A poppy with any other aim

As Armistice Day comes to pass, Joel Coussins argues the case for a new Irish symbol of remembrance.
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Credit: Nadia Bertaud

COMMENT

 

“I couldn’t help but catch a glimpse of the headline of the Daily Record which read “James McClean in new poppy snub as West Brom star refuses to wear symbol”, which rather begs the question as to what the sports editor at the Record considers to be “new”..”

 

I begin this article with a strong sense of déjà vu. This is because I was first inspired to write this article exactly a year ago after walking into my local newsagent in West London and being struck by the anger emanating from the Daily Mail (no surprises there). “James McClean will refuse to wear a poppy again!” read the sensationalist headline – a seeming testament to the cultural ignorance that pervades British society, due largely to an education system that scrubs the atrocities from our colonial past. As I went to buy milk this morning, I couldn’t help but catch a glimpse of the headline of the Daily Record which read “James McClean in new poppy snub as West Brom star refuses to wear symbol”, which rather begs the question as to what the sports editor at the Record considers to be “new” — perhaps he or she is currently sat in their living room enjoying that “new” Pink Floyd album, you know, the one with the burning man on the front.

 

This is, of course, deliberate sensationalism by a particular area of the British media — tabloids using controversy to sell copies is hardly a new phenomenon, and there are more rational and respectful media outlets that have come out and defended James McClean by highlighting the reason that he refuses to wear a poppy; the reason being that McClean is a citizen of Derry city, and in fact grew up in the Creggan estate, which saw 6 of its residents killed in the conflict known as Bloody Sunday in 1972. Thus, with the poppy symbolising those who have fought for Britain in all past conflicts, and with one of those conflicts being the troubles, McClean would feel uncomfortable carrying that symbol.

 

Moreover, the biggest supporters of McClean throughout this whole ridiculous charade (one, it is worth pointing out, that has been dragging on since 2012, when he played for Sunderland) have been the British Legion themselves, the charity to whom all proceeds from selling poppies go to, who have said that to force people to wear the poppy against their wishes contravenes that which the poppy stands for in the first place. Therefore, McClean doesn’t wear a poppy, those who wish to do, and the whole issue is resolved, correct?

 

“If the poppy was simply about World War One and two victims alone,” he explained, “I’d wear it without a problem.”

 

Except that it isn’t. In fact, it creates an entirely new problem, which McClean highlighted himself in an interview this month with the Independent. “If the poppy was simply about World War One and two victims alone,” he explained, “I’d wear it without a problem.” The reason for this caveat from a man seemingly so principally opposed to the symbol is actually fairly obvious: during both the world wars many Irish regiments fought alongside the British, and subsequently many Irish lives were lost.

 

Of the roughly 140,000 that enlisted from Ireland during the Great War, as many as 49,400 lost their lives. What’s more, despite the Republic’s neutral stance in the Second World War, a 2009 study from the University of Edinburgh found that, alongside the nearly 4,000 fallen soldiers from Northern Ireland, more than three-and-a-half thousand soldiers from the south died in the line of fire.

 

These are the statistics that really bring home James McClean’s point: if your family has resided on this island at some point in the last century, chances are you’ve lost a relative in one of the world wars. Where, then, is their symbol of remembrance? Do they not deserve to be remembered in a similar fashion at this time of year, as opposed to being forgotten as being on the wrong side of history from an Irish perspective?

 

Exploring alternatives

 

“..the Peace Pledge Union, who are currently responsible for the distribution of white poppies, are a secular, pacifist organisation, but a British organisation nonetheless.”

 

The first thing to establish, then, would be whether or not there are any pre-existing, viable alternatives to the poppy that Ireland could willingly adopt as their symbol of remembrance. The obvious one would be the white poppy; first created in 1933, the white poppy was introduced by Women’s Co-Operative Guild (an early example of a female socio-political organisation in Britain, having originated in 1899) to stand as a symbol of peace and an end to all wars.

 

It was controversial from its inception, and continues to be so today, with even its most famous current proponent – one Jeremy Corbyn – feeling the need to switch to a red poppy for last year’s Remembrance Day service lest he generate yet more unwelcome headlines. However, since it stands for peace it could be seen as an appropriate symbol of remembrance for Irish nationals who oppose the acts of war carried out on the people of Ireland, both Northern and Republic, by the British army whilst still commemorating those who died in the line of service.

 

The problem with the white poppy seems to me to be twofold. Firstly, it’s still a British symbol of remembrance – the Peace Pledge Union, who are currently responsible for the distribution of white poppies, are a secular, pacifist organisation, but a British organisation nonetheless. Thus, proceeds from the purchase of such poppies goes to a British organisation. If the aim is to adopt a symbol of remembrance for Ireland, it seems inappropriate for the proceeds from the sales of such a symbol to be going to a non-Irish charity.

 

Secondly, although those in favour of the white poppy are right to argue that the red poppy conveys a specific political standpoint, the same is equally applicable to the white poppy itself. Pacifism is a very specific political affiliation, and not one that everyone agrees with. For example, you would be hard pressed to find a British Jew who would advocate wearing a white poppy. This is because, had a pacifist stance been taken in relation to the Second World War, then undoubtedly more than 6 million Jews would have perished across Europe. It would seem, then, that there are those who believe that there are wars worth fighting, thus negating the desire to wear such a blatantly anti-war icon. Besides which, if the aim of creating a uniquely Irish emblem is to avoid the political standpoint of the red poppy, then surely it makes more sense to create a mark of remembrance devoid of any political association. Thus, the white poppy will not suffice as a symbol of remembrance.

 

“It is here, perhaps, that it would be appropriate to turn to an historical source of Irish pride, namely the country’s Celtic roots.”

 

Taken for granted that it would be wildly inappropriate to co-opt the Easter Lily as the Irish version of the poppy, we are left with the solution that an innovative design is needed. It is here, perhaps, that it would be appropriate to turn to an historical source of Irish pride, namely the country’s Celtic roots. In the 9th Century, a new symbol swept the length and breadth of the country that would now be recognised as modern-day Ireland. This symbol still persists today, and can be found in many places across the country. Most importantly, it already has associations with remembrance, being found in every cemetery in every one of the 26 counties that make up the Republic.

 

This symbol is, of course, the Celtic cross – employed as a symbol of remembrance since its inception 12 centuries ago. In fact, so widely used was the Celtic cross as a memorial mark that, during the Gaelic Revival of the 19th Century, a specific memorial cross was designed, which is the iteration most would recognise as marking graves today. Lastly, and perhaps most crucially, the Celtic cross is the symbol that stands high above the graves of the 4,200 members of the 16th (Irish) Division at the Wytschaete cemetery, ten kilometres south of Ypres, to honour their bravery in giving the ultimate sacrifice for their country.

 

I have always worn a red poppy, in fact I am wearing one now as I write this. Both my grandparents fought in the Second World War, and my great-grandfather was blown up and blinded whilst on duty in 1916 – the injury would see him shipped home just two days before the commencement of the Battle of the Somme. I am a British Jew. I, along with almost every other Jew, lost some members of my extended family in the holocaust; I believe that some wars are worth fighting, and I wear my poppy to honour those who gave their lives to save those of people they never knew. However, the poppy is a British symbol – Ireland deserves its own, and it’s time it got one.

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