Revolutionary Remembrance: The Poppy

Ah, the poppy.

Now there is a unique symbol of war remembrance. A simple red flower taken from the fields of France and Belgium that became overgrown so quickly in the aftermath of World War One, covering over the mud, the trenches, the bodies of the fallen, reclaiming the land that machines of death had a hold on for just a few years.

The American Legion were actually the first to use the poppy in the fashion we have come to see it used today: as a personal statement of remembrance for those who have given their lives in warfare, primarily those in World War One. It has since become mostly associated with Britain and the Commonwealth.

(It is useful to point out, apropos of the following, that nobody has a monopoly on such a symbol. The poppy is what you and I make it out to be. British war dead, Irish war dead, all war dead.)

The poppy does not have a good history in Ireland. Though Ireland was an active participant in World War One, as part of the United Kingdom, the remembrance of that conflict has long been neglected and retarded due to this islands revolutionary past.

Across the pond, the poppy has come to pervade large parts of British society and culture, leading to the present day situation: where those in media jobs or in the public spotlight are expected to wear a poppy in the weeks leading up to the 11th of November. Those who fail to, either as a result of absent-mindedness or conscious decision, are targeted for disrespect to those the poppy is supposed to represent. The rise of what some have dubbed “poppy fascism” has been clear to see. Every single year now, the poppy is in the news not for what its wearers promote it to symbolize, but because of those who do not wear one.

Two news stories came up in the last few weeks, relating to Ireland and the poppy. The first is that of Fine Gael TD Frank Feighan, who wore a poppy in the Dail chamber, the first TD to do so in 16 years.

While his actions – and statements – had an obvious smack of attention-grabbing, his sentiment is to be noted. The great centenary decade is upon us. The issue of the poppy, and the wider issue of the Republic’s commemoration – or lack of – for the dead of World War One will be raised again and again in the next few years.

Some criticise Feighan for wearing a symbol that, in their eyes, honours the war dead of Britain, a country that was ruling Ireland at the time of the “Great War”. Some criticise him for not wearing an Easter Lily instead.

Some of those same people believe Ireland should maintain its course and ignore the remembrance of the First World War in favour of our own centenaries, those of the revolutionary period which have already begun. Some say that if World War One and the Irish war dead are to be commemorated, “primacy” must still be given to “our” anniversaries and centenaries.

I’ve covered this kind of topic before, so I can repeat some points. It is a dangerous action to equate “commemorations” with “veneration”. Remembering Ireland’s World War One dead does not mean looking upon their struggle or employment in British army’s as a positive thing, nor does it involve any dismissing of the military command failures that lead to their deaths. If anything, commemoration calls attention to the nature of World War One, and more often than not represents it as the tragedy that it is. Commemoration and remembrance of the dead of World War One, Irish or otherwise, should be a mourning exercise.

The victim complex with those who raise high the Easter Risers above all others should also be addressed. Offering commemorations, remembrances and discussion of Ireland’s involvement in World War One does not denigrate or lesson the importance of such activities for any event in the revolutionary period. There is room in the centenary schedule for everyone, nationalist, unionist, British veterans, IRA veterans. They don’t have to overlap, and they will not take away from the other. The only way that will happen is if people assign more importance to one event than another in their own minds, and that is a personal choice and viewpoint you can do little to change by calling for some sort of pecking order for commemoration events. We do not have to pick between them. It does not make you any less or more Irish to want to commemorate those from this island who died in the trenches and beyond.

World War One is a fascinating part of European history. Commemorations can (and should) coincide with education, of Irish youth in schools and the population at large through documentaries and the written word. Why did young Irish men join the British ranks? What did they believe they were fighting for? How many really were looking for training and experience to help “the cause” back home? What did the Irish people think about the war as it went on? Did my ancestors fight in this conflict? Did they live through it?

These are all worthy questions that Irish people can ask themselves if they wish to enhance the bond they feel with their countries history. And this can all be done without taking anything away from the Easter Rising, the War of Independence, and the Civil War. World War One was our war as well. Ignoring it, or acting like its remembrance is some lesser event than our own nationalist heroes, is not the right way to go.

I suppose my own family history offers a suitable viewpoint: my great grandfather fought for the Munster Fusiliers, losing a leg in 1914. His brother was an IRA man. The two never got on, before and after independence, feuding for the rest of their lives.

The feud lives on in Ireland at large, albeit in a much more reduced, distant fashion.

And that is why I welcome the wearing of the poppy in such a fashion as Deputy Feighlan has worn it. Anything that calls attention to the World War One commemoration issue is fine by me. Wearing the poppy does not insult Padraig Pearse (he praised World War One after all) or any other rebel, anymore than pausing to remember those who died on the 11th of November does.

But the poppy has its dark side. Enter James McClean, Derry born Republic of Ireland winger, who refused to wear a poppy on his club shirt the other weekend. McClean’s actions were hardly groundbreaking, but his nationalist background has made him a prime target for the “poppy fascists” who have gotten so rabid as to, through journalist Greg Cunningham, start asking for bigger poppies to be displayed by websites after previously asking them to just display the flower. That’s just one example of the poppy issue getting out of control.

The poppy brigade, the Nick Griffin’s of the world, ask how James McClean can come into their country, accept British wages, employment, and not wear the flower to mark respect for British war dead?

McClean, due to his “declaring” for the south, is already a hate figure in parts of the UK, but even I can only be astonished by the ignorance on display here. McClean is from Derry, a staunchly nationalist city that the British have a bloody history in. That someone from McClean’s background would hesitate to emblazon his clothing with a symbol that has, rightly or wrongly, come to represent honour for British military dead on these islands, should hardly come as a surprise. Frankly, I would be more amazed if he had worn one. In truth, I imagine the BNP-level moron is not annoyed because McClean did not wear a poppy, but more so because it is a reminder that parts of the UK don’t like the country – and for good reason.

And there is the other argument. The poppy, as a symbol to represent the British, and in a wider context, the west’s, war dead, represents those who fought and gave their lives for a cause. “Freedom” is generally defined as that cause, freedom for ”small” nations like Belgium, freedom from the tyranny of enemy states (especially when expanded to cover conflicts other than WW1). Freedom of conscience, freedom of expression.

I have my own views on the limits of free speech but in this case, I will go along with those who cry out “They laid down their lives so we could be free – including the freedom to not wear such symbols”. James McClean is not hurting anyone. He is not disgracing anyone. If he is outraging people, it is only the manufactured sort of outrage, easily stoked up and just as easily forgotten in time for the next outrage.

This is remembrance gone wrong. It would be just the same if republican elements in this country began to demand that politicians, newsreaders, public personalities all wore lilies in late April. It would be the same if Irish society started demanding those same people not wear poppies.

We are, to an extent because of the sacrifices made by military men and women of various creeds, armies and colours, free to make all these choices ourselves. Wear a poppy, wear a lily, wear both, wear none. Do the same here, in Britain, in America, in Flanders Fields. Commemorate, refuse to. You have those choices. If you refuse, I may ask why, but I will never say “You must”.

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3 Responses to Revolutionary Remembrance: The Poppy

  1. Pingback: Happy Third Birthday To Me | Never Felt Better

  2. Mark Sullivan says:

    This is a good discussion of the poppy and its meaning in British and Commonwealth memory of the World Wars and other conflicts. While the American Legion appears to have first adopted it, Americans do not wear poppies to mark 11 November. By contrast Canadians do, and the wearing of the poppy in Canada is as important for politicians and TV broadcasters to be seen to do, as it has tended to become in Great Britain (as NFB writes). Very interesting evidence of this was the CBC broadcast coverage of the US Presidential Election in November 2010, less than a week before 11 November. (This was better than the poor BBC TV coverage that day, so I managed to log onto the CBC site.) The Canadian TV reporters broadcasting from within the USA including at both campaign headquarters all wore poppies, as did the ‘anchors’ and pundits in the studio back in Toronto. No Americans did and one wonders what the American politicians being interviewed made of this unusual symbol.
    The Canadian poppy is different from the British one – it is a moulded circular badge rather than one with leaves, but as impressive.

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