On Wednesday next, June 8, the American Irish Historical Society will accept, on loan, a unique relic of the Irish Rising of Easter 1916. The treasured object is a tricolour flag flown by the Irish Volunteers over their headquarters in Dublin during the revolution.
The flag was captured by British soldiers after the surrender and was later given to a doctor in Lisburn, County Antrim. In turn his son-in-law donated it to the family of John Sweetman (1844-1936), a renowned Irish Nationalist and one of the founders of Sinn Féin. The flag is today insured for $1 million.
The Sweetman family have kindly agreed to the AIHS request for a loan of this revered relic of Irish history, and next Wednesday Mr Ian Whyte of Whytes
, Irelands leading art and collectibles auction house, representing the Sweetman family, will formally hand over the flag to Kevin M Cahill MD, President-General of the American Irish Historical Society, at the AIHS building, 991 Fifth Avenue.
Mr Whyte, speaking on behalf of the Sweetman family, says the family are delighted to have this important icon of Irish history displayed in the AIHS in New York . The other flag that flew over the GPO during the Rising is in the National Museum of Ireland, and it is fitting that this tricolour is now in the USA , home to over forty million people of Irish descent. It is hoped by the AIHS that the flag will be a focal point for the American commemorations of the Centenary of the Rising in 2016, in which the AIHS will play a very important part.
The History of the Tricolour:
As inspired by another, earlier Revolutionary emblem, the present is based on the distinctive French Tricolour, and the colours in use by some as early as 1830. The first unveiling of the Tricolour occurred during an 1848 Dublin meeting of the Irish Confederation where Young Ireland leader Thomas Francis Meagher produced a flag he called a gift from Our Revolutionary Brothers in France " The colours chosen represented the two traditions of Ireland, green for the Gaelic and Catholic, orange for the traditional minority Protestants, with the white space between them signifying peace, the design an intent to provide a unifying standard for the cause. John Mitchel commented at the time that he wished to see the flag flying as the national banner. Indeed it would, some 75 years later.
In the planning for the Rising, revolutionary leader Sean MacDiarmada ordered green, white and yellow favours from a Dublin drapery company, presumably to be worn as part of the uniform of Irish Republican youth brigade, Fianna Éireann. Upon delivery, it was discovered that the company had incorrectly assembled the order of the colours and MacDiarmada refused to payment. Sean Heuston (hero of Heustons Fort), had his sister reassemble and re-stitch some, both men wanting to ensure that the tricolour was correct on the day.
While Heustons sister might be the possible seamtress of the present flag, it was almost certainly a wife or female relative of one of the Republicans. On the morning of 24 April 1916, the commander in chief of the Dublin Brigade, James Connolly, ordered Sean T. O'Kelly (who survived the firing squads to become the second president of Ireland) retrieve two flags from a cupboard in Liberty Hall. He returned with the present tricolour and another of solid green, the more traditional emblem, emblazoned with a harp and Irish Republic (in Irish letters) across it in gold. (Also captured, it is now in the collection of the National Museum of Ireland after being returned by the Imperial War Museum in 1966). Both flags flew together over the GPO as Pearse read out the proclamation declaring the Republic of Ireland, but it was the Tricolour most remarked upon, and that flew the longest.
The General Post Office and the Battle for Dublin:
Easter Monday, 1916. G.P.O. occupied in the name of the Republic shortly after noon (about 12.15 p.m.). Republic proclaimed. About one o'clock a detachment of Lancers attempted to rush O'Connell Street. They were opposed at the Parnell Statue. A small number (described as "about twenty") succeeded in advancing as far as the G.P.O., but on our opening fire they retired in confusion, leaving a few casualties.
Simultaneously with our operations, positions were successfully taken up in the front and rear of Dublin Castle and troops in that stronghold prevented from coming out. [from a contemporary diary entry of Republican leader Joseph Plunkett].
By the time Pádraig Pearse walked from the General Post Office and into O'Connell street to read 'Poblacht na h Éireann' (the Proclamation of the Irish Republic), the tricolour was already flying above him, a symbol of the Independent Irish Republic. He had helped raise1600 underequipped - some carried pikes, others ancient shotguns, as their expected shipments of German arms either scuttled or captured - These members of the Irish Volunteer Force and Irish Citizen Army occupied key Dublin buildings during the morning, the simple plan being to hold off the British Army as long as possible, in anticipation of inspiring a general uprising.
Of all the positions occupied by the Volunteers on Monday, the G.P.O was by far the most important and the headquarters of the insurgency with leaders Pearse, Connolly, Plunkett and a young Michael Collins inside. It is also where the British met the first armed response. A small detachment of Lancers, returning from delivering munitions to the fort in Phoenix Park, was fired upon from the now-fortified buildings windows and roof.
Let us remind you what you have done. For the first time in 700 years the flag of a free Ireland floats triumphantly in Dublin City. James Connolly from the GPO, 28th April, 1916.
The British forces wouldnt flee for long. The fighting commenced from the Monday, but a day later the leaders of the Rebellion, still optimistic, issued a statement, again attesting to the importance of a flag as a rallying symbol of the struggle:
At the moment of writing this report (9.30 a. m. Tuesday) the Republican forces hold their positions and the British forces have nowhere broken through. There has been heavy and continuous fighting for nearly 24 hours, the casualties of the enemy being much more numerous than those on the Republican side. The Republican forces everywhere are fighting with splendid gallantry. The populace of Dublin are plainly with the Republic, and the officers and men are everywhere cheered as they march through the streets. The whole centre of the city is in the hands of the Republic, whose flag flies from the G.P.O. [Ibid.]
The soldiers of the Revolution soon found themselves facing the full force of the British Government, with nearly 5,000 troops in Dublin by Tuesday and another 1,000 of His Majestys Army stationed in Belfast on their way. From Wednesday the HMS Helga arrived and begun to use her guns against Liberty Hall. Heavy shelling from the field guns around the GPO set neighbouring structures ablaze, filling the building with the wounded who managed to make that refuge and evade the machine guns now raking the streets to deadly effect. Howitzers fired incendiary shells at the GPO, and oil depot was blown up across the block and the street was ablaze. Yet even on Friday, Pearse was still defiant in the face of an increasingly desperate position and issued another proclamation from the GPO:
This is the fifth day of the establishment of the Irish Republic, and the flag of our country still floats from the most important buildings in Dublin and is gallantly protected by the officers and Irish soldiers in arms throughout the country. Not a day passes without seeing fresh postings of Irish soldiers eager to do battle for the old cause. Despite the utmost vigilance of the enemy we have been able to get in information telling us how the manhood of Ireland, inspired by our splendid action, are gathering to offer up their lives if necessary in the same holy cause. We are here hemmed in because the enemy feels that in this building is to be found the heart and inspiration of our great movement. -- Army of the Irish Republic (Dublin Command), Headquarters, April 28, 1916.
The fires from the shelling grew, burning intensely and forcing Pearse, Connolly and the others to escape through tunnels to a safer position in Moore Street, some men carried by stretcher.
From the relative safety of a grocers basement (the British were yet to realize that the GPO had been evacuated), the men watched as parts of the city burned and the British response became more determined to end the rebellion with an overwhelming and brutal response. As civilian death mounted, Pearse realized to continue was only bringing further heartbreak to Dublins beleaguered populace (and likely turn whatever wavering support was within the general public to falter and turn). On Saturday, 29th April he issued a general proclamation to lay down arms, while realizing that firing squads must surely await those leaders who had survived.
While the GPO lay in near ruins, it is recorded that the Tricolour still flew, undamaged enough to elicit remarks from even those captured and marched past the former headquarters of the Rebellion. Such volunteers as sniper Joseph Sweeney reported seeing the flag still aloft after the surrender, The following morning we were put into formation and marched down OConnell Street, past the GPO, which still had the tricolour flying from it
His account leaves us uncertain as to the date of his seeing the flag still aloft, but from other eye-wintess accounts, the Tricolour was still flying at least two days following the Rebellion. Ernie O'Malley reported seeing the flag on the Monday and Dr James Ryan recounted seeing it as he and his comrades were led away.
That the flag survived undisturbed for some time is not surprising. Until it was hoisted above the GPO, few of even Dublins citizens had seen a Tricolour before and it was certainly unfamiliar to the British forces. It was up to a Sergeant in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers to recognize its importance (no doubt after seeing Tricolour armbands in the ruins of some rebel positions and on the arms of surrendered men).
In fact it was the momentous events of the Easter Revolution that imbued the Tricolour with the import and weight of history that it carries today. From 1922 the Tricolour became the de facto flag of the State and it was during this period that the orange was firmly established as the designated colour. The flag was formally adopted in 1937 under Article 7 of The Constitution.
The Capture of the Tricolour and subsequent Provenance
As mentioned above there are several accounts from eyewitnesses that two days after the surrender the Tricolour flag was still flying over the General Post Office ruins. As documented by Dr St. George, it was during that week that Sergeant Thomas Davis, then a member of the Fifth (Extra Reserve) Battalion of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, captured the tricolour flag.
Sergeant Thomas TommyDavis was a 53 year old army veteran from Lisburn. He had served in the 16th Battalion of the Royal Irish Rifles (service number 653) in the Boer War (1899-1902) and received the Military Medal for bravery. He volunteered his services for the 1914-18 war but because of his age he was not sent to the front but transferred to the reserves of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers (service number 30927). According to the records of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers the Fifth (Extra Reserve) Battalion was stationed in Dublin during the Rising and suffered casualties. The Battalion was active in clearing up operations in the city centre including the Republican headquarters in the ruined General Post Office and it is during those operations that Sergeant Davis captured the flag.
After the Rising Davis was still anxious to go to the main theatre of war, as his son, also Sergeant Thomas Davis was already serving there in the 14th Battalion of the Royal Irish Rifles. He managed to get transferred to the Royal Irish Regiment with a service number of 16697. He was wounded on 30 June 1916, just before the Battle of the Somme and returned to Lisburn where he was treated by Dr George St. George, who for over fifty years was in charge of Lisburns medical services. Dr St George was closely identified with the Ulster Volunteer Force since its formation in 1912, and when most of the UVF joined the Ulster Division in the 1914-18 war he took a particular interest in treating wounded men from that conflict, including Sergeant Thomas Davis.
In gratitude for his treatment and help Davis donated the 1916 tricolour flag to Dr. St. George. St George records the flag thus in a handwritten note on his crested paper; Captured by British Troops at G.P.O. DUBLIN, APRIL 1916, and given to Dr. George St. George by an old War veteran, Sergt. Davis. (This original note accompanies the flag.)
Dr St. George died in 1922 and the flag was inherited by his only child, Ethelreda. She married Captain Samuel Waring MC, and they lived at Riverside House, Kells Co. Meath until her death in 1951. On her death Captain Waring presented the flag to his neighbour, who was the son of an eminent Irish politician and statesman, John Sweetman, as well as co-founder and early President of Sinn Féin, saying You may have more use for this than I do. Apparently the neighbouring family had been very kind and supportive of his wife during her illness. Captain Waring died two years later. Sergeant Thomas Tommy Davis was still alive at that time, and working as a gateman at Island Mills, Lisburn, aged 88, according to a 1951 newspaper clipping which accompanies this lot.
Any contemporary pennants, favours or armbands with the Tricolour design are extraordinarily scarce with only a few surviving examples of any held in museum collections.
The fact that this flag is the only recorded full sized tricolour of the 1916 Rising in existence, and therefore of the utmost rarity and importance, and further, documented that it was captured from the headquarters of the short-lived Irish Republic founded by Pádraig Pearse and his comrades, makes it a unique icon of immeasurable significance in the history of the Irish Revolution.
JOHN SWEETMAN (1844-1936)
John Sweetman was the eldest son of John Sweetman, a Dublin brewer and Honoria, daughter of Malachy O'Connor, a Dublin merchant. He was born in 1844 in County Dublin and was educated at Downside College in Somerset. He lived at Drumbaragh, Kells, County Meath and 47 Merrion Square, Dublin. He married Agnes Hanly in 1895 and they had six children. He had passionate interests in politics, agriculture and economics and in the 1870s he joined the Irish Land League. It was not long before he became a member of the executive committee and in 1879 he proposed the election of Charles Stewart Parnell as its president. He was also involved in farming and tenants organisations at the time.
In 1880 Sweetman visited Minnesota, Dakota and Manitoba. As a result of that trip he became involved in a scheme to settle poor Irish farmers in Minnesota. He purchased about 20,000 acres near Currie, Murray County in Minnesota, and this became the first tranche of land to be controlled by The Irish-American Colonization Company, for which he had raised some funds from other businessmen and land owners back in Ireland though most of the money put up was his own. The colonisation project was not a complete success, but it did help a number of people to obtain a better life in America.
The family brewery in Dublin was sold to Arthur Guinness & Sons in 1891 and Sweetman decided to enter full time into politics. He was elected as an anti-Parnellite Irish Parliamentary Party MP for East Wicklow in 1892. In 1895 he left that faction of the party and resigned his seat. He contested the resulting by-election but was defeated and also failed to take North Meath in the 1895 General Election. At first he was a convinced Home Ruler and opposed to armed rebellion. However by the early twentieth century he had become more radical. In 1905, speaking at the annual conference of the Catholic Truth Society of Ireland in response to a paper suggesting the replanting of the waste lands of Ireland as a remedy to emigration, he displayed considerable hostility to the English government. The Times reported that he said it was not for that society to call upon its greatest enemy, the English government, to plant forests. The English government hated the Irish nation as that of Egypt hated the Jewish nation, and they must fight the Government with all the weapons that God had given them, just as Moses had fought the Egyptians. Unfortunately they had not the power to call down the ten plagues of Egypt upon the English Government, but they could boycott England's manufactures and her Navy and Army. In another speech in 1903 he did not rule out armed rebellion, which prompted a correspondence with Pádraig Pearse (lot 189)
He was one of the founders and financial backers of Sinn Féin in 1905, succeeding Edward Martyn to be the second President of the party in 1908. Arthur Griffith took over as the third President later in the year. He was arrested at his home in Meath during the 1916 Rising in which he did not apparently play any active part, and was taken to prison in England. After a vigorous campaign by his wife and friends who enlisted the support of politicians as diverse as Sir Edward Carson he was released. He took an active part in Sinn Féin during the 1917 and 1918 elections but took a back seat in politics afterwards.
In the 1920s and 1930s right up to his death at 92 in 1936 he kept speaking at meetings and was an inveterate letter writer, particularly to politicians including WT Cosgrave, JJ Walsh, Éamon de Valera and others, all of whom held him in much respect. Newspapers and magazines were the recipients of most of his opinions and some published letters from him every day.