Thursday 2 October 2014

How does it feel to wear a poppy on the streets of Dublin a year after the queen's visit?

I am walking down Talbot Street in Dublin city centre, heading towards Connolly Station, when a man on a bicycle materialises alongside me and starts to roar abuse.

"That f***ing thing," he shouts, pointing to the bright red poppy on my lapel. "Go back to England with your f***ing poppy."

It's a bizarre outburst, considering that the 30-something cyclist is wearing a tracksuit top emblazoned with the words Chelsea FC -- one of England's top football teams.

His words rattle me badly and I don't respond. He has the countenance of someone who would be quite happy to let his fists do the talking and I'm relieved when he cycles away, rant over.

My sense of unease is compounded by the fact that I have been wearing this Remembrance Day symbol for only half-an-hour and already I've been on the receiving end of looks that have veered from suspicious to hostile.

The idea had been simple: how do Irish people regard the poppy and its meaning in 2012? It's one thing to see it sported by every presenter on British television -- but what reaction would I get if I walked through the streets of Dublin wearing it?

How many are now keen to acknowledge the thousands of Irishmen who served in the British army, especially the 200,000 or so from here who fought in the First World War? Of those, more than 50,000 perished in the trenches.

I'm not the only one to gauge the mood. Fine Gael TD for Roscommon/Leitrim, Frank Feighan, became the first member of the Dáil to wear the poppy in the house for 16 years and, during the week, ex-Taoiseach John Bruton sported the symbol on Channel 4.

But it's a very different story walking through the streets of Ireland's capital where, in the course of three days, I see only one other person wearing a poppy. He is a professional male in his 30s and his head is held high.

Despite the verbal abuse from the angry Chelsea fan that first day, I don't experience any direct hostility. Sure, there are lots of inquisitive stares and there is an unsettling moment when a pair of young men with strong Northern Irish accents suspend their conversation as I walk by: they stare at the poppy -- and then at me -- with open contempt. But for the most part, anyone who has something to say to me about it is positive.

I'm touched by a chance encounter with a woman in Bewley's on Grafton Street, who says it's great to see an Irish person wear the poppy in acknowledgement of all those countrymen who died fighting in both world wars. She is originally from Kent and has lived in Ireland for 30 years. She is heartened to see that relations between this country and Britain have improved significantly in recent years.

Another day, an elderly Dublin man stops me near the Spire on O'Connell Street to applaud my decision to wear the poppy. He says he grew up hearing the stories of many Irishmen who "gave their lives for Ireland" by fighting in British colours during the First World War.

He is saddened that for many, the poppy is seen as a symbol of British imperialism, rather than a simple acknowledgement that people died fighting for a cause they believed in and that we all benefit from today.

"It's a way of showing that we haven't forgotten," he says, "and are grateful."

That the poppy is a contentious symbol is without question. The UK television journalist Jon Snow refuses to wear one on air, citing "poppy fascism" as his primary motivation -- the pressure to be seen to do the right thing.

And this week, Roscommon Sinn Fein councillor Michael Mulligan criticised Frank Feighan for wearing a poppy in the Dáil, suggesting that it was a commemoration of the Black and Tans and of those British soldiers who committed atrocities during the Troubles.

"It's a really good figure," she says, "especially in an environment where people are suffering charity-fatigue and are struggling to make ends meet themselves."

Queen Elizabeth's visit to Ireland last year is likely to have helped Roche's cause. "The amount collected was up by €60,000 on the previous 12 months," she says. "There's no doubt that the relationship between this country and Britain has improved greatly, even in the past 10 years.

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