Monday 16 September 2019

Poppy row shows two cultures divided by common symbol

Sienna Miller provoked outrage when she appeared on ‘The Graham Norton Show’ without a poppy
Sienna Miller provoked outrage when she appeared on ‘The Graham Norton Show’ without a poppy

Ian O’Doherty

Damned if you do, damned if you don't.

Conor McGregor and actress Sienna Miller may seem an unlikely duo but the pair have become unwittingly embroiled in the now annual furore over the wearing, or otherwise, of the poppy.

In Miller's case, she provoked outrage when she appeared on 'The Graham Norton Show' without the poppy and was immediately accused of being unpatriotic and forgetting her roots.

When a picture emerged last week of McGregor sporting a small poppy, he was immediately accused of being...unpatriotic and forgetting his roots.

Two different people, with two different actions, yet both of them received identical condemnation from supposed 'patriots' in their respective countries. Miller was quick to explain her lack of a poppy on the grounds that it would have caused a wardrobe malfunction on her dress (she is an actress who is paid to look good, after all) and she offered the usual apologies for any offence which may have been caused. That wasn't enough to placate the Little Englanders, however, who now seem determined to portray her as the most disloyal English person since Kim Philby.

Apologies aren't really part of McGregor's vocabulary and rather than issuing a mea culpa for a two-year-old photograph, he decided to tell everyone involved to f*** off - including the queen, which seemed as misplaced as it was baffling.

Both of them are high-profile figures who always run the risk of inadvertently walking into a scandal, but when it comes to the vexed issue of the poppy, it's interesting to note just how similar the reactions are from opposing sides of the argument.

In the interests of disclosure, I should point out that I wear the poppy for my own personal reasons and in memory of an old man I once knew who left the British army with severe PTSD. He returned home to Ireland to spend the rest of his life being abused and harassed by his neighbours and their kids for the crime of being a 'west Brit' and a traitor. Every year around this time I think of 'Mad Larry', as he was known, and I wear the poppy to remind myself of this unfortunate soul who spent a life of mental illness which was exacerbated by the vicious and unforgivable hostility of his own community.

That's a choice I make of my own free will and I refuse to be bullied by anyone over what I choose to wear - or not wear, for that matter.

But when it comes to hardliners and zealots, there is no room for choice or subtlety or nuance and that was evident when a group calling itself the Sean Heuston 1916 Society decided that McGregor was obviously a self-loathing lackey for the hated British.

The fact that he was attending an event in England where everyone was wearing a poppy and, if anything, was merely guilty of being a good guest, matters not a jot for the fundamentalists, and the rag bag group of keyboard Republicans complained that: "He comes out to 1916 song 'The Foggy Dew' then wears a poppy remembering the men who fought to kill and suppress them and the ideas they fought for."

There's little point in even trying to point out the simplistic historical illiteracy of that statement - young Irish nationalists died from Flanders to Gallipoli - but the crucial ingredient for any piece of idiotic bigotry is a contempt for awkward facts.

I doubt the brains trust of the Sean Heuston Society would ever confront the awkward fact that they have far more in common with the so-called 'poppy fascists' in Britain who angrily demand everyone wears one than they do with anyone else.

After all, both sides share the same zeal when it comes to demanding that everyone else conform to their own particular agenda and both sides are quick to denounce and condemn anyone who is, in their mind, a thought criminal. Crucially, both sides seem equally ignorant of what that little symbol actually represents, primarily the slaughter of virtually an entire generation of young, working class men.

Even though I wear my poppy with pride, there is something faintly ridiculous about the relatively recent phenomenon of demanding that everyone who appears on British television, particularly the BBC, must apparently wear it for virtually the entire month of November. Christmas is not the only event that seems to arrive earlier each year, it seems.

Ultimately, the right to not wear something is as important as the right to wear it, which is why even the reliably contrary James McLean has received unexpected support from many English people who, while disagreeing with the Derry man's very public eschewing of the poppy, support and understand his right to make his own decisions without receiving bullets in the post.

On this issue, at least, we are two cultures divided by a common symbol and if things are bad for Irish poppy wearers this year, one can only imagine the fun and games that await anyone who dons the flower in 12 months' time when the 1916 commemorations are in full swing.

Mad Larry would be forgiven for thinking that maybe we haven't changed that much after all.

Irish Independent

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