Sunday 15 September 2019

Ian O'Doherty: 'Whether you agree with wearing a poppy or not, it's only right that we honour a generation of young Irishmen killed in foreign fields'

Poppies on wooden crosses in the Field of Remembrance at Royal Wootton Bassett. Photo: Andrew Matthews/PA Wire
Poppies on wooden crosses in the Field of Remembrance at Royal Wootton Bassett. Photo: Andrew Matthews/PA Wire
Ian O'Doherty

Ian O'Doherty

As has become our wont, this year's presidential campaign was a bruising and, some would say, farcical affair.

Outside observers were stunned by the levels of vitriol and rancour which surrounded the race for what is essentially a ceremonial role with some seldom- deployed Constitutional powers.

While Michael D Higgins ended the clear winner, his halo was undeniably tarnished.

There was an undeniably mutinous mood among the voters and while he was always likely to win by a comfortable margin, there can be little doubt that if the campaign had lasted for another week or two, his margin of victory would have been a lot slimmer.

He became an oddly polarising figure during the race, exciting his fans and enraging his detractors in equal measure.

But any non-partisan analysis of his speech at the Armistice wreath-laying ceremony in Glasnevin on Sunday would surely recognise that it was a fine example of trying to lay the ghosts of our past to rest, and to provide some sort of atonement for our shameful treatment of the 200,000 men who volunteered to fight in the war that was supposed to end all wars.

For all the President's frequently incomprehensible flights of rhetorical fancy, his statement that, "We remember, in particular, the 200,000 men from across the island of Ireland, north and south, east and west, who served in that war, and we call to mind in a special way the tens of thousands who never returned home, who remain forever in the soil of France, Belgium, Greece and Turkey," was an eloquent call - not to arms, but for a compassionate recognition of the sacrifices made by those Irish people, mostly poor and driven to sign up to escape the grinding poverty of the time.

It's often forgotten that the tenements of Dublin in those years were worse even than the infamous slums of Naples, and of the 200,000 who volunteered, from Crumlin and the Liberties, from the back streets of Cork, the dank laneways of Limerick, or the farms of Rathnew, were faced with little choice - live a life of grinding, relentless poverty and deprivation, or join the massive war machine gearing up for slaughter in those places which are now emblazoned on our memory.

Ypres, Mons, the Somme and Suvla Bay are just some of the foreign fields where our young and poor found themselves fed into the remorseless meat grinder of that apocalyptic conflict.

What was impressive about Higgins's speech was that, while he obviously claims to represent all the people of this frequently baffling and infuriating little country, he is a product of the left.

As such, many of his staunchest supporters would be the people most likely to dismiss such commemorations as a celebration of imperialism, or a remnant of West-Brittery, or some sinister reminder of a cohort of Irish people who wish we were still part of the empire.

It's easy to look at historical events through the prism of modern political theory.

It's convenient, for some, to impose their own views, formed in 2018, on the views of the people of 1918. But it is both absurd and a monstrous presumption for those of us alive today to dare judge the 200,000 who fought and the (estimated) 49,000 who died.

Yet, presume and judge is what so many people still insist on doing.

As Higgins said: "For many years, there has been an uncertainty, even a reticence, to recognise the human reality of World War I, and those who fought and died in it. In our public history, the reticence was reflected by a form of official amnesia that left a blank space in our public memory."

This country has long been adept at redacting the parts of our history which don't fit the official narrative and the recognition of our war dead has been the starkest example of wilful amnesia and a quasi-official suppression of the truth in this country's history.

But the fact remains that World War I saw the greatest loss of Irish life in the shortest space of time since the Famine - this was our country's biggest disaster of the 20th century. Yet for generations it was seen as merely an awkward footnote in our history; one which was better left untouched.

The 1916 Rising, followed by the War of Independence and the subsequent Civil War, polluted discourse in this country for the guts of a century, but just as we are finally breaking free of the shackles of Civil War politics - well, so we like to tell ourselves, anyway - the last few years have finally seen the poppy come in from the cold, as it were.

We've come a long way, and it is true that the simple act of wearing one is no longer quite the same invitation to scorn and occasionally violence that it used to be.

But we should be careful about congratulating ourselves too much - it seemed that virtually every talk show of the last 10 days contained at least one person who insists on looking on those men as traitors and the people who commemorate that sacrifice as somehow ideologically unsound.

Listening to those people, who remain stuck in the blood-stained aspic of the Troubles, can be a frustrating and truly dispiriting experience.

But those sentiments, fatuous though they may be, are also a sign of a healthy society where debate is conducted on radio phone-ins and not through the barrel of a gun.

And yet, just as Official Ireland has begun to catch up with the reality of the wasted lives and we can finally find a place for the people who went abroad to fight, it looks as if we have arrived to that solemn party too little and too late.

As much as we have started to develop a sense of tolerance and understanding around the poppy, the English now seem desperate to turn it into exactly the same symbol of intolerance and forced conformity that so many Irish people rebuff.

The now annual row over James McClean and his decision to not wear one on his jersey has become stale and boring. But each year seems to see that particular controversy become even more fraught and hysterical. While plenty of people who should know better have accused the Derry footballer of stoking the flames, he is simply following his conscience in the face of abuse and intimidation - in precisely the way, ironically, that those Irish who have always worn the poppy were doing so as a matter of their own principles.

But while the behaviour of the so-called 'poppy fascists' who demand that everyone who appears on UK TV wears one is contemptible, the poppy, in an Irish context, is a very different beast altogether.

It's not a celebration of imperial wars, it's simply a commemoration of a generation of Irishmen that was vaporised out of existence in the fields, beaches and bays of places they had never heard of.

Irish Independent

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