Tuesday 19 February 2019

Colum Kenny: Poppy marks the sacrifices made by Irish of all creeds

Wearing a poppy would show that Michael D can rise above its misuse, writes Colum Kenny

Two of my Kerry grand-uncles died during the First World War, Stephen in Palestine and Jack at Gallipoli in April 1915. Tattered messages that refer to Jack Murphy survive: "Send reinforcements urgently required. I have no men," and "I am unable to hold out. Send reinforcements. Urgent." Finally, around midnight, comes this one from Sergeant Murphy, "No answer to last message. The wire must be cut. I have sent patrol. Firing is very near."

President Michael D Higgins should this weekend wear a poppy to mark their deaths and the sacrifices of so many other Irishmen in that war. Doing so honours them and is also a gesture of reconciliation with those Irish who today regard themselves as British. Queen Elizabeth bowed her head in the Garden of Remembrance.

Poppies are sold to raise money for the welfare of war veterans from armies of the Commonwealth. They recall those real red flowers that blossomed on the killing fields of Flanders after the slaughter of young soldiers in The Great War. That war ended on November 11, 1918, now known as Poppy Day.

The Irish president should don a poppy for remembrance, despite the fact that some of those who do so wear it for reasons that are as much political or imperial as they are commemorative.

I doubt if Jack or Stephen considered themselves British. Their sister Annette certainly did not. She married my grandfather, a man who had friends across the political spectrum and who worked for Irish independence. One of those friends was Tom Kettle.

Kettle, who had edited The Nationist for which Kevin acted as commercial manager and who had worked hard for Home Rule, was one of the first Irishmen to join the army in 1914 when war broke out. He enlisted in the Dublin Fusiliers and was put to work recruiting for the army.

Appalled by the vicious killing of his friend and brother-in-law Francis Sheehy-Skeffington by a British officer in Dublin in 1916, Kettle considered resigning. Instead, precisely because so many men had enlisted in response to his own speeches, he volunteered for active service. Within three months of this moral decision Tom Kettle died in action in France.

His widow Mary later explained clearly his rationale for supporting the war, which was based on his vision of Ireland's role in Europe. Her memoir is worth reading as a means of understanding that not all Irishmen who fought in The Great War did so simply on behalf of the UK or to ingratiate the Irish with the British in order to secure Home Rule. Men like Kettle had broader idealistic motivations.

In Belfast last week, attending a dinner with both unionists and nationalists, it was clear to me that wearing the poppy means something more for some Irish people than it does for others. It can be a badge of Britishness as well as a memento of those who fought in two world wars against German domination of Europe.

Wearing the poppy is not made easier by some of the antics that surround it in Britain. It is pasted ritually on TV presenters and their guests for up to two weeks before Remembrance Day, with one even being superimposed digitally on Jonathan Ross when he forgot to wear it during a programme in 2003. Pressure is applied to ensure that companies lift uniform codes so that staff may or will wear it.

Last week, in the middle of a European financial crisis, UK Prime Minister David Cameron found time to upbraid Fifa for preventing footballers from wearing symbols during international matches. This looked like a political manipulation of national sentiment.

Poppy culture can be a subtle way of lending credibility to ill-advised adventures in Afghanistan or Iraq by linking them back into the worthier sacrifices of generations in unavoidable world wars.

It is such chauvinism and not mere British or Irish nationalism that may still make it difficult for some people to pin on a poppy. Just imagine the comments if all RTE presenters and guests were expected to sport a lily on their lapels at Easter.

But the poppy ultimately honours people like Jack Murphy and the boyfriend of one of my grandaunts. He also died in the Dardanelles. It is they who are honoured, rather than Jack's commanding officer Major-General Hunter-Weston. Even the British Dictionary of National Biography states that this officer was regarded as a butcher by his troops. He remained safely offshore on board a warship. Four months after the massacre, Hunter-Weston collapsed from sunstroke and was invalided home, where he was knighted. He later served as a Unionist MP for North Ayrshire and lived until 1940.

I have only once worn a poppy, and that was after the IRA bombing of the Remembrance Day ceremony at Enniskillen in 1987. I donned it then as a symbol of protest at that crime against humanity.

It is for symbolical reasons too that President Higgins should wear one on Remembrance Sunday each year. "A decade of commemorations lies ahead," as he said at his inauguration on Friday.

Wearing a poppy each year would show that he can rise above any misuse of the symbol and represent all Irishmen and Irishwomen, whatever uniform they wear and wherever their political loyalty ultimately lies.

Sunday Independent

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