THE CHANCES ARE that by the time the St Patrick’s Day celebrations wrap up night (or tomorrow morning) you could be pretty fed up with seeing people wearing the colour green – and be happy to pack up your various green clothes for just a while.
But here’s something that you might never have thought about: where did green come from as Ireland’s national colour anyway?
And what if we were to tell you that Ireland’s national colour might not be green at all… but blue.
A look back at Irish history through the recent centuries means there’s no clear reason why green has become known as the national colour of Ireland – or, equally, why blue was seen as the first national colour (and why it fell out of favour).
A colourful history
Ireland’s history with the colour blue is largely related to its colonial history, but there are older associations too – Flaitheas Éireann, the embodiment of Irish sovereignty in mythological times (a sort of Irish answer to Uncle Sam or Jack Bull), wore blue.
The crest for the older Kingdom of Meath, the seat of the High Kings of Ireland, showed the image of a ruler sitting on a green throne with a blue background.
This historical connotation inspired Constance Markievicz to use the light blue as the background for the ‘Starry Plough’ flag of the Irish Citizen Army when it was formed in 1913 to defend trade unionists during the 1913 lockouts. That flag is still associated with modern Irish socialism.
However, the formal use of blue was first seen when Ireland was turned into a Kingdom in 1542 under the reign of King Henry VIII.
Before that, Ireland was widely seen as coming under the control of the pope, who was happy to hand power to a Catholic monarch who agreed to uphold Catholic rule. This came to an end when Henry – who was the Lord of Ireland at the time – split from Catholicism and set up his own Church of England, bringing Ireland with him and declaring it a separate Kingdom.
The formal creation of a new Kingdom meant Ireland was granted its own coat of arms – a golden harp placed on a blue background.
Centuries later, King George III created a new order of chivalry for the Kingdom of Ireland, and needed a colour to go with it. The Order of the Garter, for the previous Kingdom of England, already used a dark blue (Scotland’s Order of the Thistle used green) so a lighter blue was used for the Order of St Patrick.
This blue became known as ‘St Patrick’s Blue’, which these days is more usually seen as the light blue of the Dublin GAA county teams, and of the UCD sports teams, who play in St Patrick’s Blue and saffron.
So where did the green come from?
Exactly where green came into the question isn’t entirely known. Historically, many had rejected the use of blue as a national Irish colour anyway, but the strongest green emerged in the flag of the Confederation of Ireland (the era during which the Catholic bishops and noblemen tried to oust the Protestant powers from Dublin).
There is also the argument that with Ireland often referred to as the ‘Emerald Isle’, and the belief that Ireland’s rural landscape was simply more verdant than those of other countries, green was seen as a natural way of illustrating Ireland and Irishness.
Either way the St Patrick’s blue that was used in official costumes, ribbons and dress during the latter 19th century began to incorporate a tinge of green.
The most prominent use of green emerged during the wave of Irish nationalism and republican feeling in the 19th century, when the colour was adopted as a more striking way of separating Ireland from the various reds or blues that were now associated with England, Scotland and Wales.
Some all-Ireland sporting bodies, like the national hockey team, wear both blue and green. (Photo: INPHO/Cathal Noonan)
This is where the green that appears in the national flag is derived from: the origins of the tricolour are interpreted so that green represented the nationalist (Catholic) population, the orange illustrating the Protestant (Unionist) population, and the white of the centre illustrating peace between the two.
As the flag began to gain wider approval, the use of green spilled over to other areas. The Irish Football Association – which represented all of the island of Ireland when it was founded in 1880 – included St Patrick’s Blue in its original logo and the first Irish sides wore blue as a result.
The Football Association of Ireland was set up in 1921 to represent Southern Ireland (quickly renamed the Irish Free State), and wore green to differentiate itself from its northern rival. It sent an Irish team to the 1924 Olympics, which wore green – but used blue as a change strip in a match against green-wearing Bulgaria.
In the decades that followed – where both associations called themselves ‘Ireland’ and claimed to represent all 32 counties – the IFA also switched to green.
(As a side note here: FIFA eventually brokered a deal where the two associations agreed to represent only the jurisdiction of their respective countries, and later declared that neither side would be permitted to call themselves ‘Ireland’).
Some other sports have sought to combine the two colours. The Irish cricket and hockey teams – which have always represented all 32 counties – incorporate both green and blue into their outfits. (The IRFU, which runs rugby union, had always used the shamrock as its emblem so kept the green.)
So what’s the official national colour?
Well, the short answer is that there isn’t one. The Constitution defines the green-white-orange tricolour as the national flag, but doesn’t define a national colour.
This leaves a bit of a vacuum – do we adopt the green, used by the nationalists whose efforts won independence, or the blue that acknowledges the independent (and 32-county) Ireland that had existed hundreds of years earlier?
When Ireland achieved political independence from the UK in 1922, with the creation of the Irish Free State, the new country needed its own coat of arms.
To try and link the new independent Ireland with the last Kingdom of Ireland (which was equally self-governing, and had the British King as head of state) it was decided to revive the previous coat of arms – a golden harp on a deep blue background.
This is usually seen in the Presidential Standard, which shows a deep golden harp on a navy blue background, which flies as a flag over Áras an Uachtaráin.
This is also why the printed edition of the Constitution of Ireland has a blue cover, and why the carpets in the Dáil and Seanad are a deep blue.
Schoolchildren wave flags showing the Presidential standard – a golden harp on a blue background – as they greet the newly-inaugurated Michael D Higgins in November 2011. (Photo: Laura Hutton/Photocall Ireland)