The true story of the Pink, White and Green


Dear editor,

I am re­spond­ing to a let­ter by Moses Bar­rett of Spa­niard’s Bay that ap­peared in the Aug. 23 edi­tion of the Com­pass, head­lined “ Un­der the Union Jack and the Pink, White and Green.”

While I echo Mr. Bar­rett’s pa­tri­o­tism to New­found­land, his let­ter also made me re a l i z e that some­thing should be done to in­form more New­found­lan­ders of the true story of the “Pink, White and Green,” rather than the myths that have taken root in peo­ple’s minds in place of ac­tual his­tory.

Most New­found­lan­ders seem to be com­pletely mis­led about where the Pink, White and Green ac­tu­ally came from. It is a story that, as far as I’m aware, has never been truth­fully told in pub­lic print.

The flag of New­found­land

The past decade or so has seen an in­cred­i­ble rise in the pop­u­lar­ity of the flag that has be­come known as the “ Pink, White and Green.” It has be­come a sym­bol of our her­itage, in­di­vid­u­al­ity and na­tional pride. Most of what is be­lieved about the ori­gins of that flag and its sym­bol­ism, how­ever, is false.

I think many New­found­lan­ders will find this ab­bre­vi­ated his­tory of the “Pink, White and Green” as il­lu­mi­nat­ing as I did when I be­gan my re­search.

Pop­u­lar myth tells that Ro­man Catholic Bishop Michael An­thony Flem­ing in­spired the flag in 1843 to quiet ten­sions be­tween Protes­tant and Catholic seal­ers dur­ing the yearly wood haul.

Seal­ers, wait­ing for their ves­sels to leave port in St. John’s, would get em­broiled in com­pe­ti­tion to sup­ply wood to the Angli­can and Ro­man Catholic cathe­drals. The Protes­tant English marked their wood piles with pink ban­ners while the Catholic Irish used green. The threat of vi­o­lence was so great that the Speaker of the House, Wil­liam Car­son, en­listed Bishop Flem­ing as a peace­maker. Flem­ing per­suaded the two fac­tions to adopt a com­mon flag, ty­ing to­gether the pink and green ban­ners of the two groups with a white hand­ker­chief sym­bol­iz­ing peace.

Though this may be a heart-warm­ing story, it is com­pletely false — a prod­uct of a healthy myth-mak­ing ma­chine fu­eled by mod­ern tourism and com­mer­cial in­dus­tries, anti-con­fed­er­a­tion sen­ti­ments of the early 20th cen­tury and the Catholic clergy. The cur­rent ver­sion of the myth reached ma­tu­rity in an ar­ti­cle writ­ten by Paul O’Neill in a 1976 edi­tion of the Ro­man Catholic arch­dio­cese news­let­ter “ The Mon­i­tor”

O’Neill did not claim it as his­tor­i­cal fact at that time. The le­gend still grows, how­ever, with ad­di­tional claims and sup­posed val­i­da­tions be­ing added seem­ingly reg­u­larly.

O’Neill’s story was it­self an evo­lu­tion of an ear­lier myth pre­sented by his­to­ri­ans Devine and O’Mara in 1900 and men­tioned briefly in the Evening Telegram in 1902. In that ver­sion the pink panel rep­re­sented ei­ther mem­bers of the New­found­land Na­tives’ So­ci­ety (a non-de­nom­i­na­tional or­ga­ni­za­tion formed in 1840 to rep­re­sent na­tive-born New­found­lan­ders) or New­found­land-born Catholics who were op­posed to the newly ar­riv­ing Irish set­tlers to the St. John’s and South­ern Shore ar­eas. Devine and O‘ Mara also con­ceded that this ac­count was based on oral tra­di­tion and not sup­ported by ac­tual his­tor­i­cal ev­i­dence.

In 1902, then fu­ture Ro­man Catholic Arch­bishop Michael F. How- ley re­des­ig­nated the pink panel to rep­re­sent the Protes­tant English in his song “ The Flag of New­found­land,” which he pro­posed as an al­ter­na­tive an­them to Sir Cavendish Boyle’s “Ode to New­found­land”

“ The pink, the rose of Eng­land shows, the green St. Pa­trick’s em­blem, bright...” The rest, as they say, is his­tory, or, in this case, myth.

Star of the Sea

In ac­tual fact, the flag orig­i­nated ex­clu­sively within the Ro­man Catholic fra­ter­nal group the Star of the Sea as­so­ci­a­tion some­time after 1875 and bears a strik­ing re­sem­blance to the nearly iden­ti­cal Irish flag, which was used as an un­of­fi­cial sym­bol of Irish na­tion­al­ism from 1848 un­til be­ing adopted by the Irish Repub­li­can Army in 1916.

The ori­gins of the pink panel of the PWG are un­cer­tain, but it has been claimed by some that it came from the flag of the Na­tives’ So­ci­ety. There is no ev­i­dence, how­ever, to sup­port that the Na­tives’ So­ci­ety ever used a flag in­cor­po­rat­ing pink, and his­tory in­di­cates that their ac­tual flag was a tri-colour of RED, white and green. This tri­colour was the orig­i­nal “Na­tives” flag, pos­si­bly sym­bolic of peace be­tween the red rose of Eng­land and the green of Ire­land, and also likely the first widely rec­og­nized “ flag of New­found­land.”

It has also been spec­u­lated that pink was cho­sen sim­ply be­cause red was al­ready in use, the Irish na­tion­al­ist flag used or­ange, or be­cause “rose” is one of the litur­gi­cal colours of the Catholic Church.

The pink, white and green colours were first dis­played pub­licly by the Star of the Sea as­so­ci­a­tion when they marched along­side the Benev­o­lent Irish So­ci­ety through down­town St. John’s in 1875 dur­ing their cen­ten­nial cel­e­bra­tion pa­rade of Irish na­tion­al­ist Daniel O’Connell’s birth. Some­time shortly after that, with the sup­port of the clergy, the tri-colour of pink, white and green was adopted by other Catholic groups in the St. John’s area and flown as a sym­bol of re­sis­tance to Con­fed­er­a­tion with Canada, pos­si­bly in anal­ogy to the Irish use of the or­ange, white and green flag against Bri­tain.

The PWG’s pop­u­lar­ity grew within St. John’s Catholic com­mu­ni­ties un­til in 1902 Michael F. How­ley, him­self an Irish na­tion­al­ist, fur­ther pop­u­lar­ized the PWG in his song “The Flag of New­found­land,” yet at this time the pink was changed to rep­re­sent the rose of Eng­land.

While this may have been merely a ploy to gain Protes­tant English sup­port for an Irish-based flag or it may have been a gen­uine at­tempt to in­cor­po­rate the Protes­tant por­tion of the pop­u­la­tion into the PWG, as the or­ange panel did on the Irish flag. It was not ac­cepted by many of the province’s Protes­tants, who con­tin­ued to see the flag as a sym­bol of Irish Catholic na­tion­al­ism — a sen­ti­ment fur­ther bol­stered by the fact that the rose of Eng­land is red, not pink.

Shortly af­ter­wards, the Evening Telegram pub­lished rare snip­pets of the evolv­ing myth un­til some­time in the 1950’s when it ap­pears to have been for­got­ten un­til O’Neill’s res­ur­rec­tion of it in the “Mon­i­tor” dur­ing the provin­cial flag de­bates of the 1970’s.

De­spite com­monly re­peated claims, the PWG flag was not flown dur­ing the Prince of Wales’ visit to New­found­land in 1860, the ad­min­is­tra­tions of Mur­ray and Boyle did not fly the PWG at Gov­ern­ment House, and Bob Bartlett did not plant the PWG within six miles of the North Pole on his ex­pe­di­tion with Ad­mi­ral Peary in 1909 or at any other time. (In fact, Bartlett and crew were never closer than 150 miles of the pole, with Peary, his crew­man, and four Eskimo guides con­tin­u­ing on sled from there.)

There is no ac­tual ev­i­dence to sup­port these and much of the other ev­er­grow­ing list of claims at­trib­uted to the PWG. His­tor­i­cal texts and pho­to­graphic ev­i­dence from the pe­riod show only the Union Jack and gov­ern­men­tal en­signs flown in an of­fi­cial ca­pac­ity by gov­ern­ment of­fices and ves­sels.

Passed into leg­is­la­tion

From 1907 on­ward the Union Jack, New­found­land Red En­sign and New­found­land Blue En­sign were en­forced as the Do­min­ion of New­found­land’s na­tional flag, civil en­sign and gov­ern­men­tal en­sign, re­spec­tively.

In 1931, this was of­fi­cially passed into leg­is­la­tion with the Na­tional Flag Act and these flags re­mained the only of­fi­cially rec­og­nized na­tional flags of New­found­land un­til Con­fed­er­a­tion with Canada in 1949. In 1952, the Union Jack was of­fi­cially leg­is­lated as the provin­cial flag of New­found­land and served in that ca­pac­ity un­til 1980, when it was re­placed by Christopher Pratt’s de­sign based on a de­con­structed Union Jack.

Only in re­cent years has mis­di­rected na­tion­al­ism and pride com­bined with mis­lead­ing ad­ver­tis­ing and the ero­sion of ac­tual his­tory caused much of the New­found­land pop­u­la­tion to un­know­ingly be­lieve that the PWG was the “old New­found­land flag” — some­thing it never was.

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