Armagh man owns what he believes is Ireland’s oldest tricolour
TOMMY O’BRIEN says he has the oldest tricolour in Ireland.
The amazing flag, pictured exclusively by the Sunday World, was made by his adoptive brother’s mother-in-law, who is thought to have transported arms for Cumann na mBan, the woman’s wing of the old IRA, the Irish Volunteers, during the takeover of Enniscorthy, Co. Wexford, in the Easter Rising of 1916.
Tommy, from Mullaghbawn, Co. Armagh, says the flag was one of only a few Irish tricolours which existed in 1916 – the flag itself was not recognised as the flag of Ireland until 1922 and wasn’t constitutionally recognised until 1937.
“I was adopted as a young boy by a woman called Mary Leonard,” said retired joiner Tommy (66), explaining the provenance of the intriguing piece.
“Even though I was adopted, I always saw her as my mother.
Her son, Petesey Campbell, married a lady called Minnie, who was the daughter of a woman called Mary Elizabeth Wade, née Wade. “Mary Wade, a member of Cumann na mBan in Wexford, made the flag herself
Historic green, white and orange emblem flew during Easter 1916 in 1916, and it would have flown during the rising in Enniscorthy.
“After the Easter Rising, in 1918, she left Ireland and went to Liverpool, where she ran a safe house for those involved. The flag itself is made out of flour bags which were stitched together and then dyed. I obtained it back in 2000 and it’s still in very good condition, considering it’s over 100 years old.”
During the rebellion in Enniscorthy, a building known as the Athenaeum was used as the headquarters for the rebels.
The women of Cumann na mBan set up a kitchen and hospital there, with reports suggesting that up to 90 women were stationed in the building during Easter week.
Cumann na mBan members eventually surrendered with the Irish Volunteers in early May 1916, but while the women were in the Athenaeum, three prominent members named Una Brennan, Greta Comerford and Marion Stokes were seen to hoist a tricolour from the building, highlighting one of many significant roles the women played in the insurrection.
“When Mary Wade’s daughter Minnie married Petesey in Liverpool, they decided to move back to Ireland, and Mary gave Minnie the flag to take back with her. It was then later passed on to me and I’ve had it ever since,” said Tommy.
“It was used again after 1916. In the 1970s when Sinn Féin used to march in the Mullaghbawn area, they would go to Petesey’s house and ask him for the flag so they could carry it during their procession.
“I’m sure there is not another one as old as this in Ireland as only a handful existed in 1916.
“This could well be the flag which was hoisted in Enniscorthy in 1916!” In the Irish tricolour, green represents the Gaelic tradition, the orange represents the Protestant tradition and the white represents peace between the two sides.
The Irish flag as we know it today replaced a green flag with a harp emblazoned on it, which can be traced back to the Ulster chieftan Owen Roe O’Neill, who first used it during the mid-1600s.
The first tricolour was presented as a gift in 1848 from a group of French women sympathetic to the Irish cause, although it was not until the Easter Rising of 1916, when it was raised above the GPO in Dublin, that it was regarded as the national flag.
Mary Wades’ granddaughter Eileen also wrote a letter to verify the provenance of Tommy’s flag.
In it she writes: “I Eileen Dickinson (née Jones) am the granddaughter of Mary Elizabeth Wade, nee Wade, of Wexford, that owned the tricolour flag of Ireland.”
Accompanying the letter Tommy has is a photo of Mary Elizabeth Wade, thought to have been taken around 1960.
“The women of Cumann na mBan did an awful lot during the Easter Rising. They would have sacrificed a lot and had large roles to play, but in many cases their names weren’t mentioned in history.”
While the flag is one of Tommy’s most treasured possessions, he has chosen not to put it up for auction, even though the historical artefact could fetch a huge price, particularly in America.
“I’m aware of an old Irish flag which was sold in America last year for around £50,000, but there was no guarantee where it came from. Maybe if a museum wanted if for a few months for an exhibition I would lend it to them.
“You just know by the touch and look of the flag that it’s the real thing!”