When I moved from Limerick in the Republic of Ireland to Liverpool in 2008, I was pretty confused by people wearing poppies around school or in the streets during the month of November. I don’t think I’d ever seen anyone wear one previously. I asked my mum why she didn’t wear one and she responded that she didn’t believe in them… but that she’d happily wear a white poppy (symbolising peace). My mother, and a lot of other Irish people, won’t wear a poppy. She means no harm or offence in her decision and It’s certainly not to snub the 50,000 Irish men who died fighting in the British forces in WWI. I was always curious as to why she made this choice.
The symbolism of the poppy in Ireland isn’t just about remembering the soldiers who fought in World War I and II. It is affected by the unrest between Ireland and England; a story as old a time, a history so rich that few know the whole story. Understanding the symbolism of the poppy in Ireland therefore requires a knowledge of Irish history.
Ireland’s battle for home rule really reached a fore front during World War I. Irish men signed up to fight for British troops on the promise of home rule. Whilst these men were fighting in France, Greece and Belgium, they began to get news from home about Easter Sunday and the execution of Irish heroes Collins, Pearse and Connolly. It was a huge betrayal for Irish soldiers to find out that the British forces they were fighting for had killed their own countrymen. When the war finally ended and many soldiers returned home, Home Rule was not considered an important issue to the British government and numerous reform appeals were rejected. Many people were disappointed when self-government wasn’t granted immediately, despite the British government’s promise. Because of this delay, there was still a sentiment of betrayal amongst Irish people, even when Home Rule was finally passed in 1920. From this era onward, the poppy (and Irish people’s wearing of it) became synonymous with the Union Jack and British imperialism.
In modern day Ireland, some people are happy to wear the poppy. Yet, Conor McGregor, the Irish UFC superstar, has been criticised for it. The MMA fighter responded to the backlash by saying “I know where my allegiance lies and what I do for my country. I don’t need a stupid little flower with a 100 different meanings to tell me if I do or do not represent my country. Check the facts of its original meaning. All soldiers. All wars.”
The celebrity controversy doesn’t end there, Derry-born footballer James McClean, who plays for currently for West Brom, has also refused to wear a poppy every year since joining an English football team in 2011. McClean is from the Creggan Estate in Derry, home to six of the 1972 Bloody Sunday victims. McClean has stated this in response to criticism: “People say I am being disrespectful but don’t ask why I choose not to wear it.” He wrote: “If the poppy was simply about World War One and Two victims alone, I’d wear it without a problem. I would wear it every day of the year if that was the thing but it doesn’t. It stands for all the conflicts that Britain has been involved in. Because of the history where I come from in Derry, I cannot wear something that represents that.” McClean’s own team and manager have supported his stance and agree it is his choice whether he wears one or not.
It’s a controversial topic and still remains in news headlines every year. The Poppy Appeal has made attempts to appease opposers of the poppy and in 2011 the Limerick branch of the Royal British Legion came up with a compromise featuring a shamrock-shaped badge with a poppy and the slogan “lest we forget”.
So attitudes towards the poppy are changing, Brian Duffy, the chairman of the Royal British Legion’s Republic of Ireland branch, noted to Sky News that he’d seen “three on the street already this week in Dublin”. Today marks the centenary of the end of the Great World War. On this momentous day, whether or not we pin a poppy to our chest, what matters is that we do not forget our history or those who lost their lives.