Tuesday, 8 November 2011

The Wearing of the Poppy

So it's that time of year again when some people will wear a poppy and get flack for being a West-Brit, some people won't wear a poppy and get flack for living in the past and some people won't care too much one way or the other and will just let the whole thing pass them by (what are we commemorating anyway?).

This is still a time and place in Ireland where every Barstool Republican will vilify poppy wearers in mostly anti-English terms. And there are still people who legitimately argue that the money raised from the sales of poppies went to give aid to those who were in the infamous Black and Tans, those who perpetrated Bloody Sunday etc. Nowadays people argue that poppy wearing supports those in Iraq or Afghanistan - yet no army ever picked their battleground. Even in Britain itself the wearing or not wearing of the poppy can be very controversial. The rule that was enforced by the BBC that all presenters must wear one takes away from people's choice. Dara O'Briain didn't don a poppy one year  and said his hate mail was so vast that he wore it the following year, which meant he merely replaced British hate mail with Irish hate mail. Robert Fisk in an excellent article for the Independent recalls his father (who had fought in the Great War) eventually stopped wearing the poppy because he felt it was a war that had been fought on lies and it sickened him to see "so many damn fools" wearing it to look patriotic, or to fit in when they had no idea of what it was like. (article here and well worth a read http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/fisk/robert-fisk-do-those-who-flaunt-the-poppy-on-their-lapels-know-that-they-mock-the-war-dead-6257416.html)

I doubt there is a person in Ireland that doesn't have some ancestor who fought or died in either of the World Wars for the British Army. Indeed in the case of WWI all of our Irish ancestors were technically British. I know in my own family I have two great-uncles who were killed in action in WWI and my grandfather fought in WWII. And there are many whose relations are still fighting and dying in that same army.

Which brings us back to the poppy. The poppy was chosen as the symbol to commemorate the sacrifice made by they young men in WWI because of its blood red colour and the fact that it was the only flower that deigned to grow on the fields of the Somme. It has been immortalised in many poems following the Great War. As a symbol, the poppy has ancient origins, much of which focus on the narcotic properties of the flower.Although the poppies of Flanders do not contain opium, the association with narcosis remains. This association is especially important in the ritual of remembrance, helping to console the bereaved. Another aspect that makes the poppy important is its very commonness. Poppies grow virtually anywhere, and because the poppy is found in such large numbers, it is fitting that it is a symbol strongly associated with the first major industrialised war, where everything was done on a large scale: bombardments, attacks, battles, casualty lists. Here poppies can be used to symbolise the masses of soldiers who fell in battle. Poppies, like those who enlisted in the army, are also easily obtained, due to their very availability. Indeed, the throngs of men standing to enlist outside army recruiting offices seen in many photographs from the initial stages of the First World War, can be likened to masses of poppies found on the battlefield. Poppies need no preening or cultivating, they grow, unlike the finer rose, without having to be trained or tended. Poppies are a short-lived flower - it symbolises well the soldiers - the life expectancy of the front line troops was also very brief.

And this brings us back again to the young men that fought and often gave their lives. Over the past couple of days I've been researching and trying to get my head around our abhorrence to commemorating our war dead in some way. It doesn't have to be with a poppy but surely there could be some way of venerating the sacrifice made by so many young men of this country. More men from Ireland were killed in battle during the Great War than were during any other conflict, more men were killed in WWI than were killed during all the troubles in Northern Ireland. Those who weren't killed were effectively ostracised from their communities on their return from war. Let us not forget those men, who died either because they had been peddled the great lie that independence was just around the corner once they fought first, the lie that was peddled by the Irish alongside the British. Let us not forget men for whom times were so hard that they would take the King's shilling so long as it put food on their family's table. Those men who have been whitewashed from our history with an efficiency Stalin would have envied.

So wear a poppy or not - it's up to you and if you have personal and or political reasons for not or doing so then your wishes should be respected. Ultimately it is an expression of personal freedom and wasn't that what the soldiers in the Great war and WWII (and could be argued the Irish war of Independence) fighting for. Whatever you do cast an occasional thought to those young boys who died for us to get to where we are today. The dead of the 1914-1918 War are to some just names on paper but to others they represent the generation which lost its youth as brave young men went to War in a cause which was to unite families in grief. For too long we pushed to one side their memory forgetting that bravery wears many uniforms. Their life sacrifices must always be a constant reminder to us of how our neighbours suffered, why our neighbours grieved and why their dead must always be remembered.

In memory of Lance-Corporal Patrick Flynn killed in action 14th September 1916  and his brother Private Christopher Flynn killed in action 28th July 1917 

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