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Remarks at the Conservation of the original Starry Plough Flag

National Museum of Ireland, 30th April 2013

Ladies and gentlemen:

It is a great pleasure to be here this evening at the National Museum of Ireland – Decorative Arts and History. I would like to thank Mr. Seamus Lynam, Acting Director of the National Museum and Mr Brendan Halligan, Chairperson of the Labour Party Centenary Committee for the kind invitation to attend today’s event.

Is iontach na cuimhní atá agam ar Ard-Mhúsaem na hÉireann, dála go leor dár bhforais chultúir náisiúnta, go háirithe ón tréimhse a chaith mé mar Aire Ealaíon, Cultúir agus Gaeltachta i dtús agus i lár na 1990idí. Is díol bróid domsa é go raibh mé sa Rialtas a rinne an cinneadh Dún Uí Choileáin a cheannach agus a athchóiriú agus an suíomh a fhorbairt d’Ard-Mhúsaem na hÉireann. Ó tharlaíonn nár oscail an brainse áirithe seo den Ard-Mhúsaem fad a bhí mé i m’Aire, tá áthas faoi leith orm teacht ar ais anocht i mo ról mar Uachtarán na hÉireann.

[The National Museum, like many of our national cultural institutions, holds very special memories for me, particularly from my time as Minister for the Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht in the early and mid 1990s. I am proud to have been part of the Government that decided to purchase and restore Collins Barracks and to develop them as a site for the National Museum of Ireland. As this very fine branch of our National Museum did not open to the public during my tenure as Minister, I am particularly glad to return in my role as Uachtarán na hÉireann].

The Museum is home to the greatest collections of Irish material heritage, culture and natural history in the world. As one our leading national cultural institutions, it serves many purposes; but perhaps its most important role is the collection, preservation, promotion and exhibition of various aspects of Ireland’s portable material heritage. The exhibition of collections is of course not sufficient in itself. It is also important that their interpretation be accessible and made engaging to visitors from home and abroad. The National Museum does an outstanding job in discharging these roles – as reflected in the occasion which brings us together this evening and its role will be even more important as we use the period of Centenary celebration for a critical scholarship on the decades that surrounded the establishment of our modern state.
From 1914 to 1923 the Irish people endured ten years of intense military activity, including being embroiled in a World War, an urban insurrection, a Guerrilla War and finally a bitter Civil War. The result was a new nation bearing both the hopes of its citizens, and the pain left by the wars that had brought it into being. The pain of the Civil war, for example, would last a long time and distort both memory and institutions for decades.

This evening we are here to see a flag that was a crucial and symbolic part of that historic time, the Irish Citizens Army’s Starry Plough flag which has been conserved through the generosity of the members of the Labour Party.

But the events of 1916 were preceded by an event that stands in its own right as of immense historical significance – The Great Lockout of 1913. This event is no mere preliminary to 1916. It is rooted in the experience of the working people of Dublin.

I am indebted to Pádraig Yeates Lockout, Dublin 1913 which I have yet again consulted for a reconstruction of the social conditions of the working people of Dublin in the decades prior to the Rising. Yeates quotes D.A. Chart’s paper to the Statistical and Social Inquiry Society of Ireland:-

“The eminent historian and social scientist D.A. Chart estimated at the time of the Lockout that

24,000 men, more than a quarter of the adult male population, were engaged in unskilled labour. As regards wages, naturally unskilled labour occupied an unfavourable position. The average wage was about 18s. a week, and even so low a figure as 15s. or 16s. had been recorded.

Chart pointed out that a worker on 18s. a week

Could not afford to pay more than 2s. 6d. or 3s. a week for the rent of his dwelling. Decent accommodation fit for the inhabitation of a family could not be commercially supplied for this figure. The labouring man, therefore, in Dublin was driven to adopt the same policy with housing as he did with other necessities – the adaptation to his own use of the second-hand possessions discarded by his richer fellow-citizens. The great mansions of the eighteenth century aristocracy, forsaken by the class which designed them, had been occupied in quite a different manner ……. Instead of one family occupying a ten-roomed house, there was a family in every room.

Chart provides a typical budget of a ‘labouring household’ as follows:

Rent, 2s. 6d.; fuel and light, 2s.; bread, 4s.; tea, 9d.; sugar, 8d.; milk (usually condensed), 6d.; butter (dripping margarine), 1s. 6d.; potatoes or other vegetables, 1s.; meat, fish bacon etc., 2s.; leaving a balance of 3s. 1d.”

As most of you will know, the Irish Citizen Army was formed primarily to defend trade union members during the Great Strike and Lockout of 1913 by ITGWU leader Jim Larkin.

After the Great Strike, and despairing of the possibility of achieving change through peaceful protest, the Citizen Army was reorganised into a small, armed and trained group under the leadership of James Connolly. This flag made its first appearance at a Citizen Army meeting on 5 April 1914 and was subsequently flown over the Imperial Hotel (now part of Clery’s Department Store) during the Rising. Its design has been attributed to William H. Megahy, a teacher at the school of Art in Kildare Street; but is a source of speculation as to whether he was the originator of the concept. The Utopian Concept and its relation to the stars together with the central image of the plough would make it easy to hypothesize the influence of George Russell.

There was a clear differentiation – manifesting itself from the ground – between the narrower nationalism for example of the IRB and the social transformation espoused by the Citizen Army. This was evident, for example, at the meeting in the Rotunda Rink in November 1913 where the Irish Volunteers were formed. Pádraig Yeates, describes the tensions at that meeting that existed between those who supported separatism or nationalism on the one hand and those who were in the throes of a bitter class confrontation:

“The group of Citizen Army men who attended the Rotunda Rink on 25 November had therefore no particular sympathy or sense of affinity with the Volunteers – quite the contrary: they had gone with hostile intent, to heckle that well-known north County Dublin farmer and strike-breaker Laurence Kettle, another son of the veteran Land League leader and Parnellite Andrew Kettle and a prominent member of the United Irish League, who had agreed to act as secretary to the meeting.

A crowd of four thousand men filled the rink that night, ‘drawn from all ranks of Irish nationalism,’ according to the Irish Times. It described the bulk of the gathering as members of the Gaelic League, AOH and Sinn Féin, as well as students of the National University.

The ITGWU men stood in a compact group along one side of the hall and listened quietly as MacNeill opened proceedings. However, as soon as he introduced Kettle and asked him to read the Volunteer manifesto, uproar broke out. Kettle appealed for a hearing with the words ‘Our work tonight is national work. This is no place for the introduction of small quarrels.’ The rest of what he said was lost in choruses of ‘God save Larkin’. Many in the body of the hall began counter-singing with ‘God Save Ireland.’ A picture of Larkin was held up, detonators were thrown, and scuffles broke out at the edge of the crowd.
Most of the ITGWU men eventually left the meeting in a body, and order was restored.”

The Lockout of course and the social conditions that surrounded it were far from ‘small quarrels’. After the Easter Rising, the flag disappeared until 1954 when it was acquired by the Museum from a Mr T A Williams who, as a Lieutenant of 9th Reserve Cavalry Regiment of the British Army, had taken it as a war trophy. The curator responsible for accepting the flag into the national collections was Dr G. A. Hayes-McCoy (1911-75) who worked at the Museum from 1939 until 1959 when he became Professor of History at University College Galway. (At UCG, I studied under Professor Hayes-McCoy who was a specialist in military history.) As a curator, Dr. Hayes-McCoy helped build the Museum’s wonderful military and historical collections which can now be seen in the Soldiers and Chiefs and Understanding 1916 exhibitions here at Collins Barracks.

In terms of explaining the design of the flag and its rich symbolism, I do not think it is possible to surpass Dr Hayes-McCoy’s own description in his A History of Irish Flags from the Earliest Times:

“It is of a unique and beautiful design; it shows a stylised representation of an agricultural plough with, superimposed upon it, a representation of the constellation Ursa Major, the Great Bear or Plough of the heavens – all on a green field bordered by a gilt fringe. The star symbols, which were originally painted silver, are disposed along the members of the field plough-which is coloured yellow – in the same relative positions as those which the stars they represent occupy, or appear now to occupy, in the constellation. The coulter of the plough is a sword which is serrated on one edge of the blade, a weapon that has been much used. The symbolism of the design is most appropriate, most eloquent. Here is the worker’s dream come true. He has beaten the sword, which represents his struggle and represents all his bitter memories of the 1913 strike – if not into the ploughshare of Isaiah – into what is certainly a more harmonious part of his design, the coulter. The plough cannot strictly be regarded as the instrument of the Dublin workingman, but it is the unmistakable instrument of labour”.

As already mentioned, the design of this Citizen Army colour is credited to a Belfast artist named William H. Megahy who taught in the School of Art in Kildare Street, Dublin and later worked in Galway – a further illustration of the pinnacle of artistic success being located in Galway.

The playwright Seán O’Casey, who was secretary of the Citizen Army before the 1916 Rising presented Megahy’s original drawing of the design to the National Museum in the 1950’s. O’Casey also mentions the flag several times in his play “The Plough and the Stars” and one character Covey cries:
“It’s a flag that should only be used when we’re buildin’ th’barricades to fight for a Workers Republic!”

The disappearance of the flag for nearly forty years after the Rising is perhaps an apt metaphor for the fate of the political wing of the labour movement in the early years of the Free State. While the insurgents of 1916 were a combination of those driven by the ideals of separatist nationalism on the one hand, and revolutionary socialism on the other, the subsequent evolution of events was not a fertile landscape for class-conscious or egalitarian-minded politics. The “Labour must wait” syndrome that characterised the independence struggle and civil war meant that a property-driven conservatism became the dominant ideology in the new State at the expense of the achievement of significant institutional or social transformation of an egalitarian or radical kind; land and property, a pietistic religiosity and a repressive pursuit of respectability would for decades be the themes of artistic responses, when they were allowed, in the new State.

The conservation of this flag – 101 years after the establishment of the Irish Labour Party and during the centenary of the Dublin Lockout – is a valuable reminder of the ideals that motivated many of the men and women that contributed to Ireland’s independence.

The vision of those who formed or joined the Irish Citizen Army was not confined to replacing an alien landlord class with a native landlord class; it was not about supplanting one form of conservative nationalism by another; and it was not about reversing the hierarchy of cultural identity. The ambition of the men and women of the Irish Citizen Army was much deeper and more transformational than all of that – it was about creating such a real Republic as operated on the principle of full and equal participation of all its citizens, and it was from the tenements and the ranks of the excluded that so many of its members came.
Perhaps it is no coincidence that the flag of the Irish Citizens Army is being restored to an honoured place at the National Museum at a time when we are reassessing the values that define modern Irish society; invited once again to a critical consciousness when we are struggling to recover from the social costs of an economic model based on extreme individualism, driven by an acquisitive greed located in a property bubble and seduced by a false version of growth that delivered calamitous consequences.

The Starry Plough has been restored at a time when we are yearning for a new version of Irishness that accommodates all our citizens, allows them to fully participate in a flourishing society on the basis of equality and accords each of them the opportunity to achieve their full human potential.

I believe we are in that process of transformational change – of reimagining Ireland in a more generous, inclusive and sustainable way and as part of a European Union built on similar values of solidarity and inclusion. If we persevere in that journey of renewal, we may well reach the destination foretold by O’Casey in the “Plough and the Stars” where this flag can legitimately be used – because the political, economic and social inclusions of a New Republic are well and truly in place.

In conserving this epic flag, the National Museum has not only captured and preserved a seminal moment from our past, but has also greatly assisted in our understanding of the present and perhaps, even more importantly, inspired us as we travel on our journey towards a better future.

I would therefore like to thank everyone involved in the conservation of the flag – including An Garda Siochána, the State Laboratories, the Royal Irish Academy, National Gallery, National Museum and the Irish Defence Forces – all of whom have helped in the conserving this flag and adding to our knowledge of its history.

Mar fhocal scoir, ba mhaith liom míle buíochas a ghlacadh le Séamus Lynam agus le foireann uile Ard-Mhúsaem na hÉireann as ócáid fhial fháilteach na hoíche anocht a chur ar siúl.

[Finally, míle buíochas to Seamus Lynam and indeed all of the staff at the National Museum of Ireland for their generous hosting of tonight's very special event].

Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.