[St Patrick's Cross]
[Click on this flag for an enlarged image.]

The Order of St Patrick

The Irish parliament secured legislative independence in 1782 and a year later it was decided to establish a new order of chivalry called the Order of St Patrick in recognition of Ireland's enhanced constitutional status. A red saltire on a white background was used in the badge of the Order and this design became known as the 'Cross of St Patrick'. This is the official description of the badge that the lord lieutenant, Lord Temple forwarded to his superiors in London in January 1783:

"And the said Badge shall be of Gold surrounded with a Wreath of Shamrock or Trefoil, within which shall be a Circle of Gold, containing the Motto of our said Order in Letters of Gold Viz. QUIS SEPARABIT? together with the date 1783, being the year in which our said Order was founded, and encircling the Cross of St Patrick Gules, surmonted with a Trefoil Vert each of its leaves charged with an Imperial Crown Or upon a field of Argent."   [See illustration on right.]

[Badge of the Order of St Patrick]

The proposal to include a saltire in the insignia of the Order of Saint Patrick was condemned by contemporary Irish opinion. A press report published in February 1783 complained that "the breasts of Irishmen were to be decorated by the bloody Cross of St Andrew, and not that of the tutelar Saint of their natural isle". Another article claimed that "the Cross of St Andrew the Scotch saint is to honour the Irish order of St Patrick, by being inserted within the star of the order" and described this as "a manifest insult to common sense and to national propriety".

Saint Patrick and his cross

The wearing of crosses on St Patrick's day was a long-established popular custom. By the second half of the 18th century the custom was also being observed among the nobility at the highest level, and not merely within Ireland - as is clear from the following report that appeared in a Dublin newspaper in March 1766:

"London 18th: Yesterday being St. Patrick's day, the Titular Saint of Ireland, the same was observed at court, when the nobility appeared in their collars, &c. and his Majesty and the Royal Family wore crosses in honour of the day."

However these were upright crosses, not saltires. An open letter addressed to Lord Temple in February 1783 explains why the association of the saltire with Saint Patrick was rejected by the Irish public:

"The Cross generally used on St Patrick's day, by Irishmen, is the Cross-Patee, which is small in the centre, and so goes on widening to the ends, which are very broad; this is not recorded, as the Irish Cross, but has custom for time immemorial for its support, which is generally allowed as sufficient authority for any similar institution ... If the cross generally worn as the emblem of the Saint who is ascribed to Ireland, is not agreeable to your Excellency, sure many others are left to choose from, without throwing Ireland into so ignominious a point of view, as to adopt the one that Scotland has so long a claim to."

The cross pattée had a long association with Saint Patrick. As early as 1460-1 a copper half-farthing was issued which showed the head of the saint on the obverse and a cross pattée on the reverse. Both features are very unusual and it is unlikely to be a coincidence that they occur together. In fact, this would appear to be an early example of a commemorative coin: 461 is one of the dates reported for the death of Saint Patrick and it seems likely that the coin was a special issue struck to mark the 1,000th anniversary of the saint's death.

[Half-farthing of 1460-1]

Left: The St Patrick's half-farthing of 1460-1.

The association between Saint Patrick and the cross pattée continued into the 18th century. It appeared, for example, on the badge of the Ancient and Most Benevolent Order of the Friendly Brothers of Saint Patrick - a mutual-benefit society formed by Dublin merchants. In 1763 the Friendly Brothers published their Fundamental Laws, Statutes, and Constitutions in which the badge was described as follows:

"the Ensigns of the ORDER, being a golden Medal, on which shall be impressed Saint Patrick's Cross, fixed in a Heart, over which is a Crown. The whole being set round with an emblematic Knot embellished with Trefoil, or Shamrogue Leaves, and this motto, FIDELIS, ET CONSTANS: implying Fidelity and Constancy in Religion, Loyalty, and Friendship."
The central element of this badge can be seen on the right below.

Right: Detail from the badge of the Friendly Brothers of Saint Patrick, 1763.

[Friendly Brothers of Saint Patrick]

St Patrick's Cross today

After the Act of Union the red saltire was inserted into the existing flag of Great Britain (itself a combination of the English St George's Cross and the Scottish St Andrew's Cross) as a symbol of Ireland, thereby forming the modern Union Jack:

[Click on this drawing for an enlarged image.]

While the St Patrick's Cross does not appear to have been used as a flag before the Union, it has been incorporated in a wide range of flags since then. Among these are the flags of the Commissioners of Irish Lights, the Royal Dublin Society, the Irish Rugby Football Union, the Freemasons and the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, as well as the former flags of the 'Blueshirts' and of Irish Shipping Ltd. The St Patrick's Cross is used as a neutral emblem on St Patrick's day in Northern Ireland and it forms the central element of the new badge adopted by the Police Service of Northern Ireland in 2001.

[The flag of the Blueshirts]
[Click on this flag for an enlarged image.]

Left: the flag of the Blueshirts.

Right: Blueshirts marching in Carrick-on-Suir, 1933.

[St Patrick's Cross being carried by Blueshirts]

[Masonic Order in Ireland]

Left: banner of the Masonic Order in Ireland.

Right: banner of the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland.

[Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland]

[Commissioners of Irish Lights]

Left: the flag of the Commissioners of Irish Lights.

Right: Derry Unionists displaying the St Patrick's Cross.

[St Patrick's Cross being used by Unionists]

[Police Service of Northern Ireland]
[Click on this flag for an enlarged image.]

Left: the flag of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, first flown on 5 April 2002.