By Kevin Culligan
Last Saturday, James McClean was subjected to virulent verbal abuse and had projectiles thrown at him while playing for West Bromwich Albion against Huddersfield. This was for his refusal to wear a poppy on his jersey, as he has done before on multiple occasions. This is not the first time Mr McClean has suffered such abuse, nor will it be the last I am sure. In an open letter in 2014, he explained his reasons for not wearing the poppy, saying that he would wear it if it was only remembering the dead of the World Wars but that it is also used to remember victims of other conflicts, including the Troubles. While this is a valid point, I would nevertheless like to express my disagreement with his decision. However, this article is not primarily about McClean. Rather I would like to make the case that all Irish people should consider wearing the poppy.
Perhaps it might be good to recap why anybody wears the poppy. The association of the flower with the First World War originates from the 1915 poem “In Flanders Fields”, describing the poppies which grew on the battlefields where soldiers had died. Artificial poppies were first widely worn by veterans’ groups in the United States in 1920, before being used by similar groups in the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, and Canada in 1921. The poppy isn’t about the Second World War, or the Irish War of Independence or about the Troubles. Yes, the money raised goes to the Royal British Legion to support those who have served or are serving in the British army and their dependants. Yes, this thereby necessarily includes those who fought in other wars, including the Troubles. But no, it is essentially incorrect to say the poppy commemorates these soldiers. It is used because it grew in Belgium. It is worn in the lead up to Armistice Day (and ANZAC Day in Australia and New Zealand). It is indelibly linked in the collective consciousness of the world as symbolising the Great War. The only reason that money raised from poppy sales now goes mostly to other wars is that there are no soldiers left alive from 1918 (the money is also used for the upkeep of World War I memorials).
So, what exactly does it the poppy stand for? It is associated not with victory, but with needless, senseless loss. Without trying to oversimplify history, the First World War was eminently avoidable. The war on the Western Front is remembered in history for the brutal tactics used, from men charging at artillery in 1914 to the trench warfare of 1915-17 to the attritional warfare which eventually broke the stalemate in 1918. The poppy remembers the soldiers who signed up so eagerly in 1914 but who were so disillusioned by December that they brokered the famous Christmas truce. The poppy remembers the soldiers who died because generals on both sides were slow to learn and believed for too long that superior morale could overcome overwhelming firepower. The poppy remembers the fact that the Great War was not ‘the war to end all wars’, but that violence raged in Europe until 1923 and that just two decades after Versailles the world was at war once more. The poppy remembers the seventeen million who died (including forty-nine thousand Irish) who didn’t have to.
This is why people wear the poppy, to remember man’s inhumanity towards their fellow man. We in Ireland have often forgotten the First World War, from its almost complete omission from secondary school textbooks to only opening the Irish National War Memorial Gardens in 1988. Of the 200,000 who fought and 50,000 who died (from both halves of the island), many were committed nationalists who followed John Redmond’s call to serve so that Ireland would be granted Home Rule. If one still has objections to wearing the poppy and its money going to the Royal British Legion (which is completely understandable), there is always the option of wearing the ‘shamrock poppy’ which the Taoiseach wore in the Dáil earlier this week. The money raised from these is ringfenced; it goes to the Irish division of the British Royal Legion and is used for the upkeep of World War I memorials here in Ireland. But the poppy isn’t about the money. It’s about remembrance, and remembrance of all who fought and died not just those who were Irish.
So should James McClean have to wear the poppy? No. Freedom of speech is a value we hold dear, and his refusal does force a conversation about the Troubles and the behaviour of the British Army there. But I feel he should consider it. After all, his freedom to choose was secured by the many men, including those who were Irish who fought in the wars in the first half of the twentieth century. We all have the choice to wear the poppy or not, but doing so helps to remember the tragic fate of those who went off to war thinking they would be home before Christmas, perhaps best summed up by the poet Philip Larkin: “Never such innocence, never before or since… never such innocence again”.
Originally published 1.12.17 in Vol. 1 No. 1.