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How Did One of Ireland’s Most Historic Flags End Up in New York?

The winding story of the tricolor flag that flew over Dublin’s 1916 Easter Rising.

A street in Dublin, after the Easter Rising. (Photo: Public domain)

On Easter Monday of 1916, 1,200 armed Irish republicans started an insurrection meant to end British rule of Ireland and establish an independent nation.

For six days, the rebellion held key locations in the center of Dublin. From their planning base, Liberty Hall, they flew an Irish nationalist flag, bright green with a golden harp on it. Atop their headquarters, in the city’s General Post Office, they flew two more Irish flags: one, a bright green banner with “Irish Republic” in great, gold letters, and the second, an Irish tricolor, the orange, white and green flag that would come to symbolize Irish nationalism.

Less than a week after their campaign began, the Easter Rising’s leaders surrendered, and all three of those flags were captured by British soldiers. The insurrection was a powerful preamble to the fight for Irish nationalism, though, and this Easter weekend, a century later, half a million people are expected to come to Dublin to commemorate the fight.

Two of those three Irish nationalist flags will be there, too.

Liberty Hall and members of the Irish Citizen Army, in 1914 (Photo: National Library of Ireland/Public domain)

The “Irish Republic” flag, with its Celtic letters, was captured by Britain’s Royal Irish Regiment and presented to the King George V. For decades, it sat in the Imperial War Museum, in London, before it was returned to the Irish government in 1966, not long after the 50th anniversary of the Rising. It’s now on display at the National Museum of Ireland.

The harp flag that flew over Dublin’s Liberty Hall was only recently returned to the Irish capital. Captured by an acting corporal, it ended up with Col. John McClintock, for almost twenty years; in 1935, not long before he died, he handed it over to a military museum in Northern Ireland. Now, the museum’s loaned it back to Liberty Hall, where it’s on display.

The Irish Tricolor that flew over the General Post Office. (Photo: American Irish Historical Society)

The third flag, the Irish tricolor, has a more winding story.

The week after the rebellion ended, a soldier named Sergeant Thomas Davis took the flag. Not long after, he was transferred to another battlefield, one in the Great War, where he was wounded that June. He gave the flag to his doctor, George St. George, as a thank you gift.

When the doctor died not long after, the flag went to his daughter, who lived another 30 years. From her family, the flag went to the family of John Sweetman, who was an early founder of Sinn Fein, and for another half-century, the Sweetman family held the flag, until in 2011, they put it up for auction in New York.

No one paid the $500,000 price, but the flag stayed in America nonetheless, loaned to the American Irish Historical Society, which is just south of the Met, across from Central Park. The 1916 tricolor has been there for five years now: it’s possible to view it during the society’s open hours. But it won’t be there for long. At the end of April, the flag will be passed on to a new keeper—undisclosed, as of yet.