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Ireland: Sunburst

Gal Gréine

Last modified: 2013-03-16 by rob raeside
Keywords: ireland | sunburst | fianna éireann |
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[Sunburst] image by Vincent Morley, 23 March 1997

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Description of the Flag

The sunburst flag has a literary origin. Between the 14th and 18th centuries a large number of poems, songs and prose tales were written about a mythical band of warriors known as the 'Fianna' (a poetic term meaning 'warriors'), the most prominent members of which were Fionn mac Cumhail and his son Oisín. The Fianna were supposed to have lived in the first century and to have defeated Roman attempts to invade Ireland. The literature concerning them spread from Ireland into the Scottish highlands where it was suitably modified - Scottish place names being substituted for Irish, etc. - and provided the inspiration for the 'Ossianic' epics of James MacPherson in the 18th century. The literature attributed a flag to the Fianna which was called either the 'Gal Gréine' or 'Scal Ghréine' - both names which mean 'sunburst'.

The sunburst became a common part of nationalist iconography in the early nineteenth century, often being used in conjunction with the harp. In 1858 a revolutionary movement was formed which was known as the Irish Republican Brotherhood in Ireland but used the name 'Fenian Brotherhood' among Irish emigrants in the United States - 'Fenian' being an anglicisation of 'Fianna'. Not surprisingly, the new movement made use of the sunburst.

In 1893 an Irish-language movement called Conradh na Gaeilge was established and began to use the sunburst flag, probably because of its literary associations (a similar situation exists in Scotland where the sunburst is found in the emblem of the Highland Association). In 1909 a nationalist youth movement, named Fianna Éireann after the mythical Fianna, was formed and it also adopted the sunburst flag. At the present day, the sunburst continues to be used by both the Irish-language and the Republican movements.
Vincent Morley
, 23 March 1997


[Sunburst] image located by Jan Mertens, 8 December 2008

This partisan page - concerning Republican colour parties in Nov. 2006 - shows a variant (first photo): The sun's rays are kept in the lower hoist and straight rays alternate with wavy ones. The sun’s colour seems orange but is supposed to be gold, is it not?
Jan Mertens, 8 December 2008

[Sunburst] image located by Jan Mertens, 9 December 2008

Another sunburst variant appears on this Flickr photo made by “seanfderry-studenna” and uploaded on 4 Sep 2007: It is a long blue flag, sunburst originating in lower hoist corner, straight and wavy rays alternating, the lower ones especially extending into the field. What colour is this – metallic or burnished gold? The occasion, named Hunger Strike Commemoration Derry August 2008, is captured in a photostream and a number of photos show the sunburst again:, Other prominent flags are, of course, the Irish tricolour and the Starry Plough.
Jan Mertens, 9 December 2008

[Sunburst] image located by Jan Mertens, 9 December 2008

Another Irish sunburst – a local variant – is presented at
“The view from the Flagstaff, is one of the most breathtaking in Ireland or anywhere else. Many thousands visit this beauty spot but one wonders do they know why it is named. From the rock on which stands the pole you have an uninterrupted view of Carlingford Lough and the Mourne Mountains. In bygone days when sailors had not modern advanced navigational aids it is said that they took their bearings and gauged the wind from the flag overlooking the estuary. There are others who maintain that the flag was raised to warn would be smugglers of approaching customs men.

On the last Sunday of July each year the special Fiesta is climaxed when the Flagstaff flag is hoisted on Barry's rock. The colourful pageant always highlights the great attraction the Flagstaff is. The Flagstaff flag, which is seen being raised in one of the scenes from the film " Kick Any Stone ", depicts a sunburst on a field of St. Patrick's, blue with the tips of sails emerging over the horizon. The pole, on which the flag rests, was hewn from the nearby Fathom forest, and stands 40 feet. From the Flagstaff you can see across to the Mountains of Mourne and the famous Cloc Mor (the big stone). Looking down the estuary you can see the majestic Narrow Water castle standing sentinel at the mouth of the Newry river and further down the lough the volcanic Slieve Foy dominates the horizon. In the sunlight Warrenpoint glistens and sparkles white in contrast to the sometimes Mediterranean blue of the sea.”

A separate design element is the presence of sails’ tips along the lower edge of the flag; moreover, much of the sun is visible (that is, not limited to the lower hoist corner). As to the colours – blue is mentioned, but the other one(s): yellow, at least?
Jan Mertens, 16 December 2008

Green Flag version

[early Irish Republic flag] image by Jaume Ollé after a photo by Nozomi Kariyasu, 5 May 2005

Based on a flag in the National Museum of Ireland, Dublin. This device was adopted by the Fenians in 1843, supposedly based on earlier Nationalist flags (Hayes-McCoy 1979).
Laurence Jones, 27 December 2005

Fianna Éireann

[early Irish Republic flag] image by Jaume Ollé after a photo by Nozomi Kariyasu, 5 May 2005

Based on a flag in the National Museum of Ireland, Dublin. Flag of B Company, Fianna Éireann. This was a (nationalist) boy's military organisation founded in 1909. (Hayes-McCoy 1979).
Laurence Jones, 27 December 2005