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Ireland: Sunburst

Gal Gréine

Last modified: 2001-06-30 by
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[Sunburst] by Vincent Morley

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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