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Saint Patrick's Flag: a red saltire on a field of white

Saint Patrick's Cross or Saint Patrick's Saltire is a red saltire (X-shaped cross) on a white field, when considered as a symbol of Ireland or of Saint Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland. In heraldic language, it may be blazoned Argent, a saltire gules. Saint Patrick's Flag is a flag composed of Saint Patrick's Saltire.

The antiquity of the association with Ireland and Saint Patrick has been questioned.[1] The cross was used in the regalia of the Order of Saint Patrick, established in 1783 as the premier chivalric order of the Kingdom of Ireland, and later in the arms and flags of a number of institutions. After the 1800 Act of Union joined Ireland with the Kingdom of Great Britain, the saltire was added to the British flag to form the Union Flag still used by the United Kingdom. Saint Patrick's Cross is rejected by Irish nationalists as a British invention.[1] There is no universally accepted flag for the island of Ireland.

Insignia of a Knight of St Patrick: Gold crowns on a green shamrock on a red Cross of Saint Patrick



The earliest unequivocal use of the cross is in the the official description of the badge of the Most Illustrious Order of Saint Patrick that Lord Temple, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, 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, surmounted with a Trefoil Vert each of its leaves charged with an Imperial Crown Or upon a field of Argent.

The Order of Saint Patrick was created in 1783 to mark the Constitution of 1782 which gave substantial autonomy to Ireland. The order was a means of rewarding (or obtaining) political support in the Irish Parliament.[2].

Arms of the Geraldine Dukes of Leinster.

The origin of the cross used in the badge is unclear. Many subsequent commentators have assumed that the saltire was simply taken from the arms of the FitzGeralds (or Geraldines).[1] William FitzGerald, 2nd Duke of Leinster was a prominent member of the Irish House of Lords and a founder member of the Order of Saint Patrick. Michael Casey suggests that Lord Temple, pressed for time, had based the Order's insignia on those of the Order of the Garter, and simply rotated its George's Cross through 45 degrees.[3]

While there is earlier evidence of saltires used in representations of Ireland, it is scanty and equivocal; instances have been explained away as the Geraldine arms,[4 ][5] or sometimes as the Spanish Cross of Burgundy. The CAIN website[6] states:

Even on St. Patrick's day, this flag is not widely flown by Irish people who, for the most part, do not recognise it as their own. It is seen as a British symbol, and is used by regiments of the British Army. [Additional note: The flag was first designed by British authorities in Dublin Castle in the 17th century as a counterpart to St. George's Cross. The flag also forms part of the coat of arms of the Duke of Leinster.

The arms of Ireland since the sixteenth century have been a gold harp with silver strings on a blue field.[7] Some contemporary commentators in Ireland condemned the Order's red saltire as an alien symbol. While there had previously been crosses associated with Saint Patrick, they were not X-shaped.


Earlier saltires

A variety of sources show saltires in use earlier than 1783 in Ireland.

The design on the reverse of some Irish coins (groat and half-groat) minted c.1480 includes two shields with saltires. At this time, Gerald FitzGerald was Lord Deputy of Ireland, and the shields are considered to be his arms.[8][9]

Cross of Burgundy

English and German picture maps of the battle of Kinsale of 1601/2 show the combined Irish–Spanish forces under a red saltire. This is presumed to be the Cross of Burgundy, the war flag of Spain, rather than an Irish flag.[10]

The arms of Trinity College Dublin, attested from 1612, show flags flying from two castle turrets. One is a red cross on white, interpreted as St George's Cross; the other is a red saltire on white, interpreted as representing Ireland.[11][12]

Contemporary reports of the ensigns of the Irish Catholic Confederation during the Wars of the Three Kingdoms state that each had a canton with a red saltire on a gold field.[13] A 1645 picture map of the Siege of Duncannon shows Preston's Confederates under a saltire.[11][14]

A 1915 book about flags claims that The Protectorate of the 1650s briefly used a flag containing the St George's cross in the first and fourth quarters, St Andrew's cross in the second, and a red saltire on white in the third to represent Ireland.[15] Several drawings of Union flags, including one of HMS Henry made c.1661 by Willem van de Velde, the elder, include a red saltire as in the post-1800 Union; but there is no official evidence for such a design.[16]

The Encyclopédie, ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers (1769 edition) illustrates one of three maritime flags of Ireland (figure 49, in bottom left hand corner), described as white, charged with a red saltire. One other flag is also white with a red saltire, while the remaining maritime flag is Green with a golden harp with a silver quarter bearing a red cross

Several atlases and flag books in the late 17th and 18th centuries show a red-saltire–on–white flag for Ireland; including Paulus van der Dussen's (c.1690),[4 ] and Le Neptune françois, a marine atlas published in Amsterdam in 1693, where it is depicted with the legends Ierse above and Irlandois below — Dutch and French for "Irish".[17] Jan Blaeu's 1650s atlas has a saltire on white for Ireland, which is hand-coloured red in some copies.[18]

Other Saint Patrick's Crosses

Some authors have stated that Patrick is not entitled to have a cross as a symbol since he was not a martyr, unlike Saints George and Andrew.[1] There are other crosses associated with Patrick, however.

Ballina crest includes St Patrick's cross between two pikes

Ancient high crosses called "Saint Patrick's cross" existed at places with legendary associations with the saint: the Rock of Cashel, where he baptised Óengus mac Nad Froích, King of Munster.[19] and Station Island, site of Saint Patrick's Purgatory, in Lough Derg, County Donegal.[20] Until the 18th century there was a "St Patrick's Cross" in Liverpool, marking the spot where he supposedly preached before starting his mission to Ireland.[21][22] The arms of Ballina, County Mayo, adopted in 1970, include an image of "St Patrick's cross" carved on a rock in Leigue cemetery, said to date from Patrick's visit there in AD 441.[23][24]

On the St. Patrick halfpenny, Patrick is depicted holding a crozier headed with a patriarchal cross.

A 1935 article states that during the Confederation, "the true St. Patrick's Cross was carried as a square flag: a white cross on a green ground, with a red circle."[25]

A 1679 pamphlet account of heraldry states that the arms borne in the Crusades by the Irish Nation were "a red Cross in a yellow Field".[26] In 1688, Randle Holme explicitly calls this (Or a Cross Gules) "St. Patrick's Cross"[27] "for Ireland".[28] The County Galway unit of the Irish Volunteers in 1914 adopted a similar banner because "it was used as the Irish flag in Cromwell's time".[29]

The Pepys Library's collection of broadside ballads includes one from c.1690 called "Teague and Sawney: or The Unfortunate Success of a Dear-Joys Devotion by St. Patrick's Cross. Being Transform'd into the Deel's Whirlegig." It describes an Irishman (Teague) and Scot (Sawney), both stereotypically blockheaded, encountering a windmill for the first time and arguing over whether it is Saint Andrew's Cross or Saint Patrick's Cross.[30]

Saint Patrick's Day badges

It was formerly a common custom to wear a cross made of paper or ribbon on St Patrick's Day. However, surviving examples of such badges come in many colours[14] and they were worn upright rather than as saltires.[31]

The second part of Richard Johnson's Seven Champions of Christendom (1608) concludes its fanciful account of St Patrick with, "the Irishmen as well in England as in that Country, do as yet in Honour of his Name, keep one day in the Year Festival, wearing upon their Hats each of them a Cross of red Silk, in Token of his many Adventures, under the Christian Cross".[32] Irish soldiers stationed in Britain in 1628 reportedly wore red crosses on Patrick's Day "after their country manner".[14]

Thomas Dinely, an English traveller in Ireland in 1681, remarked that "the Irish of all stations and condicõns were crosses in their hatts, some of pins, some of green ribbon."[33] Jonathan Swift, writing to "Stella" of Saint Patrick's Day 1713, said "the Mall was so full of crosses that I thought all the world was Irish".[34] In the 1740s, the badges pinned were multicoloured interlaced fabric.[35] In the 1820s, they were only worn by children, with simple multicoloured daisy patterns.[35][36] In the 1890s, they were almost extinct, and a simple green Greek cross inscribed in a circle of paper (similar to the Ballina crest above).[37] The Irish Times in 1935 reported they were still sold in poorer parts of Dublin, but fewer than those of previous years "some in velvet or embroidered silk or poplin, with the gold paper cross entwined with shamrocks and ribbons".[38]

Cross pattée

The motto of the order Quis separabit?, Latin for "Who will separate [us]?" (today the motto of Northern Ireland) was borrowed from the Friendly Brothers of St Patrick, but was also appropriate politically in expressing a desire for unity. The Brothers, for their part, recorded a cross pattée as "Saint Patrick's Cross" and used one on their badge.[39] A letter to the The Gentleman's Magazine in 1786 includes an illustration of the Brother's chain, with less tapered arms on the cross.[40]

Contemporary evidence

Some contemporary responses to the badge of the order complained that an X-shaped cross was the Cross of St Andrew, patron of Scotland, although modern vexillology allows only a blue-and-white design to be so called. A February 1783 newspaper 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".[31] 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 [...] a manifest insult to common sense and to national propriety".[31]

An open letter to Lord Temple, to whom the design of the Order of St. Patrick's badges were entrusted, echoes this and elaborates:[31]

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 ... As bearing the arms of another person is reckoned very disgraceful by the laws of honour, how much more so is it, in an order which ought to carry honour to the highest pitch, to take a cross for its emblem, which has been acknowledged for many ages as the property of an order in another country? 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.

As against this, a 1785 newspaper report from Waterford states:[41]

Upwards of forty vessels are now in our harbour, victualling for Newfoundland, of which number thirteen are of our own nation, who wear the St. Patrick's flag (the field of which is white, with a St. Patrick's cross, and an harp in one quarter.)

Other symbols of Ireland

The coat of arms of Ireland is a gold harp on a blue field. It represented Ireland in the flags of earlier unions: the Commonwealth Flag (England and Ireland, 1649) and the Protectorate Jack (England, Ireland and Scotland, 1658). It also featured on the Royal Standard since James I.[42]

The Celtic cross and Brigid's cross are other crosses which have been used as symbols of Ireland.

Use of the flag

The St. Patrick's flag is the flag of St. Patrick's College, Maynooth, and is flown on Degree days and other important occasions. Its use is not affected by the creation of a separate National University of Ireland, Maynooth in 1997.

Flags in Northern Ireland are controversial, their symbolism reflecting underlying political differences.[6] Saint Patrick's Cross is sometimes used as a cross-community symbol with less political baggage than either the Union Flag or the Ulster Banner, seen as pro-Unionist, or the Irish tricolour used by Irish nationalists.[43] It is one of two flags authorised to be flown on church grounds by the Church of Ireland, the other being the Compasrose Flag of the Anglican Communion.[44] This was the recommendation of a 1999 synod committee on sectarianism.[44] For similar motives, it is the basis of the police badge of the new Police Service of Northern Ireland.[43] David McNarry suggested it should be allowed in Northern Irish number plates analogous to the flags allowed on English, Scottish, and Welsh plates.[45]

Saint Patrick's Flag is often seen during Saint Patrick's Day parades in Northern Ireland.[43] Flags are handed out by Down District Council before the Downpatrick parade, near Patrick's burial place at Down Cathedral.[46] In Great Britain, Saint Patrick's Flag was flown in place of the Irish tricolour at the 2009 parade in Croydon, prompting complaints from some councillors.[47] It is flown on Patrick's Day by Bradford City Council.[48]

Use of use of Saint Patrick's Cross has been endorsed by the Reform Movement,[49] a "post-nationalist"[49] pressure group in the Republic of Ireland seeking closer ties with the United Kingdom.[50] Reform has incorporated the cross into its own logo.[49] The all-island bodies for men's and ladies' bowls compete internationally under the Saint Patrick's flag.[51][52]

The saltire in combination

Flag of the United Kingdom

With the 1800 Act of Union that merged the kingdoms of Great Britain and Ireland, a red saltire was incorporated into the Flag of the United Kingdom as representing Ireland. Regardless of the uncertainty over its origins, the saltire gules on a white field was used in the arms adopted by various Irish organisations, and some outside Ireland.

The arms of Cork city show red-saltire flags on the two towers, though not on versions prior to 1800.[53] Coleraine Borough Council includes Patrick's cross, as Patrick is said to have given Coleraine its name.[54]

The original arms of the Royal Irish Academy in 1786 did not have the saltire, but those granted in 1846 do.[14][55] There are red saltires in the arms of the Queen's University in Ireland (est.1850, arms granted 1851; dissolved 1879) and its successor Queen's University Belfast (est.1908, arms granted 1910);[56] and the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland.[57] The Royal Dublin Society's flag, dating from c.1902–12, has a red saltire, but its significance is unknown.[58] The Irish Free State Girl Guides, descended from the Unionist British Girl Guides, had a Patrick's Cross on the flag it used from its establishment in 1929 until the 1937 Constitution.[59] The Church of Ireland diocese of Connor's arms, granted in 1945,[60] include Patrick's Cross in memory of his supposed enslavement at Slemish.[61]

St Patrick's Flag is one of the flags approved by the Orange Institution for display during Orange walks.[62]

The Patrick's Cross was on the flag proposed in 1914 of the County Down unit of Irish Volunteers.[29] A writer in The Irish Volunteer complained that The O'Rahilly should have known the cross was "faked for Union Jack purposes".[63]

The cross appeared on the house flag of Irish Shipping, founded 1941,[18][64] and that used by Irish Continental Line in 1973–9.[65] It is also on the flag of the Commissioners of Irish Lights.[66] The badge of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland, designed by John Vinycomb, incorporates the cross and the arms of the four provinces.[55] The Urban District Council of Rathmines and Rathgar was granted arms in 1929, a year before it was absorbed into Dublin Corporation; these featured a Cross of St Patrick and a Celtic Cross.[67]

In the 1930s, a variation of the flag with a St. Patrick's Blue background was adopted as the badge and flag of the Blueshirts.[68] This militant group incorporated right-wing, conservative and some former-unionist elements in opposition to the then left-wing republican Fianna Fáil party.[69]

A flag combining St Andrew's Cross, St Patrick's Cross, and the Red Hand of Ulster has been used by Ulster separatists, who wish to see Northern Ireland leave the United Kingdom and become an independent state, not joining together with the Republic of Ireland.[6][70]

The Church of England Diocese of Truro, established in 1876, has a Patrick's cross in its arms, representing Cornwall's Celtic heritage.[71] The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York, whose cathedral is St Patrick's, incorporates the cross.[72] St. Patrick's High School, Ottawa has the cross in its flag and arms.[73]

Unrelated flags

Other flags in which a red saltire on a white field feature include the Flag of Alabama — officially "a crimson cross of St. Andrew on a field of white";[74] and the Flag of Florida and the Flag of Valdivia, both derived from the Spanish Cross of Burgundy. The Flag of Jersey is said by to derive from a misreading of "Ierse" as "Jersey" in a 1693 Dutch flag book: "Ierse" is Dutch for "Irish".[18]

The arms of West Dunbartonshire derive from the former arms of the burgh of Clydebank, including a red saltire as the arms of Lennox.[75][76] Since Old Kilpatrick, a legendary birthplace of Saint Patrick, is in the district, the association of Saint Patrick's Cross may be considered appropriate, if coincidental.[77][78][79]

See also



  1. ^ a b c d Hayes-McCoy, p.38
  2. ^ "Monarchy Today: Queen and Public: Honours: Order of St Patrick". Official website of the British Monarchy. Retrieved 2006-12-03.  
  3. ^ Casey, Michael (Autumn 1991). "The Most Illustrious Order of Saint Patrick". Dublin Historical Record (Old Dublin Society) 44 (2): 6.  
  4. ^ a b Wilson, pp.28–30
  5. ^ Hayes-McCoy, pp.37–8
  6. ^ a b c "Symbols in Northern Ireland - Flags Used in the Region". CAIN. University of Ulster. 6 January 2009. Retrieved 2009-07-08.  
  7. ^ Hayes-McCoy, pp.20,22
  8. ^ Smith, Aquilla (1839). "On the Irish Coins of Edward the Fourth". Transactions of the Royal Irish Academy (Dublin: Royal Irish Academy) 19: 31–33.  
  9. ^ Hayes-McCoy, p.37
  10. ^ Hayes-McCoy, pp.36–7
  11. ^ a b Galloway, Peter (1999). The most illustrious order : the Order of St Patrick and its knights. London: Unicorn. pp. 189–190. ISBN 0906290236.  
  12. ^ Hayes-McCoy, pp.38–39
  13. ^ Daly, Peter Maurice; Alan R. Young, Leslie T. Duer, Anthony Raspa (1995). The English Emblem Tradition: Emblematic flag devices of the English civil wars, 1642-1660. Index Emblematicus. 3. University of Toronto Press. p. xlvii. ISBN 080205739X.  
  14. ^ a b c d Hayes-McCoy, p.40
  15. ^ Flags of the World, Past and Present: Their Story and Associations. 1915. pp. 58–60. "In the first flag following that [1654] ordinance, England and Scotland were represented by the crosses of St George and St. Andrew, and Ireland by a golden harp on a blue ground which is the correct standard of that country. These were displayed quarterly, St. George being first and fourth, Ireland second, and St. Andrew third. The standard of the Protector consisted of this flag with his escutcheon of a white lion rampant on a black field placed in the centre. The harp, however, seemed quite out of place in this flag, and another was tried in which St. George was in the first and fourth, St. Andrew in the second, and the red saltire on white daringly placed in the third as representing Ireland. This was a most unsatisfactory arrangement for visibility at sea, and the old Union was reverted to, but as Ireland was not shown on it, a golden harp was placed in the centre, and at the Restoration the harp was removed and the flag became as it was at the death of Charles I."  
  16. ^ Wilson, p.24
  17. ^ Hayes-McCoy, pp.40–41
  18. ^ a b c Hayes-McCoy, p.41
  19. ^ Jones, R; John Mason (2006). Myths and Legends of Britain and Ireland. New Holland. p. 123. ISBN 1845375947.'s%20cross%22%20aengus&lr=&num=100&as_brr=0&pg=PA123.  
  20. ^ O'Connor, Daniel (2009). Lough Derg and Its Pilgrimages : with map and illustrations. BiblioBazaar, LLC. p. 43. ISBN 1103184458.  
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  22. ^ Burke, Thomas (2008). Catholic History of Liverpool. Read Books. p. 9. ISBN 1408642506.'s%20cross%20%22&pg=PA9.  
  23. ^ "New coat of arms". The Irish Times (ProQuest): p. 8. 14 January 1970. "Ballina Urban Council has officially approved a design of two pikes representing the '98 Rising, St Patrick's Cross, a salmon and a ship depicting commerce and trade."  
  24. ^ McMahon, Vincent. "History Around You: Crests and Coats of Arms". History Around You. Teachnet. Retrieved 2009-07-13.  
  25. ^ "a special correspondent" (1 Jul 1935). "The city of the Confederation: the great moment in Kilkenny's history". The Irish Times (ProQuest): p. 3.  
  26. ^ Morgan, Silvanus (1679), Heraldry epitomiz'd and its reason essay'd, London: William Bromwich,  
  27. ^ Holme, Randle (1688). The academy of armory. Chester. An Alphabeticall Table, s.v. "C"; Chap.5, p.2.  
  28. ^ Holme, Chap.5, p.2
  29. ^ a b Hayes-McCoy, p.200
  30. ^ Teague and Sawney English Broadside Ballad Archive, University of California-Santa Barbara
  31. ^ a b c d Morley, Vincent (27 September 2007). "St. Patrick's Cross". Retrieved 29 June 2009.  
  32. ^ Johnson, Richard (1740). "Of the Praise-worthy Death of St. Patrick ; how he buried himself : And for what Cause the Irishmen to this Day, do wear their Red Cross upon St. Patrick's Day.". The renowned history of the seven champions of Christendom; St. George of England, St. Denis of France, St. James of Spain, St. Anthony of Italy, St. Andrew of Scotland, St. Patrick of Ireland, and St. David of Wales.. London. p. 193.  
  33. ^ Colgan, Nathaniel (1896). "The Shamrock in Literature: a critical chronology". Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland (Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland) 26: 349.  
  34. ^ Swift, Jonathan (2008). "Letter 61". Journal to Stella. eBooks@Adelaide. University of Adelaide.  
  35. ^ a b The popular songs of Ireland, pp.7-9 collected and ed., with intr. and notes, By Thomas Crofton Croker Published 1839
  36. ^ Journal of the Royal Society of Antiquaries of Ireland Vol. 18, plate facing p.249 'Kilmalkedar'; fig.4 is "St. Patrick's Cross" [p.251] of children in S. of Irl. c.1850s
  37. ^ Colgan, p.351, fn.2
  38. ^ "Irishman's Diary: The Patrick's Cross". The Irish Times (ProQuest): pp. 4. 13 March 1935.  
  39. ^ Dennis, Victoria Solt (2005). Discovering Friendly and Fraternal Societies: Their Badges and Regalia. Osprey Publishing. p. 12. ISBN 0747806284.**%20patrick%20%22&lr=&num=100&as_brr=3&pg=PA12.  
  40. ^ Nibblett, Stephen (April 1786). "Letter". The Gentleman's Magazine 56 (4): 297, fig.4 & 298.  
  41. ^ "London". Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser (Gale): p. 2. 26 February 1785; Issue 17 539.  
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  43. ^ a b c Groom, p.81
  44. ^ a b Church of Ireland General Synod Sub Committee on Sectarianism Report : April 1999 Church of Ireland
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  48. ^ "Race row over tricolour". Irish Daily Mirror: p. 27. 12 April 2006.  
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  51. ^ "Nolan's cross words". The Times: pp. 84. 5 September 2008.  
  52. ^ "Full List of International Member Countries". World Bowls. Retrieved 2009-07-08.  
  53. ^ Hayes-McCoy, p.39
  54. ^ "The Coat of Arms of Coleraine Borough Council". Coleraine Borough Council. Retrieved 2009-07-08.  
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  56. ^ "The University's Coats of Arms". Queen's University Belfast.,18348,en.doc. Retrieved 2009-07-06.  
  57. ^ "Stained glass: RCSI crest". Virtual tour. RCSI. Retrieved 2009-07-07.  
  58. ^ "The RDS Flag". Royal Dublin Society. Retrieved 6 July 2009.  
  59. ^ "History" (PDF). Irish Girl Guides Handbook. Irish Girl Guides. January 2003. p. 2. Retrieved 2009-07-13.  
  60. ^ "How was the Diocese of Connor created?". Diocese of Connor. Retrieved 2009-07-13.  
  61. ^ "Nichevo" (11 May 1946). "An Irishman's Diary: Episcopal Arms". The Irish Times (ProQuest): p. 5.  
  62. ^ Bryan, Dominic (2000). Orange parades: the politics of ritual, tradition, and control. Pluto Press. pp. 128. ISBN 0745314139.  
  63. ^ Hayes-McCoy, p.201
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  70. ^ Groom, p.85
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  73. ^ "St. Patrick's High School". The Public Register of Arms, Flags and Badges of Canada. Canadian Heraldic Authority. 2005. Retrieved 2009-07-06.  
  74. ^ State Flag of Alabama Alabama Department of Archives and History
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  76. ^ "West Dunbartonshire Council". Heraldry Society of Scotland. Retrieved 2009-07-07.  
  77. ^ Urquhart, Robert Mackenzie (1973). Scottish burgh and county heraldry. London: Gale. p. 129. ISBN 0810320053.  
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