The flag of the country we are born and raised in is a strange ever-present in our lives, and rarely do we question the value or meaning of whatever colours and icons make up the whole. I grew up with the Irish flag flying over every government building, hotel and a whole lot else as a result of Irish qualification for successive World Cups in 1990 and 1994. In our own country, our national flag blends into the background most of the time, as part of the scenery. It is even possible we wouldn’t notice it if it vanished from a few places. We only really notice the omnipresence of national flags when we go to a different country and suddenly notice a different colour billowing in the corner of our eyes: where once there was green, now there is red. It is then that the bubble briefly bursts, and we can look at this new flag presented to us and maybe wonder how they came up with this stuff at all. The Irish tricolour of green, white and orange was once explained to me in secondary school as follows. The green represented the Celtic natives of Ireland, the orange represented the protestant Orangemen of the Northern Counties, while the white part in the middle symbolised peace between these two groups. Initially I was thrilled to finally understand the meaning involved in this thing I grew up with, but this soon gave way to a realisation that it was all, well, just a bit shite. It wasn’t just that it was the mid-1990s, and the green IRA were still blowing chunks out of the orange side of the flag on a regular basis. It was more that it seemed like the flag equivalent of giving toddlers an art project of drawing peace, using only WordArt. The Irish flag is terrible, but it is far, far, far from being alone in this. And I will use this admission to justify the following rant.

When you think of European flags, the usual suspects immediately come to mind: the Union Jack of the UK, the French Tricolor, maybe the Italian tricolore, maybe the regal Spanish yellow and gold or the carbon copy yet still classy pick-your background-and-cross-colours Scandinavian idolatry. All of these are timeless examples of flags, just like Japans, Brazils, even the good ol’ Stars and Stripes. Germany’s might sneak in there due to Germanys prominence on the international stage, but really, no one is very fond of the German flag, particularly when not in Germany. Germany is different from all those others also because it has not been a country for as long. Germany was officially created in 1871, but really it has been in such a flux since then that it has only existed in its current form since October 1990, and uses the flag originally adopted by West Germany in 1949. The symbology of the German flag has been explained to me in a similar manner of how the Irish flag is ‘translated’, with each colour in the horizontal tricolour representing something or other about present, past and future. Of course, there is a historical reasoning about some Archduke of somewhere originally using these colours and he was a German patriot and did something and should therefore be remembered etc . This logic of course acts as a smokescreen to what is really going on, and the same is true for Irelands hippy peace loving tricolour: the chosen flag is a political compromise of a new democracy. And I put it to you that new democracies choose shite flags.

Unsure of the flag? Use this reference picture!

You don’t need to go any further than Europe for this analysis, to be honest. The secession of the Soviet States, the continuing breakup of the Former Yugoslavia, and originally Woodrow Wilsons triumphing of self-determination mean that Europe has possibly tripled its number of nations, and therefore national flags over the past century. Anyone who watches the qualifying matches for international football tournaments or the Eurovision Song Contest will be very aware of this, and many an Irishman has blamed the end of communism for Irelands failure over the past 20 years on both stages.  In addition to swelling the ranks in international competition, the end of communism has also given us an awful lot of shite flags. The atrocities committed to the tricolour since the breakup of the USSR have been astonishing, particularly with regard to the Baltic States. Estonia’s looks like a paint shade card you get from the DIY shop when renovating your bedroom. The Caucus Republics are no better, with the notable exception of Georgia. The less said about Central Asia the better. The Eastern European countries also tried out the tricolour to varied results, and the bicolour made an appearance to no effect whatsoever with Poland and Ukraine. Yugoslavia disintegrated a few years after the USSR, and the lessons of these debacles were taken into consideration duly. Most went for nothing fancy, just a tricolour with the traditional colours of the territory, albeit together with a national symbol. Bosnia-Herzegovina and Macedonia went mental, and they too deserve credit for their zest. Montenegro retained the flag of their monarchy, which is justified when you see how magnificent that flag is. Further westward, Austria and Ireland have nothing to be proud of either.

Of course, the US and UK were technically democracies when they adopted their flags, but this was democracy in the same way that Ancient Athens was a democracy. France gets an exemption from analysis because its flag was part of a historical movement (the French Revolution) and also brought tricolours into style, just so the breakup of the USSR could ruin them forever 200 years later. Flags of new democracies are usually terrible simply because they are designed by committee, usually immediately in the aftermath of a great struggle where the main focus of a government is to keep the country together, and therefore keep all parties in the new democracy happy. This involves a lot of initial compromise, particularly with regard to what colours and symbols people have to look at every day. There are generally a lot of different options available to choose from, but as is the case where a ridiculous amount of people have to be pleased : the least offensive, evocative, creative one is chosen. It could even be seen as a metaphor for democracy itself, the compromises no one wants yet are forced to look at every single day. Short-termism as a national symbol.  Yet by now these flags we grew up with are so engrained in the national heritage that they are like family to most of us, whatever country we are from. Alright, I know that most people reading this will have some story about how their lame tricolour was actually first adopted in 1835 BC by some guy who met Jesus, but come on, let it go: it’s shite and you know it. What’s maddening is that probably every country in Europe has a great flag hidden away somewhere in the attic that they are too afraid to use.


One thought on “Democracy and the Death of Decent Standards of Heraldry

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