An Gal Gréine

A soldier from the 69th Infantry Regiment of the New York Army National Guard stands with Irish warpipes and a Fenian-style banner, Afghanistan
A soldier from the 69th Infantry Regiment of the New York Army National Guard stands with Irish warpipes and a Fenian-style banner, Afghanistan

An Gal Gréine

Introduction

The Gal Gréine or Sunburst flag is one of the few symbols of modern Ireland and Irishness that can claim to have deep roots in native Irish and Gaelic tradition. Also known as the Irish or Fenian Sunburst stories and images of the banner have circulated amongst Irish communities at home and abroad since the late Medieval period, gaining popularity in the late 19th and early 20th centuries with its adoption by various nationalist and republican movements, both cultural and political, in Ireland and the United States.

The Heroic Fenians

The earliest descriptions of the Gal Gréine standard are to be found in the Fiannaíocht or Fenian Cycle, a body of literary and folkloric tales within the Seanchas or indigenous mythology of Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. The Fenian genre recounted the adventures of various fianna or “hunter-warrior bands” in the Gaelic nations, companies of youths (usually, though not exclusively, of aristocratic male birth) residing outside the normal bounds of settled society until they came into adulthood through the inheritance of property. During this transitional period they survived by hunting and foraging in the wilderness as well as providing quasi-military services in return for food and lodging. Of these transitory groupings the one that came to the pan-Celtic prominence, and which became the Fiann of Irish and Scottish legend, was that of Fionn mac Cumhaill, a mythical féinní “hunter-warrior” associated with the historical royal dynasties of the Connachta in the early centuries AD.

In legend Fionn commanded both his own fiann and that of several others while serving the ard ríthe or high kings of Ireland at Teamhair (“Tara”), principally Cormac mac Airt. Fionn’s tales slowly evolved into a body of literature and folklore that stretched from the south-west tip of Ireland to the very north of Scotland (today when people speak of the Fianna they are invariably referring to the followers of Fionn the rífhéinní “king-hunter-warrior” rather than other Fenian figures like Fothadh Canainn). By the 1400s and 1500s the legends of the Fenian Cycle had reached their peak in a wide and varied series of poems, and it is here that we first encounter the descriptions of An Gal Gréine, the personal sunburst banner of Fionn mac Cumhaill and his fiann.

The oldest image that we have of this imagined battle-standard dates to the 18th century and a 1731 manuscript written just before his death by the Fermanagh-born Protestant writer Cathal Ó Luinín who lectured at Trinity College Dublin (he was part of the Seán Ó Neachtain circle of Gaelic scholars in the capital and is better known as one of the publishers in 1712 of an Irish language translation of the “Book of Common Prayer“; for this his name was anglicised as Charles Lynegar). There the Gal Gréine 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 flag representing the edge of the horizon.

The Revolutionary Fenians

From the mid-19th century onwards the sunburst motif was adopted by many Irish republican organisations as a symbol of their revolutionary ideology. This was partly in opposition to the use of the “Irish Harp” for official purposes by the British colonial authorities in Ireland and those who frequently co-operated with them such as the Irish Parliamentary Party. It first came to prominence in Irish-American circles amongst the Fenian Brotherhood of America (FBA), whose name was drawn from the Fianna legends, and was latterly made use of in Ireland by its European sister-organisation, the Irish Republican Brotherhood or IRB (hence the Gal Gréine being known as the Fenian Sunburst). In terms of the imagery involved, Fenian devices favoured the green of traditional nationalist banners rather than the literary blue and usually showed a pictorial golden sunburst emerging from behind a cloud instead of from below the horizon. 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 Gal Gréine in their flags (frequently combined with the more popular harp). This invariably reflected the numbers of Fenians in their ranks or the founding of formations based upon existing Fenian groupings (this phenomenon was mainly confined to the armies of the Union: for reasons of geography and ideology Confederate forces attracted fewer Fenian recruits).

The Fenian Brotherhood favoured the Irish or Fenian Sunburst Flag as its emblem, this one showing a sun rising above the horizon, c.1850s
The Fenian Brotherhood favoured the Irish or Fenian Sunburst Flag as its emblem, this one showing a sun rising above the horizon, c.1850s
The Fenian Brotherhood favoured the Irish or Fenian Sunburst for its flags and banners, this one displaying a sun rising or appearing from behind a cloud, c.1850s-1870s
The Fenian Brotherhood favoured the Irish or Fenian Sunburst for its flags and banners, this one displaying a sun rising or appearing from behind a cloud, c.1850s-1870s
Many Irish-American units of the US Army used Fenian symbols in their banners, as here with the 69th New York Green Regimental Flag (1st model), 1861
Many Irish-American units of the US Army used Fenian symbols in their banners, as here with the 69th New York Green Regimental Flag (1st model), 1861
An Irish-American unit of the US Army displays its Irish and Fenian roots with a Sunburst emblem on the 69th New York State Militia Flag (the so-called Prince of Wales Flag), 1861
An Irish-American unit of the US Army displays its Irish and Fenian roots with a Sunburst emblem on the 69th New York State Militia Flag (the so-called Prince of Wales Flag), 1861

The Gaelic Revival and the Irish Revolution

After the 1870s the Gal Gréine declined in popular use until it reappeared again 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. Around the same time several similar groups in Scotland, including An Comunn Gàidhealach, adopted the Sunburst for their needs (the first published journal of the organisation was titled An Deò-Ghrèine “The smoke, fume, haze of the sun”; i.e. the sunburst). To the present day the icon remains popular 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 Iníonacha na hÉireann, 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. Later in 1909 the Gal Gréine was also adopted by the IRB-sponsored Fianna Éireann (), an Irish scouting organisation which was to play a prominent role in the Irish Revolution of 1916-1923 as the de facto youth wing of the Óglaigh na hÉireann (ÓnaÉ) or Irish Republican Army (the IRA). The FÉ flag was designed by Countess Markievicz and initially resembled the original manuscript version with a golden (yellow) sunburst placed in the lower half of the banner 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 name “Fianna Éireann” 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 ár gcroí, neart ár ngéag agus beart de réir ár 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 Sciathán Fiannóglaigh or Rangers’ Wing, the special forces unit of Óglaigh an hÉireann or Defence Forces Ireland).

Gal Gréine or Sunburst symbolism in the flag of the Limerick City Regiment of the Irish Volunteers, 1914
Gal Gréine or Sunburst symbolism in the flag of the Limerick City Regiment of the Irish Volunteers, 1914

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 across the country. It was conceived of as a military organisation to defend the promised granting of so-called “home rule” or limited self-government to Ireland within the United Kingdom. Immediately popular, it 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 and emblems under the chairmanship of the Protestant Irish language scholar and Gaelic League member Eoin Mac Néill.

Mac Néill along with fellow committee-member Pádraig 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 Éanna, had used a version of the Gal Gréine 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 logos of particular regiments were 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 Irish Parliamentary Party) and an ideological split in the Volunteers in September 1914 meant that the Fenian Sunburst possibly missed becoming the national flag of Ireland.

The uniform and cap badge of the Volunteers, popularly called the “Fianna Fáil or FF badge“, was also based upon the Gal Gréine from a design by Mac Néill. He originally designed the badge for the Volunteer’s Dublin Brigade but after the 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 Fáil “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 Ó Laoghaire). Around the initials were placed a warrior’s belt upon which was written the words Óglaigh na hÉireann in the same alphabet, “the (Military) Volunteers of Ireland” being a suggested translation into Irish of the English term “Irish Volunteers” by the writer Piaras Béaslaí. 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 forces descended from the revolutionary-era Anti-Treaty IRA while the organisational descendants of the Pro-Treaty IRA, Defence Forces Ireland, retained it as their official emblem. However both traditions adhered to the Gal Gréine, albeit based upon slightly different artistic interpretations. The Irish Army’s Military College uses a variant of the banner close to the early 20th century Fianna Éireann version, 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. In contrast most Irish republican flags 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-beams can be straight, wavy, or alternating between both and often varying in length and in all cases represent a rising sun. However from the 1970s onwards both “official” and “unofficial” Sunbursts have changed from the traditional gold or yellow to a distinct orange hue reflecting the final colour of the Irish national flag or Tricolour.

If any symbol has the claim to be the indigenous flag of Ireland it is surely the Gal Gréine. And one, perhaps, in some ways more fitting than the present one.

Glossary and Alternative Forms

Gal “(warlike) ardour, valour, fury; vapour, steam, boiling heat” [From Old/Middle Irish gal “seething heat, passing into that of mental excitement or rage; warlike ardour, fury, valour”]

Grian (gs. Gréine), “sun”.

Gal Gréine, literally “Fury, heat of the Sun” with the intended meaning of a “Sunburst” (i.e. the flash of the sun as it emerges above the horizon at dawn or from behind a cloud during the day).

Scal Ghréine, alternative name for the Sunburst, meaning “Burst, flash, blast of the Sun”.

Déo-Ghréine, alternative name for the Sunburst, meaning “Smoke, glimmer, ray of the Sun”.

Deò-Ghrèine, alternative Scottish name for the Sunburst, meaning “Smoke, glimmer, ray of the Sun”.

Dealbh Ghréine, alternative name for the Sunburst, meaning “Image, form, appearance of the Sun”.

Various Irish or Fenian Sunburst Images

lord_mayor_and_banner-2
The Countess Markievicz and Na Fianna flag held in the UK following its looting by the British Forces in Dublin during the Easter Rising of 1916
The 1912 Fianna Éireann Ard-Fheis with a large Gal Gréine banner in the background
An Irish or Fenian Sunburst flag featuring the harp with the sunburst to the left, Ireland 1867
An Irish or Fenian Sunburst flag featuring the harp with the sunburst to the left, Ireland 1867
Óglaigh na hÉireann “Fianna Fáil Badge” – Symbol of the Irish Republican Army, Irish Army, Irish Defence Forces
Drong Átha Cliath, Óglaigh na hÉireann (Dublin Brigade, Irish Volunteers) c.1916
Dublin Brigade Banner, Irish Volunteers, 1916, with Sunburst Motif
1917 Irish Volunteers postcard

Fianna Éireann 1909
Fianna Éireann 1916
Fianna Fáil Badge, Óglaigh na hÉireann, mid-1940s
Certificate of Active Service, Cork City Battalion, Irish Republican Army (Óglaigh na hÉireann and Fianna Éireann)
Na Fianna Éireann and the Irish Revolution 1909-1923
Fianna Éireann monument 2009
Fianna Éireann Wall Mural
Na Fianna Éireann faces the GPO in Dublin , Easter Monday , April 5th 2010
Ógra Shinn Féin (formerly Na Fianna Éireann)
The blue flag of Óglaigh na hÉireann, Briogaid Átha Cliath (Irish Republican Army, Dublin Brigade), 2011, beside a Sunburst flag
The Starry Plough, The Irish Citizens Army Starry Plough, Irish Republican Army (IRA) Sunburst, Derry Brigade PIRA, Irish Tricolour
Na Fianna Éireann – Ógra Shinn Féin Badge
The Fianna Handbook, designed for new members of Na Fianna Éireann with the NFÉ symbols
The Fianna Handbook, designed for new members of Na Fianna Éireann with the NFÉ symbols
Irish Republican Sunburst Flag, An Gal Gréine, Éire, 2008
An Gal Gréine – NFÉ
‘Na Fianna Éireann’ flag 2008
Sunburst Legend
Un-Recorded Fianna Éireann Flag
Saoirse
Irish Volunteers Badge
2nd Irish Color, 69th NYSV (Including The Irish Or Fenian Sunburst)
69th New York Infantry Brigade (The Irish Brigade) – Including The Irish Or Fenian Sunburst Flag
88th New York (2nd Regiment, Irish Brigade). Includes the Irish or Fenian Sunburst symbol in the flag
69th New York Regimental Flag (Including the Irish or Fenian Sunburst Symbol)
Regimental Color, 69th NYSV (With The Fenian Sunburst)
The Fighting 69th By Mort Kustler (With the Irish or Fenian Sunburst Symbol)
The 1862 ‘Tiffany’ Color of the 69th New York (Includes the Irish or Fenian Sunburst Image)
historic-flags
The Harp and Sunburst banner of the Fighting 69th Regiment, United States Army, New York
Republican Network for Unity (RNU) Anti-British Policing signage in Brandywell, Derry, with Sunburst motif
The Irish or Fenian Sunburst emblem as used by Conradh na Gaeilge and Guth na Gaeltachta, organisations that fight for the civil rights of Irish-speaking citizens and communities in contemporary anglophone-dominated Ireland
The Irish or Fenian Sunburst emblem as used by Conradh na Gaeilge and Guth na Gaeltachta, organisations that fight for the civil rights of Irish-speaking citizens and communities in contemporary anglophone-dominated Ireland
Guth na Gaeltachta, the Irish civil rights and community movement which makes use of the Irish or Fenian Sunburst symbol, Ireland, 2011
Guth na Gaeltachta, the Irish civil rights and community movement which makes use of the Irish or Fenian Sunburst symbol, Ireland, 2011
Guth na Gaeltachta, the contemporary Irish civil rights movement which uses the Irish or Fenian Sunburst as its symbol, 2011
Guth na Gaeltachta, the contemporary Irish civil rights movement which uses the Irish or Fenian Sunburst as its symbol, 2011
The modern symbol of An Comunn Gaidhealach, the Scottish (Gaelic) rights movement, with its prominent Sunburst motif, Scotland
The modern symbol of An Comunn Gaidhealach, the Scottish (Gaelic) rights movement, with its prominent Sunburst motif, Scotland
An early badge of the Scottish-speaking (Gaelic) rights movement An Comunn Gaidhealach with the Fenian Sunburst symbol as a sun rising above the horizon, Scotland
An early badge of the Scottish-speaking (Gaelic) rights movement An Comunn Gaidhealach with the Fenian Sunburst symbol as a sun rising above the horizon, Scotland
Fenian Brotherhood Medal With Irish Or Fenian Sunburst
A commemorative card of the Manchester Martyrs with the Irish or Fenian Sunburst symbol featured as a rising sun above the horizon
A commemorative card of the Manchester Martyrs with the Irish or Fenian Sunburst symbol featured as a rising sun above the horizon
Plaque to the Manchester Martyrs with the Irish or Fenian Sunburst motif at the top, Manchester, England 2012
Plaque to the Manchester Martyrs with the Irish or Fenian Sunburst motif at the top, Manchester, England 2012
Unrepentant Fenian Bastard – A modern take on the Irish or Fenian Sunburst
Early Irish stamps two of which feature the Irish or Fenian Sunburst motif, 1922
Early Irish stamps two of which feature the Irish or Fenian Sunburst motif, 1922
Celtic fans display a Fenian or Irish Sunburst at match, Glasgow, Scotland
Celtic fans display a Fenian or Irish Sunburst at match, Glasgow, Scotland
An Gal Gréine, the Irish Sunburst Banner, at the 1916 Commemoration Ceremony, the GPO, Dublin, 2016
An Gal Gréine, the Irish Sunburst Banner, at the 1916 Commemoration Ceremony, the GPO, Dublin, 2016
An Gal Gréine, the Irish Sunburst flag, at the 1916 Easter Rising Commemoration and Wreath Laying at the GPO, Dublin, 2010
An Gal Gréine, the Irish Sunburst flag, at the 1916 Easter Rising Commemoration and Wreath Laying at the GPO, Dublin, 2010
Picture of newly commissioned officers, Óglaigh na hÉireann (Irish Defence Forces) with An Gal Gréine, the Sunburst banner in the background, 2011
Picture of newly commissioned officers, Óglaigh na hÉireann (Irish Defence Forces) with An Gal Gréine, the Sunburst banner in the background, 2011
ie-sun5
A Sunburst banner claimed to date to 1832
One of the carved stones at the ancient Brú na Bóinne burial mound. A 4000 year old Irish Sunburst? Almost certainly not but an interesting artistic parallel
One of the carved stones at the ancient Brú na Bóinne burial mound. A 4000 year old Irish Sunburst? Almost certainly not but an interesting artistic parallel

© An Sionnach Fionn

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9 comments

  1. Bhí sé sin an-suimiúil. Ní raibh a fhios agam go raibh an tsiombail sin chomh tábhachtach mar sin. Grma as na pictiúirí friesin.
    Is brea liom do bhlag. An maith leat Amhráin Gaeilge? Féach ar mo shuíomh nua!

  2. Thanks so much for this!!! I am a new fan of Ireland and the Irish language, and also an eager knitter. I have tried to find simple Irish symbols to knit, and specially secular symbols because I am an atheist. The rising sun symbolizes positive things for me, and it is great to knit, too! 🙂

  3. Very, very interesting article. The imagery of an Gal Gréine is very beautiful and fascinating. I have often doodled the same image in my life so it is interesting to make the link to the Fianna and to Ireland… a subconscious link the I have perhaps been making my entire life. As a Canadian, the Fenian / US link is a surprise. In our history, the British protected us against the US / Fenian attacks. If these attacks would have been successfull, we would be part of the USer Manifest Destiny. History is complex and as I learn more about the ripple effects of the Irish fighting against Imperialism, it becomes clear that Imperialism is a moving target.

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