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Ireland: Provincial Flags

Last modified: 2010-12-10 by rob raeside
Keywords: ireland | ulster | munster | leinster | connacht | red hand | harp | crowns | sword | four provinces flag |
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[Four Provinces flag] image by Mario Fabretto and António Martins-Tuválkin, 24 January 2008

See also:

The four provinces

The four historical Irish provinces are not administrative divisions, and never were. Nowadays, though, they are sometimes used as convenient divisions of the country. From about the middle of the 17th century, coats of arms were attributed to the provinces. Flags representing the four provinces are now widely used, but there seems to be no evidence of their existence before the 20th century. There also exists the "Four Provinces Flag", which occasionally appears as a kind of substitute national flag. It consists of a flag composed of four quarters with the four provincial flags (clockwise, from upper hoist: Ulster, Munster, Connacht, Leinster). Source: Séamas Ó Brógáin: "The Flags of the Four Provinces" (I don't know where published: I only have a photocopy of the article).
Mario Fabretto,
21 August 1996

The Four Provinces flag has two main uses. Firstly, it is an economical way of flying the flags of all the provinces - one saves the cost of three flags and three flag poles! Secondly, it is sometimes flown when a politically neutral flag representing all of Ireland is required. For example, Irish hockey teams, which draw players from both the Republic and Northern Ireland, use the Four Provinces flag as their emblem in international competitions. As it is an unofficial flag, the order in which the provinces are represented is not fixed. The only constant seems to be that the two predominantly blue flags (Munster and Connacht) are always diagonally opposed.
Vincent Morley, 16 October 1996

With regards to the Four Provinces Flag, there are different orderings possible but the flag shown above is the most common arrangement (having the blue of Munster diagonally opposite that of Connacht). Going clockwise from the canton, the order follows the common spoken order when listing the provinces: Ulster, Munster, Leinster and Connacht. Also, the image is much more accurate in terms of the shape of the crowns on Munster's quarter, the antique crown (also common in Irish heraldry). It's also worth noting that in Ireland, nearly all flags are seen in the 1:2 proportion including the provincial banners and county colors (in fact, I've never seen them any shorter in my travels there).
A note with regards to the three crowns of Munster. In one of the many stories about the emblem, the three crowns are said to represent the pre-Norman three kingdoms that made up the province of Munster, known as "An Mhumhain" or "Cúige Mumhan" in Irish and "Momonia" in Latin. The three kingdoms were Thomond (Tuaidh Mumhain, North Munster), Desmond (Deas Mumhain, South Munster), and Ormond (Oir Mumhain, East Munster). There was a fourth region, Iarmond (Iar Mumhain, West Munster) but this merged with Desmond and wasn't a distinct political entity.

For reference, the Irish names of the provinces are as follows (English, Irish short form, Irish "Province of...", Latin):
Ulster Ulaidh Cúige Uladh Ultonia
Munster An Mhumhain Cúige Mumhan Momonia
Leinster Laighin Cúige Laighean Lacenia
Connacht Connachta Cúige Chonnacht Connacia
Brian Ellis, 16 January 2008


[Ulster] image by Mario Fabretto and António Martins-Tuválkin, 24 January 2008
See also Northern Ireland.


[Munster] image by Mario Fabretto and António Martins-Tuválkin, 24 January 2008

The "three crowns" was a common symbol throughout medieval Europe, connected with the story of the three wise men/kings in the New Testament Gospel of St Matthew. It was a symbol of the English lordship of Ireland until replaced by the harp during the reign of Henry VIII.
David Prothero, 28 November 1999

When I was in college a roommate had a book-length commentary on James Joyce's Ulysses containing a brief traditional history of Ireland, recounting five waves of invaders. One of these is supposed to have come from Scythia under the leadership of Miled, or Milesius, and his eight sons, of whom five died in the conquest of the island, and the surviving three shared the kingship. There is a reference in the novel to "the oldest flag that ever sailed the sea, three crowns on a field of blue, for the three sons of Milesius."
John Ayer
, 30 November 1999


[Leinster] image by Mario Fabretto and António Martins-Tuválkin, 24 January 2008


[Connacht] image by Mario Fabretto and António Martins-Tuválkin, 24 January 2008

A new book on Irish heraldry has been published recently: Nicholas Williams, "Armas: Sracfhéachaint ar Araltas na hÉireann", 224 pp with 39 colour plates, 12.70 euro. It's in Irish (I don't know if an English edition is planned) and traces the historical development of Irish heraldry since the 13th century to the present. The work is well-researched (a former Chief Herald praises it in a foreword) and covers many aspects of the subject, but it has very little to say about flags. 

One point that may be of interest however is a novel explanation for the arms (and thus for the widely-used heraldic banner) of the province of Connacht. According to Williams the province's arms are derived from those of the Irish monastery at Regensburg in Bavaria, but the eagle originally appeared on a gold rather than a silver field - thus combining the Imperial arms with those of the O'Briens, an Irish dynasty who patronised the foundation.

The similarity in the design is indeed striking, but the author doesn't explain how the arms came to be transferred from the Bavarian monastery to the Irish province. It is true, however, that the earliest 17th-century representations of the provincial arms are in black and white.
Vincent Morley, 25 November 2001