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Wednesday 22 May 2019

Eilis O'Hanlon: 'The poppy is a haunting symbol of Irish history too'

No one who visits the battlefields of France could ever argue that Remembrance Sunday has nothing to do with Ireland, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

THE GREEN FIELDS OF FRANCE: About 3,500 soldiers from Ireland (the 36th Ulster and the 16th Irish Divisions) lost their lives in the Battle of the Somme
THE GREEN FIELDS OF FRANCE: About 3,500 soldiers from Ireland (the 36th Ulster and the 16th Irish Divisions) lost their lives in the Battle of the Somme

There's something incongruous in the fact that we're still only at the beginning of the conversation about how to commemorate World War I, whilst in the UK there are serious discussions about whether the 100th anniversary of its ending today is a natural point from which to start winding down the annual commemorations.

Nor is it only the usual suspects on the pacifist left who are questioning the validity of the marking of Remembrance Day. Writing about the subject, former editor of the London Times, Simon Jenkins, provocatively argued in recent days that Britain should "get over it" and that next year should be a Forgetting Day instead.

There's little in his argument that could be gainsaid. Collective commemoration does inevitably lose some of its meaning over time, becoming ritualistic, institutionalised, and states do exploit these national events to peddle fake history.

The obsession with finding contemporary parallels with the horrors of the 20th Century is also unhealthy. Look at how frequently lazy commentators try to scaremonger about the success of so-called "national populists" such as US President Donald Trump by making not-so-subtle comparisons to the rise of fascism. They did it again last week just because Trump had a run-in with a reporter. It's tiresome, predictable, and it trivialises the reality of the events which they're exploiting for sensation.

If everyone was banned from using "fascist" as a slogan to fling at opponents, the quality of public debate would be hugely improved.

It's still probably too early to ditch November 11 as a symbolic point in the calendar, at least not until all the veterans of the world wars are dead, and possibly their children and grandchildren too. Societies have always remembered dead soldiers. A country needs, too, a national day on which to celebrate its sense of self, its archetype of national identity. Britain doesn't have a national day in the same way as other countries. Remembrance Sunday has become a substitute instead. As such, it's far less problematic than similar days.

France has celebrated Bastille Day with a military parade in Paris since the 1880s; Russia still celebrates Defenders of the Fatherland Day, first marked in 1919. Both are characterised by a hawkishness alien to Remembrance Sunday. Nor is anyone arguing that Ireland should stop marking Easter 1916.

Thinking too much about the two world wars has certainly bolstered a sense of superiority in the Brits, but why wouldn't it? They haven't always been on the right side of history; often quite the opposite. Even World War I is not straightforward, being more a catastrophic clash of empires than a just or legitimate war. But between 1939 and 1945, Britain was on the right side, and, goodness, will they not let anyone forget it.

A recruiting poster from WWI
A recruiting poster from WWI

Ireland has the opposite problem. Rather than talking about it too much, we hardly talk about that period at all, which has reinforced an idea that there might be something shameful in admitting that thousands of Irishmen, and women, died 100 years ago in a war which was not supposed to be our concern, and then in World War II, in a conflict from which the country officially stayed out.

Whatever one thinks of the past politics of empire, it's desperately sad that so many tens of thousands of Irish men have been forgotten. You can't go to the battlefields of northern France without being conscious of the Irish contribution. There is a corner of a foreign field that is forever Ulster, Connacht, Leinster, Munster. To say they should not be commemorated because of distaste for the militaristic vanities of the day is the modern equivalent of the silence which was imposed on veterans when they came home from the Western Front.

How has remembering the estimated 200,000 Irish men and women who fought in World War I, a quarter of whom never came home, been allowed to become so contentious? Partly it's because of the unfinished Irish Question, of course, and the fact that November 11 doesn't just remember those who died in the world wars but in more recent conflicts - including Northern Ireland.

So toxic has that legacy become that republicans blew up a Remembrance Day parade as recently as 1987, murdering 11 people. That could only have been done through a prism of ignorance about what the day meant to those marking it.

British arrogance doesn't help, it's true. It can be off-putting to witness each year the distasteful bullying which goes on as broadcasters and guests on TV shows are strong-armed into wearing a poppy, and even footballers, such as Irish international James McClean, are made to feel that they must justify their reasons for not wanting to do so. When the link between celebration and commemoration has become blurred, it's not unreasonable to harbour doubts about the uses to which the symbolism of the poppy has been put. Wearing a poppy only means something if it's a free choice.

That's why the question posed by last week's Claire Byrne Live was rather unfortunate. RTE asked respondents whether Irish politicians "should" wear a poppy to mark Remembrance Sunday, to which 42pc said no and 38pc said yes. The word "should" is entirely inappropriate, and makes a measured discussion of the issue impossible.

But it goes deeper than that. It's about who has the right to be considered "truly" Irish. That has been a contested space since independence. Even now, like theologians arguing over how many angels can dance on the head of a pin, some Irish nationalists try to draw pettifogging distinctions between Armistice Day (deemed more acceptable) and Remembrance Day (still considered too "British"). It would be easier to remember those who died in British Army uniforms if they'd been conscripts, who had no choice in the matter - but they were volunteers. Driven by economic necessity in many cases, but volunteers all the same.

If there's one thing we've learned from the increasing liberalisation of Irish society, though, it should be that there's no one way to be Irish.

That has to include people who fought for the British army back then, and some of whom do it to this day. They're no less Irish for it.

Folk memory may say they died for "king and country", and, since this isn't our monarch or country any more, what should it have to do with us? But very few people who wear poppies even in the UK now think of the dead soldiers in that cliched way. The language of "king and country" is dead and gone. They're more likely to think of them as ordinary people caught up in terrible events over which they had no control, and who tried to do what they considered their duty. Few of the soldiers in the first war even had the vote. They were poor, voiceless.

Poppies are just one aspect, and not even the most important part, of that history. That they become the focal point of controversy in Ireland each year is simply us searching for a language to talk about it. The shamrock poppy, as worn by the Taoiseach for the past couple of years, is a way of opening up that space in an inclusive way. Most people understand and sympathise with what he's doing.

Maybe this year's 100th anniversary of the armistice in 1918 should be the point at which that commemoration, far from being consigned to the rubbish heap of history, is opened up to include more people. That includes those on the losing side too. Germans suffered appallingly in the two world wars, and they're still not allowed to really talk about it because, unfairly, they psychologically carry a collective shame.

Joe Duffy's work cataloguing the lives of children lost in the Easter Rising, and retelling their stories, shows that it's possible to find an inclusive way of remembering past events whilst acknowledging that terrible things were done to innocent people on both sides of the conflict. German Federal President Frank-Walter Steinmeier will lay a wreath in London today during the Armistice ceremony.

If Germans can take part in dignified acts of remembrance, there's little reason for the Irish not to do so, especially when we were actually in a union with Britain at the time. That history belongs to us too.

Sunday Independent

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