As politicians examine the issue of flags and symbols, a look at the Gal Greine or Sunburst Flag (Banner), one of the few symbols that can claim to have authentic native Irish roots. By An Sionnach Fionn.
The origins of the Gal Greine or Sunburst lie in the Fiannaiocht or the legends of the Fianna, one of the most important socio-military groupings in the Seanchas or indigenous literature and folklore of Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man.
The fiann or “hunter-warrior band” itself was far from legendary being one of the oldest institutions in Gaelic law and society: a company of youths (usually, though not exclusively, of aristocratic male birth) banded together under one or more leaders who resided outside the normal bounds of settled society until they had reached the age where they could legally inherit land or property. During this transitional period between childhood and adulthood they survived by hunting and foraging in the wilderness regions outside their homelands as well as providing military services to their kingdom or neighbouring kingdoms in return for limited food and lodging (sometimes in mercenary-like arrangements). For over a thousand years and more across the Gaelic nations of Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man there were many different fianna, most of them fleeting groupings around which many local tales coalesced.
However the one that came to the greatest prominence nationally, and which became the Fiann of Irish and Scottish mythology and folklore, was that of Fionn mac Cumhaill, a legendary feinni or “hunter-warrior” associated with the powerful royal dynasties of the Connachta who seized Teamhair or the Hill of Tara in the early centuries AD. Fionn led both his own fiann and that of several other fianna who supposedly served the Ard Rithe or High Kings of Ireland at Tara, principally Cormac mac Airt. Fionn’s legends, which were initially popular with the common people rather than with the learned classes, slowly evolved into a body of literature and folklore that spanned the whole of the Gaelic world: from the south-west tip of Ireland to the very north of Scotland (today when people speak of the Fianna in Irish myth they are invariably referring to those bands that followed the leadership of Fionn the rifheinni “king-hunter-warrior” rather than other notable ones like those led by Fothadh Canainn).
By the Late Medieval period the stories of the Fenian Cycle (as the Fiannaiocht came to be glossed in English) had reached their peak in the highly developed poems of 15th and 16th century Ireland and Scotland (and which later influenced Ossian, the poetical part-translations by Seamas Mac a’ Phearsain or James Macpherson, one of the 18th century’s most popular works). It is here that we first encounter the legends of An Gal Greine, the personal Sunburst banner of Fionn mac Cumhaill and his fiann.
The oldest image that we have of the flag dates to the 18th century and a 1731 manuscript written just before his death by the Fermanagh-born Protestant writer Cathal O Luinin who taught Irish at Trinity College Dublin (he was part of the Sean O Neachtain circle of native Irish scholars in Dublin and is rather better known as one of the publishers in 1712 of an Irish language translation of the “Book of Common Prayer”; his name was anglicised as Charles Lynegar). There the Gal Greine is described in some detail with an illustration by an unknown artist depicting a stylised golden semicircle emitting thirteen rays placed in the lower middle-half of a blue field, the edge of the banner representing the edge of the horizon.
In the mid-19th century the Sunburst motif was widely adopted by Irish Republicans in Ireland and beyond as a symbol of their movement and of their revolutionary ideology. This was partly in opposition to the “Irish Harp” motif used both by the British colonial authorities in Ireland and those who frequently co-operated with them (the Irish Parliamentary Party and others). It first came to prominence in Irish-American circles amongst the Braithreachas na bhFinini or Fenian Brotherhood whose name was drawn from the Fianna legends and was latterly made use of in Ireland by their European Fenian sister-organisation, the Braithreachas Phoblacht na hEireann or Irish Republican Brotherhood. Fenian flags tended to conform to the green of Irish nationalist banners rather than the traditional blue and usually showed a pictorial golden sunburst emerging from behind a cloud instead of from below the horizon (with or without the traditional gold Harp). Most Sunbursts were centred in the middle of the flag but some placed the image at the bottom or top-right.
During the American Civil War (1861-1865) many Irish-American regiments and units made use of the Sunburst in their flags (invariably combined with the more conventional Harp). Those that did so normally had large numbers of Fenians in their ranks or were based on previously existing Fenian organisations or groupings (this phenomenon was largely confined to the armies of the Union: for reasons of geography and ideology Confederate forces tended to attract far fewer Fenians from the Irish-American communities).
The Gaelic Revival And The Irish Revolution
After the 1870s the Gal Greine temporarily fell out of popular use until it reappeared in the late 1800s and early 1900s. In 1893 the Irish cultural organisation Conradh na Gaeilge or the Gaelic League was established in Dublin and almost immediately began to make use of Sunburst iconography in its publications and symbols. This movement went on to plant the seeds from which the cultural and literary roots of the Irish Revolution were later to grow as its influence spread far and wide in Irish society. Around the same time several language-based nationalist organisations in Scotland such as An Comunn Gaidhealach also began to employ the symbolism of the Sunburst (though under the preferred Scottish language title of the Scal Greine). To the present day the Sunburst icon is still encountered amongst language or indigenous rights groups in Ireland and Scotland, such as Guth na Gaeltachta.
In early 1900 the Irish Republican activist and feminist Countess Markievicz founded the Inionacha na hEireann as a radical women’s organisation, which used an embroidered version of the golden sunburst as a badge on a blue sash worn over the shoulder as a uniform. Later in 1909 the Sunburst was also adopted by the IRB-sponsored Na Fianna Eireann (NFE), an Irish Republican youth and scouting organisation which was to go on to play a prominent role in the Irish Revolution of 1916-1923 as the de facto youth wing of the Oglaigh na hEireann or Irish Republican Army. Their flag was designed by Countess Markievicz and initially resembled the original O Luinin version with a golden (yellow) sunburst placed in the lower half of the flag as a semi-circle or centrally as a round circle on a blue background (much later the sun was shown emerging from the bottom right-hand corner). Most flags had the words Na Fianna Eireann inscribed above the Sunburst in a golden stylised script. The fifteen points of the sunburst were interpreted within the movement as representing the twelve points of the medieval Fianna’s legendary “code of honour” and the three elements of the Fianna motto: Glaine ar gcroi, neart ar ngeag agus beart de reir ar mbriathar “The purity of our hearts, the strength of our limbs and our commitment to our promise” (since 1980 this slogan has been used by the Sciathan Fiannoglaigh or Rangers’ Wing, the Irish Army’s special forces unit).
On the 25th of November 1913 the Irish Volunteer Force or Irish Volunteers (IV) was founded in Dublin by a number of prominent Nationalists and Republicans from around Ireland. It was conceived of as a military organisation to defend the promised granting of so-called “Home Rule” or limited self-government to Ireland under British colonial rule. Immediately popular, it soon attracted a membership in the tens of thousands and amongst the first acts of its founders was the setting up of a committee to oversee the creation of agreed uniforms, badges, emblems and flags for the new force under the chairmanship of the Protestant Irish language scholar and Gaelic League member Eoin Mac Neill.
Mac Neill along with IRB revolutionary and fellow committee-member Padraig Mac Piarais chose the Sunburst banner as a flag for the movement (appropriately enough given its heavy Fenian membership and influence). Mac Piarais’ school, Scoil Eanna, had used a version of the Gal Greine as its symbol, a gold sun disc on a blue background, since 1908. This standard was blue in colour with a semi-circular nine-pointed golden (yellow) Sunburst in the lower middle of the flag. The logo of any particular regiment or unit was to be embroidered in the flag’s top-left corner. However, though some banners were created to this specification, opposition by several influential anti-Republican nationalists (who favoured the Harp symbol identified most readily with the collaborationist Irish Parliamentary Party) and an ideological split in the Volunteers in September 1914 meant that the Sunburst narrowly missed becoming a national flag of Ireland (indeed, perhaps, the national flag).
The uniform and cap badge of the Volunteers, popularly called the “Fianna Fail or FF badge”, was also based upon the Gal Greine from a design by Mac Neill. He originally designed the badge for the Volunteer’s Dublin Brigade but after the 1914 split in the organisation a variant of it was adopted by the entire movement and was found on uniform flashes, badges, buttons, some flags and documentation. It consisted of a round Sunburst with the initials “FF” in Irish script at its centre (Fianna Fail “Warriors of Destiny” was both the slogan and an early Irish language name of the Volunteers from a suggestion by the writer and linguist Peadar O Laoghaire). Around the initials were placed a warrior’s belt upon which was written the words Oglaigh na hEireann in the same alphabet (“the (Military) Volunteers of Ireland”) a title suggested by Piaras Beaslai as the Irish language version of the name. An eight-pointed star was added to the design for stylistic reasons.
After the War of Independence the “FF badge” was gradually discarded by those Irish military forces descendant from the revolutionary-era Anti-Treaty IRA. However the descendants of the Pro-Treaty IRA (in part the present Irish Army, which also has Anti-Treaty IRA antecedence from the 1930s and ‘40s) retained it as their official emblem. Meanwhile several variants of the Gal Greine Flag continued in based upon different artistic interpretations or organisations with one notable difference. From the 1970s onwards the Sunburst changed from the traditional gold or yellow to a distinct orange hue reflecting the orange of the Irish national flag or Tricolour.
At the present moment the Irish Army’s Military College uses a variant close to the original 20th century Na Fianna Eireann version of the post-1916 period, where the half-sun and its expanding rays are centred on the lower edge of the flag, the sunbeams alternating between short and slightly longer ones. While most Irish Republican banners tend to place a quarter-sun in the lower left-hand corner of the flag with rays emanating outwards (this is particularly true of banners produced since the 1990s). These sun-rays can be straight, wavy, or alternating between both and often varying in length and in all cases represent a rising sun.
If any symbol has the claim to be the indigenous flag of Ireland it is surely the Gal Greine. And one, perhaps, in some ways more fitting than the present Tricolour.