Sunday, December 13, 2020

The long-lost unofficial flag of Northern Ireland? 1921–1953

I have come across this picture online a few times, it's not mine and I don't know who owns the flag, but it does look authentic, hung up by clothes pegs on a suburban garden fence panel. As you can see it's a standard Blue Ensign design, with a distinctively Ulster design 'defacing' the blue field. It appears to have been created by the community, not the political establishment, within weeks of Northern Ireland being founded and so for that reason it's significant. I have found written descriptions of the design, and subsequent variations of it, in the British Newspaper Archive

Londonderry Sentinel, 13 August 1921 (article entitled 'The Relief of Derry')

"From the residence of Mr James Blair, Glendermott Road, was suspended a flag of unique design. On the upper corner was the Union Jack, and at the bottom was the Red Hand of Ulster, surrounded by six stars, representing the Six Ulster Counties forming the Northern Parliament"

– NB this is only about 7 weeks after the Parliament was established on 22 June. Alderman James Blair's 1934 obituary described him as 'a staunch unionist and a strong Labour man', a founder member of Hamilton Flute Band, and a member of Waterside LOL 1007.

Ballymena Observer, 20 July 1923 (article entitled 'Ballymena CLB's Holiday Camp in Blackpool')

"On Sunday morning, 8th inst., prior to attending service at St Cuthbert's Parish Church, Lytham, a unique ceremony was performed at the camp, the commanding officer, Lt.-Col. R. Moore having the distinction of breaking from the mast head for the first time in England the new Ulster flag ... has a small Union Jack at the top corner, and upon the dark blue ground is a centre shield of yellow, imposed on which is the Red Hand of Ulster, surrounded by six stars representing the united Northern Counties"

Belfast Telegraph, 13 November 1936 (Letter entitled 'Ulster's Flag')
"Sir – re the flag of Ulster, it may be of interest to the people of the Six Counties that since the Northern Parliament was formed there has been a flag to represent us. It has been seen in Derry on numerous occasions. This flag is blue with Union Jack, Red Hand, Crown and Six Stars"

– NB so now a crown has been added, unless the letter writer was mistaken.

• Belfast News Letter, 16 May 1945 (column entitled 'An Ulsterman's Letter to his friends at home and abroad')
"During our victory celebrations a Service visitor asked the question 'Why is the Ulster flag so little in evidence?'. We might reply, 'The Union Jack is good enough for us', but our viistor too the view that our distinctive flag (a Union Jack quartered on a blue field, the field bearing the St George's Cross with Crown and Red Hand surrounded by six stars) would tell its own tale'

– NB this sounds like the shield is now white, not yellow. However, I have often seen the yellow Ulster arms, based on the De Burgh arms, erroneously described as a 'St George's Cross'.

Londonderry Sentinel, 12 June 1945 (article entitled Ulster Premier in Derry, Great Unionist Rally in Guildhall, Dangers of Socialist Policy Exposed)
"the platform was gaily decorated with Union Jacks, and as a centre piece, the flag of the Province – the blue ensign with six stars and the Red Hand of Ulster on a shield – was draped over the organ console rail"

Belfast Telegraph, 17 March 1948 (article entitled 'Flags that Flew Over Derry')
"from Derry Guildhall floated the Ulster flag, the Union Jack on a blue background with six stars and the Red Hand of Ulster surmounted by the loyal emblem, the Crown".

Northern Whig 29 May 1953 (letter entitled 'Northern Ireland's Flag', by H. Malcolm M'Kee M.C.)
"it is nonsense saying that the Northern Ireland banner never was seen. I have seen it dozens of times, and also the Blue Ensign with the Northern Ireland Arms on the fly"

What the vexillologists call a 'defaced' Ensign has of course been a commonly-used flag design since the 1860s (see Wikipedia page here), in both red and blue.

The Northern Ireland flag design also appears in this Royal Black Preceptory banner that a good friend showed me in Newtownards in 2012; my pics of it are below. Rev Dr William Wright was the minister of First Newtownards Presbyterian Church but he died in 1922. Dr Wright Memorial Pipe Band was named in his memory.

There's a lot of correspondence in the Northern Ireland newspapers about flags in the 1920s, with various letter writers proposing and insisting upon particular designs.

So that's at least a generation of fairly widespread usage of this Northern Ireland / Ulster design (with a few tweaks) across those 32 years from 1921–1953, and its usage probably continued beyond 1953 when the white 'Northern Ireland Banner' flag we are all familiar with was born as part of the Coronation celebrations of that year. I expect that there are dusty faded survivors of this design in personal collections around the country in attics or garages. 


The star as a symbol of a county seems to have originated with the renowned Belfast artist John Vinycomb in his design for the 1921 commemorative medal that was struck by the world famous Belfast department store Robinson & Cleaver


mollymooly said...

Fascinating! The article "Sir Edward Carson's Campaign" [The Irish Times, 29 July 1913, p.7 col.2] describes a nionist meeting at Montalto House, near Ballynahinch, on 28 July 1913, chaired by the Earl of Clanwilliam, addressed by Edward Carson, with a prayer offered by the Dean of Down:

'From a corner of the platform floated a new Ulster flag. It is a blue ensign, with the Union Jack in the top right hand corner and the Red Hand of Ulster, surrounded by nine red stars, representing the nine counties of the province, at the end.'

Mark Thompson said...

Hi mollymooly – well spotted! Yes I have seen that description, and a matching description from the 1890s. I have also seen a photograph of that particular design, it is in a private collection owned by a "friend of a friend".