Sunday, November 17, 2013

A symbol of remembrance or 'poppyganda?'

One morning last week in Dublin I turned the TV on to check the weather forecast. I had already gathered that in Ireland in November every ray of sunshine is a gift. Also, a clear sky is no guarantee it won’t rain 20 minutes later.

'In Flanders fields the poppies blow . . .'
A talking head on the BBC promised a weather report soon. When it came on, the strangest thing happened. The weather map panned west from England and Scotland to Ireland, but only the northern sixth of the island had cities on it, notably Belfast. There was no Dublin, and the Republic of Ireland was a blank.

This was a reminder of the complex and troubled history of Ireland and Northern Ireland and the fitful relationship between the English and the Irish. The map helped explain a debate I had been reading in The Irish Times.

This being the week of Armistice Day, the subject of the debate was the poppy, the symbol of . . . well, I almost finished this phrase, but that, in fact, was the crux of the matter. Was the poppy – the red poppy, I should say – a symbol of remembrance of the World War I dead or of British jingoism?

I’m old enough to remember American Armistice Day parades in which World War I veterans marched and we all wore plastic poppies in our buttonholes. The American Legion or the VFW sold them. In an American context they were never anything but memorial symbols of remembrance.

So the debate was new to me, although I imagine it is an annual dust-up in the pages of The Irish Times.

Rather than summarize it, I’ll just turn it over to the debaters.

Nov. 7

Brian Hanley, university historian and lecturer, in a column headlined “The fuzzy nostalgia encouraged by Poppy Day facilitates the justification of war”:

“More than 200,000 Irish men served and over 30,000 died in the first World War. There is no doubt that the conflict was central to the shaping of Ireland over the next decade. Without it there would have been no Easter Rising. But understanding the importance of the war should not mean embracing a strange soft-focus view of sacrifice, symbolised in many ways by the poppy, that avoids the real issues behind Ireland’s involvement.

“Firstly, it is important to stress that the poppy commemorates not just the dead of the world wars but all British military losses since 1914. Many who have no problem with commemorating Great War dead justifiably baulk at honouring those who served in Britain’s colonial and post-colonial dirty wars.

The Duke of Edinburgh lays a red poppy wreath at  the Menin Gate in Ypres, Belgium, last week.
“One of the reasons the flower is so omnipresent at this time of year is because it is practically compulsory for those in the public eye in the UK. What one historian has called ‘poppyganda’ is part of a renewed militarisation of British public life. As a group of British veterans of the Iraq war complained two years ago, the build-up to Armistice Day now amounts to ‘a month-long drum roll of support for current wars.’

“The poppy has not always been so prominent as a symbol of remembrance. Historian Padraig Yeates, who grew up in Birmingham, recalls how his father, decorated during the second World War, ‘never wore a poppy and anyone I knew who served with him never wore a poppy.

“ ‘They regarded it, and the British Legion, as symbolising all that was worst, most jingoistic and reactionary in the British establishment.’  . . .

“When remembering the dead of the Great War we should also commemorate those who resisted it and who hoped that a new world would emerge in which such slaughter would never occur again.

“Embracing the fuzzy nostalgia of the poppy only encourages those who want to justify that war – and others.”

Nov. 8

Patrick O’Byrne, Dublin, letter to the editor:

“For some, the red poppy symbol advocates war and for others it advocates remembrance of the war dead. The solution might lie with the white poppy which unambiguously advocates peace.

Nov. 11

Ciaran Connolly, Dublin, letter to the editor:

“This white poppy business is another piece of that liberal PC claptrap that can’t resist denigrating everything venerable. The red poppy is unambiguously about remembrance of the war dead and there is nothing to suggest that it advocates war.

“For the record I am not a poppy wearer. It is a British thing.”

Nov. 12

Nigel Newling, Bristol, England, letter to the editor:

“I am a retired British serviceman, married to an Irish national for the last 35 years. My grandfather was a major, posted to the Dublin Castle garrison, light duties, to recover from injuries received in the trenches, in January 1916. I wear my poppy with pride on Armistice Day to honour all who died in wars not of their making and to remind our current leaders that war is never the right answer.

“To try to associate the charitable activities of the British Legion, helping injured servicemen and their dependents, including Irish men and women who have served in the British forces, with some obsolete notion of British (by which Mr. Hanley means English) imperialism suggests an inability to recognise that the world has moved on. We should be using this annual period of reflection to consider how we can work together to make tomorrow better.”

Nov. 13

Brian Patterson, Dublin, letter to the editor:

“The decision to use a red poppy to raise funds for the Earl Haig Fund – named in honor of General ‘The Butcher’ Haig [Douglas Haig, British Expeditionary Force commander], whose contempt for the ordinary soldier can be gauged from the zeal with which he sent hordes of them to their deaths for no discernible gain in prosecution of a war fought for imperial ambitions – was inspired by the pro-war poem ‘In Flanders Fields,’ which emphasises the need for vengeance and exhorts soldiers to continue to kill people. . . .

Douglas Haig. World War I British commander 
“The poppy continues to be associated with the Royal British Legion, which never misses an opportunity to utilize it as a propaganda tool for recruiting new cannon fodder and for promoting continued British military aggression abroad.

“By way of contrast, the white poppy seeks to commemorate all victims of war, and to promote an end to all wars.”

[The final stanza of John McCrae’s “In Flanders Fields” reads:
Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
   The torch; be yours to hold it high.
   If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
         In Flanders fields.]

John F. Fallon, Boyle, Ireland, letter to the editor:

“The poppy is a symbol of those who died in the First World War. Among those were tens of thousands of Irishmen, our relatives who lived and were loved and now lie in some cemetery in France, Belgium, Gallipoli and the Middle East. Those men were not sent, as Mr. Hanley states; they joined up. John Redmond [Irish parliamentarian featured on recruiting posters in the same art as the Uncle Sam ‘I want you’ poster] didn’t send them out to die; they volunteered. . . .

“Even the great republic of the United States could not stand aside when the conviction dawned that the first World War could make the world safer for democracy.”  


Next year Europe will begin observing the centenary of World War I. In 2016, Ireland will celebrate the centenary of the Easter Rising of 1916. It was the zealous reaction of the British government and army to the Rising that turned its leaders into martyrs and converted huge numbers of Irish citizens to support of independence.

The convergence of these anniversaries augurs even more robust times for the great poppy debate.

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