Although the flag of St Patrick is not a recent invention, it is not widely known even in Ireland, perhaps because it is not a national flag. It is also incorporated in the union flag of the United Kingdom, but again many UK nationals would not be able to identify which part of that country’s flag it was.
In late eighteenth century Britain, then the colonial power in the island of Ireland, acknowledged the right of the Irish parliament to legislate exclusively for Ireland. To reflect this enhancement to the island’s status, an order of chivalry called the Order of St Patrick
was established in 1783. The regalia of this order honoured St Patrick by a red saltire on a white background, i.e. St Patrick’s cross.
It is unclear what the basis for the red saltire or ’tilted’ cross was. The Duke of Leinster (a founder member of the Order of St Patrick, whose Fitzgerald family were key figures in Irish aristocracy since Norman times) had a red saltire on a white background within his coat of arms. This may have been a deciding factor in the design of the Order’s flag. Some historians claim that the saltire was an old though little used symbol for Ireland, citing some drawings, maps and seals from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, where saltires appear to represent the island. However others dispute that these are precursors of St Patrick’s cross. There had been a popular tradition of wearing a ribbon cross on ones clothes to celebrate St Patrick’s day, though there seems to have been of no fixed colour or alignment for the cross.
In beginning of the nineteenth century the parliaments of Britain and Ireland were united. However the cross of St Patrick still featured on the arms and flags of various professional and public bodies in Ireland such as the Royal Dublin Society, the Royal College of Physicians in Ireland, Queen’s University in Belfast and the Pharmaceutical Society of Ireland. These bodies were non-political and favoured St Patrick’s cross as a ‘safe’ symbol not associated with any version of Irish nationalism.
In the twentieth century notable users of St Patrick’s cross to represent Ireland include the Irish Rugby Football Union and the Church of Ireland. Both these organisations cover the whole of Ireland and so span its political division. At the end of the twentieth century the Church of Ireland declared that the only flags to be flown on church buildings or within the church grounds were the cross of St Patrick and the flag of the Anglican Communion. When the police force in Northern Ireland was reorganised in 2001 as the Police Service of Northern Ireland it placed the St Patrick’s saltire in the centre of its badge.
On these web pages St Patrick’s cross (shown here) is used on Esperanto pages to indicate that an English version of the page is available elsewhere. English is the most widely spoken language on the island of Ireland