Thursday, November 10, 2016

If only the red poppy honoured all lost lives

In the cold, eerie courtyard where each of the 1916 rebel leaders was killed at dawn by a British Army firing squad, our excellent tour guide Ben spoke with clear emotion in his voice this week as he told us about the execution of James Connolly.

At the end of our wonderful, hour-long tour of Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin’s western suburbs, where so many Irish rebels had been held, he pointed to the lonely cross which marks the spot where Connolly had faced the British soldiers for the final time.

Standing in Kilmainham Gaol, where 14 of the Easter Rising
leaders were held before being executed at dawn
Our guide told us that Connolly, due to the extent of the injuries he sustained in the ill-fated rising, was unable to walk to the courtyard.

The Scottish-born son of Irish emigrants was carried from a hospital bed and tied to a chair before facing his executioners.            

A doctor said that he probably only had a day or two to live, before Connolly had his last rites administered and a final visit by his grief-stricken wife.

"I will say a prayer for all men who do their duty according to their lights,” he said, when asked to pray for the British Army soldiers who were about to execute him.

Although our guide must lead dozens of tours of the historic prison each week, he was clearly moved by the stories of the men and women who gave up their lives for Irish freedom throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries.

As word began to filter out, news of the executions of 14 rebel leaders at Kilmainham caused uproar across Ireland and Irish-America in 1916 – and even some controversy in Britain, then in the midst of the First World War. 

The rebels, previously seen as traitors by many Irish families who had sons fighting for the British Army in Europe at that time, became martyrs for Irish freedom. The surge in support for independence as a result of their deaths changed the course of Irish history.

There has been a surge in interest in Ireland’s troubled history in recent months as a result of the 1916 centenary.

Standing in that prison courtyard this week, where all of the guided tours have been sold out due to the Halloween holidays, it was hard to imagine that any Irish person would be asked to wear a poppy to honor the British Army troops who shot the rebel leaders one-by-one.

Footballer James McClean is criticised every year for
refusing to wear a poppy to commemorate British soldiers
It is ridiculous to think that professional soccer player James McClean, who grew up in the Bogside in Derry, manages to attract controversy every year because of his unwillingness to wear the ubiquitous poppy to honor British troops on his club football jersey.

The British Army shot 14 innocent civilians dead in the neighbourhood where he grew up in January 1972 and, presumably, McClean feels that he would be letting his own community down if he wore the poppy to honour the army dead.

He chose to play for the Republic of Ireland, rather than Northern Ireland, because of the political turmoil and sectarianism his community experienced during ‘The Troubles’. 

Families in the Creggan and the Bogside spent almost 40 years campaigning for justice for their loved-ones, until they finally received an apology from then British Prime Minister, David Cameron, in 2010.

In their particular communities, the notion of honouring the British Army dead still seems absurd.

"People say I am being disrespectful but don’t ask why I choose not to wear it,” said McClean this week. "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."

The English Premier League is now one of the most cosmopolitan soccer competitions in the world. Yet there is outrage on social media if players from Argentina, Colombia, Ireland, or wherever, decide not to wear a poppy to remember people who died in a war which took place a century ago.

Until relatively recently, the wearing of the poppy on Remembrance Day (November 11) used to be optional.

Now it’s impossible to switch on a chat show or current affairs programme on British TV for a period of about a month without noticing that every single presenter and guest seems to be obliged to wear one.

This year, we have a new scandal because FIFA – world football’s governing body – is preventing players from England and Scotland from wearing the poppy during a World Cup qualifier in London on November 11.

The cross marks the spot in the yard where James Connolly,
tied to a chair, was executed by a British Army firing squad
FIFA prohibit the use of political, religious or commercial messages on team shirts and FIFA’S ban has been called “utterly outrageous” by the UK Prime Minister, Theresa May. 

On Friday, FIFA opened disciplinary proceedings against the Irish football body, the FAI, for including a 1916 anniversary logo on the Republic of Ireland team’s jerseys for a ‘friendly’ against Switzerland back in March.

FIFA were accused of double standards after being alerted to the Irish jerseys by a disgruntled British Member of Parliament, Damian Collins.

Time was when the whole point of Remembrance Day was to honor the British Army servicemen and women who died in World War One in quiet contemplation.

Now any public figure, such as McClean, who dares not to wear a poppy can expect abuse from the British tabloids and vilification by fans on social media. 

If you are a member of the large Muslim, Irish, or Asian communities in Britain, these can be an uncomfortable few weeks.

A presenter or guest on TV really sticks out if he or she dares not to wear a poppy for Rememberance Day. The poppies seem to be everywhere, on the trains, the buses, in the parks, at places of work. 

If you don’t wear the poppy, you risk standing out from the crowd at work and even being a target for abuse now that racists seem to be emboldened by the Brexit vote in the UK.

But, if you do, can an Irish person really be comfortable in honoring the people who died on just one side in World War One?

Especially now while their sacrifice is still being used by political leaders to justify current wars involving the British Army, in far-off lands. 

The poppy has become a British nationalist symbol, rather than a way of remembering so many ordinary people who lost their lives in a terrible war.

If people really want to honor their war dead, they should provide better support for veterans instead of forcing the likes of the Royal British Legion to write begging letters to support “our boys” who were injured in battles in Syria, Iraq, or Afghanistan. 

The US and UK continue to maim and kill civilians in Syria
and Iraq a century on from the horrors of World War One
They should ask why the British Army continues to occupy, bomb children, or start new wars in countries so far from home a century after the horrors of World War One.

Not engage in bickering over whether James McClean, or the English and Scottish teams, should wear the poppy, as all the bickering shows how far Poppy Day has drifted away from its original meaning.

If Rememberance Day involved honouring those who died in all wars, and trying to stop future wars from occurring, then people would have no issue about supporting it by wearing the red poppies on both sides of the Irish Sea.

But if the poppy only honors the members of a colonial army, who caused so much suffering in so many lands, then no wonder its symbolism remains clouded in controversy.  

All of the bickering only shows that the red poppy has been hijacked by British nationalists over the past few years, to the extent that many people feel very uncomfortable about wearing it.

Instead of the red poppy, it is possible to wear a white poppy to remember ALL victims of war:

A shorter version of this blog post was published as an opinion piece by Irish Central on Monday:

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