"Starry Plough" No 6 1989
THE STARRY PLOUGH
political movements have their symbols, songs, flags and banners. The
nationalist movement in Ireland has as its flag, the tricolour; the loyalists
have the red hand of Ulster. For Irish socialists the emblem generally found
fluttering in their midst is the Starry Plough.
Irish working class has a history and tradition, as pugnacious and vibrant as
Irish nationalism. Irish historians, however commonly overlook this as they
grapple with the intricate business of dissecting the two dominant historical
blocs, Nationalism and Unionism. The result of such a histographical obsession
can be seen in the virtual ignoring of the upsurge in class conflict during
the Anglo Irish struggle of 1916-23. In spite of this a tradition exists and
we retain in symbols, such as the Starry Plough, a link with our struggling
Starry Plough was first exhibited publicly on April 5th, 1914 at an Irish
Citizen Army meeting. Early in that month the Irish Worker reported on this
demonstration and noted that "a large number of the Citizen Army were in
attendance, headed by a standard-bearer carrying a beautiful new poplin flag,
displaying the design of the Starry Plough, the work of Mr. Megahy." The
flag, which was much admired at the time, became the official emblem of the
I.C.A. and a source of pride for its volunteers. It's originality helped give
the Citizen Army something of an identity all its own. Sean O'Casey, in 'The
Story of the Irish Citizen Army' (1919), wrote: "The banner, the idea of
which was given by a sympathiser, and executed by Mr. McGahey (Megahy) was
generally admired, and its symbolic design of the Plough and Stars was indeed
strikingly original. The tallest man in the army was selected as
banner-bearer, and he was always proud of his work..."
first Starry Plough differed somewhat from the version in general use today,
G.A. Hayes-McCoy in 'A History of Irish Flags from the Earliest Times'
describes it as "...a stylised representation of an agricultural plough
with, superimposed upon it, a representation of the constellation Ursa Major,
the Great Bear or Plough of the heavens-.." This representation is on a
background of green which is bordered by a gilt fringe. The silver stars are
disposed along the yellow-coloured plough and the coulter is replaced by a
sword with a serrated edge. The version of the Starry Plough currently used
by, among others, the Workers Party is a replica of this original flag.
identity of its designer is still a source of dispute. It is generally
accepted that the streamlining of the design was carried out by the Belfastman
William Megahy. Megahy was a teacher at the Metropolitan School of Arts in
Dublin. His original design was presented to the national Museum in 1954 by
Sean O'Casey. O'Casey who was prominent in the Citizen Army in 1914, didn't
believe Megahy to be responsible for the initial idea nor did he accept the
contention of some that George Russell first proposed the design. To this day
it remains unclear precisely who conceived the Starry Plough.
flag was raised above the Imperial Hotel in Dublin during the 1916 rising. The
hotel, which was the property of William Martin Murphy of 1913 Lockout fame
was burned to the ground during the fighting but the flag survived and a
British officer seized it as a souvenir. The Irish National Museum managed to
acquire it in 1955. It was, however, missing when, in 1934, elements of the
Republican Congress decided to attempt a revival of the Citizen Army which had
disappeared at the end of the civil war. With the original flag believed
destroyed in 1916, it was agreed to design a new Starry Plough.
l.C.A. was revived briefly at the time of the Republican Congress by veterans
of the old Citizen Army and volunteers forced out of the Republican Movement
by a General Order forbidding members giving any support to the Congress. The
flag they took as their emblem is that used by the I.R.S.P. today. It
consisted of white stars on a blue background. It has become the accepted flag
of Irish socialism and of the Irish working class. The Irish Labour Party used
the flag until relatively recently when they replaced the blue with a red
background. Perhaps they finally discovered the origins of the flag and
decided that it wasn't for them? In the past few years their use of the flag
has diminished and it would seem that they intend replacing it with a hand
clasping a red rose - the symbol of European social democracy.
most Irish socialists the Starry Plough remains a potent symbol. It remains a
symbol of militancy. It is a flag that once flew over Dublin as a flag of
rebellion. It shall do so again, not below the tricolour but above it,
alongside a red flag, as a flag of social revolution.