The Dublin Flag

As Ireland has the harp, so too must her capital city have its own unique symbol. And what more could be more appropriate for Dublin than a castle - or even three?

A distinctive trio of castles, their twin towers ablaze, is stamped all over the cityscape: upon some of the city’s architectural gems - the Lord Mayor’s Mansion House residence and historic City Hall -  on municipal street furniture, lamp posts, litter bins and of course, on the all important city flag.

Flags have been props on the human stage for about 4,000 years. At first, they were cumbersome objects, mere poles topped with decorative markings. Sometime, somewhere, someone had the eureka moment of Vexillology (the study of flags) and added some fabric - turning inanimate shafts of wood or metal into wind whipped conveyances of instant messaging with its own symbolic language.

Dublin Corporation commissioned the city flag in 1885. The Corporation was, by that time, in the hands of the Catholic business class and they firmly nailed their colours to the mast of Irish nationhood. The chosen design reproduced the Irish national flag of the time: a large field of green, symbolising youth and hope, and declaring their nationalist fervour to the world. Centred in the right half of the green field is the golden harp of Ireland and in the canton (a rectangular patch next to the flagpole), the medieval symbol of Dublin, the three castles.

The origins of this symbol are a little obscured. On the 13th century Dublin seal three watchtowers of a city gate stand to the forefront. Archers threaten menacingly from the flanking towers while two sentries trumpet a warning from the battlements of the central tower. The figure of an armed sentry fills the opened doors and bell shaped herald trumpets, whose notes of warning could be heard over all the battlefield, sing out over the city walls. Over time more symbolically powerful, sturdy stone castles replaced the somewhat higgedly watchtowers and the slightly comic archers evolved into leaping flames - in heraldic terms, ‘azure three castles flamant proper’ warns any would be attackers of the burning passion of Dubliners for their city: they will fight to the death in her defence.
The city coat of arms, dated 1607, also bear the three castle symbol and was granted by Daniel Molyneux, chief herald of all Ireland, who had an intimate connection with Dublin: his wife, Jane, was the daughter of Sir William Usher who was responsible for the first Irish version of the New Testament, printed in his house over the old city bridge. In modern depictions, the three castle symbol has become even more stylised as its heraldic purpose fades. The flag too has changed - those flying by the River Liffey are arranged vertically: the castle canton on top.

Still, Dubliners remain faithful to the age old image -  if not the city motto: ‘happy the city where citizens obey’!

by Annette Black, Wicklow
Published on 13th September 2013