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St Patrick's Cross Flag



[St Patrick's cross]  

History of the St Patrick's Cross

In 1782 Britain acknowledged the exclusive right of the Irish parliament to legislate for Ireland. To reflect the country's enhanced constitutional status, an order of chivalry called the Order of St Patrick was established in the following year. The regalia worn by the knights of this order showed a red saltire on a white background.

After the union with Britain in 1801, the St Patrick's Cross continued to feature in the arms and flags adopted by various professional and public bodies during the nineteenth century: examples include the Royal Dublin Society, Royal College of Physicians in Ireland, Queen's University Belfast, the Pharmaceutical Society of Ireland, etc. These bodies were non-political but tended to draw their membership from the upper classes in which Unionists predominated. They favoured the St Patrick's Cross as a 'safe' national symbol which, unlike the harp, was not associated with nationalism and revolution.

Three uses of the St Patrick's Cross in the twentieth century are worth mentioning.

  1. A fascist movement of the 1930s, commonly known as the Blueshirts, used a flag with a red saltire on a pale blue field: they referred to the saltire as the St Patrick's Cross but it's doubtful whether the name can correctly be applied to a red saltire on a blue field. The saltire also appeared on the breast pocket of the blue shirts which they wore.
  2. The flag of the Irish Rugby Football Union, which is used by Irish rugby teams when playing overseas, shows a red saltire on a white field, a shield of one the four provinces appears in each of the segments formed by the saltire, and the badge of the IRFU is placed in the centre of the saltire.
  3. In recent years a flag has been adopted by advocates of an independent Northern Ireland which shows a red saltire on a blue field (combining the crosses of St Patrick and St Andrew). The red hand of Ulster appears on a six-pointed yellow star (representing the six counties of Northern Ireland) in the centre of the saltire. The use of this flag is very marginal: advocates of independence won only 0.28% of the vote in the recent elections to the Northern Ireland Forum.

Vincent Morley, 20 January 1997

Origin of the St Patrick's Cross

The origin of the St Patrick's Cross has been traced to the establishment of the Knights of Saint Patrick in 1783, when the red saltire on white was included in the Order's regalia. But where did it come from? Three theories have been put forward:

  • The 'old flag' theory:
    This is the theory that the St Patrick's cross may have been an old but uncommon flag of Ireland. This theory has been supported by a selection of maps, seals and drawings which show saltire flags being used in Ireland at various times during the 17th and 18th centuries. However all of these examples can be explained as either the Scottish St Andrew's cross or the Spanish Cross of Burgundy.
  • The 'Duke of Leinster' theory:
    The arms of the Duke of Leinster, the highest-ranking member of the Irish aristocracy, were a red saltire on a white field and the duke was a founding member of the Order of St Patrick. This theory holds that the Order may have included the duke's arms in its regalia as a compliment to him, but the contemporary sources contain nothing to support this view.
  • The 'St Patrick's-day badge' theory:
    It was a common custom, from at least the early 17th to the mid-19th century, to wear a cross made of paper or ribbon on 17 March, St Patrick's day. The Saint Patrick's Cross in the regalia of the order may have been inspired by these popular badges. However, surviving examples of such badges come in many colours and they were invariably worn upright - as equal-armed crosses rather than as saltires.

Vincent Morley, 29 May

[Badge of the Order of St Patrick] 

Contemporary evidence indicates that the proposal to include a saltire in the insignia of the Order of Saint Patrick was condemned by contemporary Irish opinion. One press report from February 1783 complained that 'the breasts of Irishmen were to be decorated by the bloody Cross of St. Andrew, and not that of the tutelar Saint of their natural isle'. Another article reported that 'the Cross of St. Andrew the Scotch saint is to honour the Irish order of St. Patrick, by being inserted within the star of the order' and described this as 'a manifest insult to common sense and to national propriety'. It is clear that the saltire was not associated with either Ireland, the Duke of Leinster, or Saint Patrick in the popular mind in 1783. Why, then, was it included in the regalia of the Order of Saint Patrick?

This is the official description of the badge of the Order of Saint Patrick which the lord lieutenant of Ireland, Lord Temple forwarded to his superiors in London in January 1783:

And the said Badge shall be of Gold surrounded with a Wreath of Shamrock or Trefoil, within which shall be a Circle of Gold, containing the Motto of our said Order in Letters of Gold Viz. QUIS SEPARABIT? together with the date 1783, being the year in which our said Order was founded, and encircling the Cross of St Patrick Gules, surmounted with a Trefoil Vert each of its leaves charged with an Imperial Crown Or upon a field of Argent.
It seems clear that Lord Temple regarded the saltire as a recognised symbol of Saint Patrick. However an open letter addressed to Lord Temple which was published in a Dublin newspaper in late February 1783 explains why the saltire was rejected by the Irish public: The Cross generally used on St. Patrick's day, by Irishmen, is the Cross-Patee, which is small in the centre, and so goes on widening to the ends, which are very broad; this is not recorded, as the Irish Cross, but has custom for time immemorial for its support, which is generally allowed as sufficient authority for any similar institution ... As bearing the arms of another person is reckoned very disgraceful by the laws of honour, how much more so is it, in an order which ought to carry honour to the highest pitch, to take a cross for its emblem, which has been acknowledged for many ages as the property of an order in another country? If the cross generally worn as the emblem of the Saint who is ascribed to Ireland, is not agreeable to your Excellency, sure many others are left to choose from, without throwing Ireland into so ignominious a point of view, as to adopt the one that Scotland has so long a claim to. When I first came across this letter I was surprised and more than a little sceptical because I had never heard of a link between Saint Patrick and the cross pattée. The St Patrick's day badges from the early 19th century that I have seen in the National Museum of Ireland all have Greek crosses, i.e. arms of equal length and thickness. But just a few weeks ago I came across proof that the cross pattée was indeed associated with Saint Patrick. I found it in a booklet that happened to be bound in the same volume as a pamphlet I was reading in the National Library of Ireland. The booklet is called The Fundamental Laws, Statutes, and Constitutions of the Ancient and Most Benevolent Order of the Friendly Brothers of Saint Patrick and was published at Dublin in 1763. The 'Friendly Brothers' were a mutual benefit society formed by Dublin merchants - the members paid regular dues to the Order and in return were given financial support if they fell on hard times. The Order used quasi-Masonic rituals and was organised in lodges. One of their rules was that members had to wear the medal of the order when attending lodge meetings. The badge was described as follows:
the Ensigns of the ORDER, being a golden Medal, on which shall be impressed Saint Patrick's Cross, fixed in a Heart, over which is a Crown. The whole being set round with an emblematic Knot embellished with Trefoil, or Shamrogue Leaves, and this motto, FIDELIS, ET CONSTANS: implying Fidelity and Constancy in Religion, Loyalty, and Friendship.
There was an engraving of the badge, and I made a freehand drawing of the central element only, a scan of which is shown below:

[Friendly Brothers of Saint Patrick] Left: Detail from the badge of the Friendly Brothers of Saint Patrick, 1763.

In the last week I have turned up a further, and much earlier piece of evidence. Irish coins in the middle ages typically had the king's head on the obverse and a thin Greek cross on the reverse. In 1460-1 however, a copper farthing was issued which showed the head of Saint Patrick on the obverse and a cross pattée on the reverse - the coin is number 4399 in Seaby's Coins and Tokens of Ireland catalogue. Both features are very unusual and it is unlikely to be a coincidence that they occur together. In fact, this would appear to have been a very early example of a commemorative coin: 461 is one of the dates reported for the death of Saint Patrick and it seems likely to me that the farthing was a special issue struck to mark the 1,000th anniversary of the saint's death.
[Half-farthing of 1460-1]Left: The St Patrick's half-farthing of 1460-1.

There can be no doubt that the third of the three theories about the origin of the Cross of Saint Patrick put forward above is the correct one, but it must be asked why Lord Temple substituted the saltire for the cross pattée? I suspect that this decision was a result of the desire to link the cross and the shamrock in a single badge. It is not possible to combine a large shamrock (and it must be large if it is to bear a crown on each leaf) with a cross pattée without obscuring one or the other, but it is very easy to superimpose a shamrock on a saltire - which is, after all, only a rotated cross. While this change angered members of the Irish public, it probably seemed like a minor and a reasonable modification to an English viceroy who, in any event, took a very cynical view of the Order of Saint Patrick, referring in his private correspondence to 'the nonsense of the farce of the Order'.

Vincent Morley, 30 May - 1 June 1999

Use of the flag seems likely to increase as a result of a recent decision. The general synod of the Church of Ireland (the governing body of the Irish branch of the Anglican communion) has decided that in future 'only flags specifically authorised would be flown in church grounds. These are either the flag of St Patrick, or the Compass-rose flag of the Anglican communion' (report in the Irish Times, 19 May 1999). This decision is intended to end the common practice of flying the British Union Flag from churches in Northern Ireland - a practice which was felt to be involving the church in politics.

Vincent Morley, 2 June 1999

St Patrick's Cross today

After the Act of Union the red saltire was inserted into the existing flag of Great Britain (itself a combination of the English St George's Cross and the Scottish St Andrew's Cross) as a symbol of Ireland, thereby forming the modern Union Jack:

While the St Patrick's Cross does not appear to have been used as a flag before the Union, it has been incorporated in a wide range of flags since then. Among these are the flags of the Commissioners of Irish Lights, the Royal Dublin Society, the Irish Rugby Football Union, the Freemasons and the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, as well as the former flags of the 'Blueshirts' and of Irish Shipping Ltd. In recent years, the St Patrick's Cross has been used on St Patrick's day in Northern Ireland.

[The flag of the Blueshirts]

Left: the flag of the Blueshirts.

Right: Blueshirts marching in Carrick-on-Suir, 1933.

[St Patrick's Cross being carried by Blueshirts]

[Masonic Order in Ireland]

Left: banner of the Masonic Order in Ireland.

Right: banner of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland.

[Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland]

[Commissioners of Irish Lights]

Left: the flag of the Commissioners of Irish Lights being lowered at a light house.

Right: Derry Unionists displaying the St Patrick's Cross.

[St Patrick's Cross being used by Unionists]



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Last Updated May 11, 2012