Lifestyle

Saturday 12 July 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.

Pam Roche, the Dublin county manager of the Royal British Legion, is well used to hearing such brickbats. But she says the response of her fellow Irish people tends to be much more considered and that support for the poppy is growing.

When I meet her on Monday morning in her office off Nassau Street, she is opening envelope after envelope of donations -- some of them anonymous. In the 12 months up to the end of October, some €250,000 was raised in the Republic alone.

"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.

"People are also finally acknowledging the huge contribution that our forefathers made in ensuring that this country could keep its freedom."

Several generation of Roche's family have served in the British armed forces, including her father, Joseph Cornelius Fahy -- a former Christian brother from Co Mayo -- who served in the Royal Air Force's Bomber Command during the Second World War. He died in 1991 and she shows me his treasured medals and the logbook which records the nightly attacks on Germany. Memory of his bravery drives her to raise as much money as possible.

"All money raised in this country stays in this country," she says. "I can give €7,500 to each eligible case, although in very special circumstances we can give up to €20,000. The money raised through the Poppy Appeal makes a very real contribution to people's quality of life."

Corkman Wayne Carroll, who served as a mechanic in the British army for five years in the 1980s, is among the recipients.

"I've had back trouble for years," he says, "and the financial assistance given to me by the Legion has helped me greatly when money is tight."

He had reason to be grateful to the organisation in late September when, in a cruel twist of fate, his 25-year-old daughter Amanda was killed in a motoring incident.

He says: "They helped with the cost of the funeral and also gave me great emotional support. Amanda was 13 weeks' pregnant when she died."

He wears his poppy with pride each year, but has had to contend with hostility all the time.

"Many of the people I went to school with won't talk to me -- and all because I joined the British army."

Pam Roche says the help given to people like Wayne Carroll is a very real part of the work done by the Legion -- and of the money raised by the Poppy Appeal.

"Often, it's The Great War that people think of when they see someone wearing the poppy," she says. "But the Legion also helps people who are serving today. There are about 4,000 people from the Republic of Ireland who are in the British armed forces right now and -- God forbid -- they might one day need our help."

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