Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Whats the big deal ? Just wear the poppy !

Its that time of year again when the inevitable debate arises about the poppy and whether it should be worn in Ireland. The debate is usually led by Kevin Myers who believes that all Irish should wear it proudly to honor the Irish who fell fighting in the British Army during World War One. I'm going to be blunt here. I don't even understand why this is a controversial issue. To me, a historian and a passionately proud Irishman wearing the poppy seems entirely natural. Although it is difficult to be precise the generally accepted figure Of Irish killed in the great war is 49,000. Yet for some reason the Irish people still do not feel comfortable honoring the dead more than 90 years on. Only in recent years have the Irish government officially recognised the 1914-1918 war dead and although this was a positive step there is still a reluctance to do something as simple as wearing a poppy. This Armistice Day, no member of the political establishment will wear a poppy.

Conventional thinking on the matter is that it is wrong to honor the men who fought for a country that Ireland would later be at war with. Furthermore the poppy is a British symbol and no Irish politician would risk such an unnecessary self inflicted wound by wearing it. First things first, the Irish state did not even exist during the great war years so I don't see how anyone can be accused of betraying it. In fact opponents of the poppy conveniently ignore that many prominent Irish leaders of the war of Independence including hard liners like Tom Barry had served in the British Army during the war. Is anyone going to argue that Tom Barry was a traitor. But this isn't even the issue. I don't care who they fought with or why. The poppy is merely a symbol of remembrance. 49,000 dead is a massive number. Nothing in our modern history compares. Not to trivialise these events but if you add the number of fatalities from the 1916 rising, the war of Independence and the Civil War the combined total killed is about 7000. Those killed in the political violence of 1916-1923 which resulted in an independent state are rightly remembered and honored. Yet the 49,000 killed barely get a mention.

I am a sentimental type. I have read many books on the Irish that have fought in foreign wars and often get a lump in my throat when reading about young men who left their native land to go to war. The reality is that in most cases they only did so for an adventure and a change of scene. Sometimes they got it, sometimes they did not. In the great war they were killed in droves at the Somme, Verdun, Ypres, Galipolli and Mesopotamia. Refuing to remember them because it doesn't sit well with a nations interpretation of its history stinks of ignorance and a lack of confidence. Its just a flower. 49,000 Irish people died. Just wear it !

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