By Aine Pennello
TURN ON any British network channel last fortnight and you would have seen red poppies pinned to the lapels of nearly every news anchor and reporter, politician and passer-by. Channel 4 news presenter Jon Snow, however, has expressed his preference to wear the poppy in private in retaliation against what he terms “poppy fascism”.
“They died that we might be free to wear a poppy whenever we wish,” Snow blogged.
In an effort to bring the issue of the poppy emblem in Ireland to light, the French Department held their third annual Remembrance Day conference on Friday, November 18.
Discussing this year’s theme of “resistance and memorialisation in relation to Ireland, France, Holland, Great Britain and the Channel Islands”, were organisers Dr Sarah Alyn Stacey and Dr Gerald Morgan, former member of the French Resistance Pierre-Yves Canu, Irish Times journalist Kevin Myers, historian George Busby, Dr Gavin Hughes and Professors Jonathan Trigg, Gilly Carr and Yvonne McEwen.
“Southern Ireland and the Liberation of France”, a book edited by Morgan and Hughes, lists 111 Trinity graduates currently known to have died fighting in World War Two.
“Here at Trinity people have been unable to stand up and talk about our Second World War dead for over sixty years,” said Morgan who also expressed shame that College had not already erected a memorial in their honour.
In response to her efforts to organise an official commemoration, Alyn Stacey said she received a letter from the Provost advising her to “leave it for academic study”. The letter has since been reprinted in “Southern Ireland and the Liberation of France”.
“What a roll call of forgetfulness and neglect,” said Morgan, who also said he was dismayed that “not a word” had been uttered of “the Trinity dead of 1939 to 1945”.
Irish journalist Kevin Myers recogised the Irish World War Two dead by giving an obituary list of the 200-plus Irish RAF bomber command soldiers killed, “George Atkinson of Blackrock was co-pilot of a bomber that collided with another bomber on take-off. Though his family could have repatriated his body to Ireland, he is buried in England. Charles Webster from Monaghan was rear gunner in June 1940 in an early bombing raid on Germany in which he was killed. Sergeant Donald Morrissey from Clontarf – his plane was simply lost without trace during the Battle of Britain…”
Commended by McEwen for his speech, Myers commented on the emotional difficulties of carrying out his research. “I was very close to tears,” he said. “It’s terrible, it’s really terrible”.
McEwen, also an in-depth researcher of Ireland’s war victims, presented College last year with a leather-bound roll of honour of the then 7500 Irish-born men and women known to have died in the armed forces during World War Two.
Following the media coverage of the event, McEwen received over 200 emails that night from Irish citizens asking if a relative’s name was on the list or if it could be added.
“I could not believe what was in front of my eyes,” recalled McEwen who continued to be inundated with emails for months following. “In fact, I still get them,” she said. With further collaboration and research, McEwen’s roll of honour now records up to 9100 names.
McEwen, the only conference attendee to wear a poppy, insisted there was much more to be done to memorialise the 9100 men and women.
“My mother died last week,” she revealed. “I buried her on Monday and we had a body to grieve over. But of the 9100 here, there were very few bodies to grieve over,” she said. “In the absence of a body you would expect a memorial, but we still don’t have that. Loss has to have a meaning. Loss has to be acknowledged socially, traditionally, economically, politically”
While the installment of headstones on the unmarked war graves at Glasnevin cemetery and Margaret Ritchie’s move to become the first SDLP leader to wear the poppy on Remembrance Day illustrate a change in how we commemorate the Irish World War dead, Morgan agreed with McEwen’s judgement. “I think in this book,” he said, “we have our first memorial of the Trinity dead”.
“Southern Ireland and the French Liberation” is scheduled to be published in 2011.