The Wearing of the Green recounts the ridiculous lengths the British were prepared to go to in a desperate attempt to suppress Irish nationalism in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The colour green had already assumed a symbolic significance in Ireland by that time.
This was largely because it was the colour of the shamrock, which itself carried huge significance as it was supposedly used by St Patrick to explain the mystery of the Holy Trinity.
Shamrock and colour green represented Ireland
The shamrock emerged as more than a religious emblem in the early 18th century. It came to be seen as symbol of Ireland and by extension, a symbol of Irish nationalism and independence.
It was only a small step to imbue the colour green with the same associations.
In the early 18th century, Irish patriots started wearing green ribbons to show their support for Irish nationalism.
Towards the end of the 18th century, the rebel organisation, the United Irishmen adopted green as their official colour as they planned their insurrection against British rule.
British wanted to stamp out Irish identity
The British authorities were keen to stamp out displays of Irish identity and independence such as the Irish language. Soon, they came to see the colour green as a dangerous symbol that could rally Irish nationalist fervour.
They banned people from wearing green as an open symbol of their Irish identity. Irish newspapers published notices stating that wearing such items as green ribbons or handkerchiefs as “an emblem of affection to Ireland” were forbidden.
To wear such items would “subject a man to imprisonment, transportation, the rope or the bayonet, and expose women to the brutal insults of the common soldiery”.
Ban on green seen as outrageous and ridiculous
The move was seen by the Irish as both outrageous and ridiculous in equal measure.
The song The Wearing of the Green captures both those emotions perfectly. The opening verse conjures up the sense of absurdity with the line “the shamrock is forbid by law to grow on Irish ground”.
The aim is to mock the British for thinking they could pass a law that would stop shamrock growing or green appearing.
Hanging men and women for Wearing of the Green
Though ridiculous, the ban is dangerous because the British were prepared to be brutal to enforce it.
As the song’s refrain says: “They’re hanging men and women for the Wearing of the Green”.
Napper Tandy who is referred to in the song, was an Irish rebel leader at the time of the 1798 Rebellion. He was exiled following the failure of the rebellion and died in France in 1803.