis Meagher, a leader of the Young Ireland movement.
The action of Councillor MacCon Midhe has damaged relationships in Downpatrick and was clearly designed as an election stunt by a Sinn Fein councillor who had no interest in good relations.


  1. Nelson, because of your Unionist background, I can fully understand your reluctance to slight the Irish National flag etc. However, you are also a historian of sorts and should understand it's value to those of us on this island who are Nationalists and Republicans.....

    Whilst the cross of St. Patrick is important and should be more valued. It should not take precedence above the Irish tricolour....As someone who enjoys displaying his Irish heritage and nationality, I don't see how the tricolour could be viewed as 'offensive' given it's equal symbol of Orange and green?

    I've taken my kids to Downpatrick for St. Patrick's celebrations and have flown the little St.Patrick's Cross flags, as well as the tricolour. However, this year we travelled to Armagh city, where no-one seemed annoyed by either flag?

    Rather than use the tricolour issue as being controversial, why not embrace it's inclusivity? After all, the Union flag is well-known for it's exclusivity across the world.

    As an amaetur historian, you should attempt to educate your brethren about young and exclusive the Northern State treated your fellow citizens rather than using inflamatory language to describe a flag.....

  2. Patrick was British by birth. He came to Ulster, was converted in Ulster, returned to Ulster, ministered in Ulster and was buried in Ulster soil. There is a sense therefore in which he was a British Ulsterman. Now on that basis I could argue that the Union Flag and not merely the Cross of St Patrick should be flown to mark St Patrick's Day!! After all Patrick was born in either Scotland or England and the Union Flag incorporates the Cross of St Andrew, and the Cross of St George as well as the Cross of St Patrick!!

  3. Don't forget this is also the Alabama State flag and was used as the flag for Rucker's Brigade in the Confederate Army.

  4. With all due respect Nelson, the Britain and Ulster of Patrick's time are linked to the world of today in Geography alone. Patrick cannot be allied to the same notion of Ulster Britain that modern Unionists hold.

    There is also so precious little information on Patrick himself that there is doubt that Patrick was a single person but rather the stories being attributed to his person were events that involved a few different people.

    The story of Patrick has become a caricature. The belief that he was a simple goat herder who United Kings, taught the trinity to heathens using a simple shamrock and rid Ireland of snakes is as fantastical as the story of Adam and Eve!

    When you talk of the Union flag incorporating the flag of Saint Patrick it is worthwhile mentioning that the Irish tricolour signifies peace (white) between The irish catholic (green) and the British protestant (orange).

    Should such a grandiose and noble gesture not be celebrated through the flying of the tricolour? Or maybe you'll accept that flags can have more than one meaning through historical usage and that those in opposition to the flag of St.Patrick may have had a point?

  5. DJ - Yes Britain and Ulster were different from what they are today and so was Ireland. I was simply indicating that Patrick came from Great Britain and that his ministry was located in the province of Ulster. This was to counter the myth that he travelled the length and breadth of every county on the island.

    I agree about the many myths associated with Patrick eg shamrock and snakes, and indeed I dealt with many of these in my little booklet 'Patrick, Apostle of Ulster'. However I would contend that there was a single Patrick who was the author of the Confession and Letter.

    The w free from contention.hite in the tricolour is not necessarily a symbol of peace. The Irish tricolour is derived from the French tricolour and the white spoke of revolution rather than reconciliation. It was created in France by an Irish revolutionary and then brought back to Ireland.

    As regards the use of the Cross of St Patrick, that has been cross-community and free from contention, because of the diversity of its usage.