Requiem for the Poppy: Reflections on Remembrance

Contributed by Sean Brennan

The season of Remembrance is upon us and once again the sign of the poppy challenges both Unionists and Nationalists to remember those ‘faithfully departed’ who died for ‘the Cause’ in that ‘Great War’ of 1914-1918. For many Unionists the act of Remembrance is almost a religious experience as they pay homage to the blood sacrifice of their forefathers, who fell in the fields of Flanders, Gallipoli, Dublin and at Somme. For the Nationalist community who’s father’s, brothers and sons fell along side Irish Unionists all along the Western Front, the act of remembrance is more circumspect and the memory of ‘the fallen’ more sombrely recalled amid accusations of ‘poppydom’ by opponents still angered by the activities of cruel Britannia.

Today, in Ireland, many Nationalists view the poppy as a British war symbol but history shows that in it was French Republican soldiers-during the Napoleonic era who first adopted the poppy to remember their comrades and their citizen’s sacrifice in Modern War. The poppy’s universal resurgence, in the US and French Republics, following the First World War reaffirmed its original meaning for the poor, les miserable, men and women, of all faiths and fatherlands, who felt abandoned by their governments and who required the charity of former comrades, former combatants, friends and neighbours to survive. In the immediate aftermath of both the Napoleonic and First World war the poppy symbolised what the ‘grassroots’ paid for their participation in industrialised warfare, as machined shells dug even deeper into field and chalk formation, leaving only body parts and poppy’s to mark the craters were comrades fell. Over time, this common understanding has been revised beyond recognition and come under attack, so much so that in Ireland and Britain the poppy has now become embroiled in a war with itself.

As with the Lancaster’s and the York’s War of the Roses, in our War of the Poppy, how should we use the lessons of the past to make the fallen’s sacrifice worthwhile? What kingdom would we give not to repeat the slaughter of the past, or other demands for ‘once more onto the breach’? On Armistice Day, like the Cure of Troy, we all must set out on our own individual journey of remembrance, to make our own ‘hope and history rhyme‘. In doing so, we need to understand, measure and appreciate what the poppy means to many people around the world, from Bangor to Bangalore, Newfoundland, Ballina and east of Eden in New South Wales.

In our reflections, of remembrance, we must all ‘tread softly’ as we traverse this historic battlefield, redolent of the sacrifices and dreams of ‘the fallen’ lest we forget why, like Heaney’s ‘Requiem for the Croppy’ ‘terraced thousands’ died, ‘shaking scythes at cannon. [where] The hillside blushed, soaked in our broken wave. They buried us without shroud or coffin and in [November] the [poppy] ‘grew up out of the grave’. If this shared memory, of croppy and poppy, two but one, could fructify, like the flowers of the forest, perhaps all ‘the fallen’s’ past sacrifices will not be judged to have been in vain. Developing this common understanding of our shared past may also help us all reconcile, in remembrance, momentarily the futility of war to resolve conflict and in doing so, realise an adequate universal Requiem for the Poppy.

Sean Brennan is a first year PhD student in the School of Politics, International Relations and Philosophy, Queens University Belfast.

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4 Responses to “Requiem for the Poppy: Reflections on Remembrance”

  1. Ronan Gallagher Says:

    There seems to be a ‘Poppy Fascism’ which dictates that we should all pretend that WW1 was some kind of noble cause. It was not. WW1 was the butchery of millions of working men and women through the greed, incompetence, and rampant imperialism of the ruling classes. Whilst there is no doubt as to the (misguided) sacrifice the fallen have made, and that they should be remembered, it is historically and morally wrong to attempt to present the war as a noble cause or to pretend that it was conducted to advance humanity or freedom in any way.

  2. peter rigney Says:

    The season of remembrance starts earlier each year on UK broadcasters, it seems now to start soon after the schools go back, and should be read as an attempt to manufacture a consensus in favour of Britain’s current foreign wars.

    I have a certain amount of ambiguity on the issue. One grandfather was an unrepentant Dev republican who had resigned from the RIC in 1919. He was the first man I ever see to wear both an Easter Lily and a poppy (not at the same time). As a slouchy adolescent I remember being poked sharply in the back at November 11 ceremonies in Islandbridge for not standing up straight. My grandfather ran a pub in Clonmel and stressed how much men had suffered, and how ex soldiers in drink were sometimes prone to what would now be termed as “challenging behaviour”

    The poppy is however by the British Legion as in memory of those who died in world war one and as I recall all subsequent wars. This brings me to another memory that of being brought by my father to the Bloody Sunday funerals in Derry and of the vast milling crowd looking down on a cold day into the Bogside.

    Wearing a poppy or not is a personal choice. I prefer to reflect on Sasoon’s poetry which I have by heart still from the inter cert syllabus

  3. Mac Says:

    I’m somewhat confused by this article.

    Living in a republic, forged by the sacrifice of men and women for whom no poppy is worn, I just wonder whether it is somewhat grotesque to remember other’s noble sacrifice, whilst having so little in the way of public remembrance of one’s own national liberation struggle?

    Is there a hierarchy of the dead at work here?

  4. Brian Hanley Says:

    Like most Irish people there are several British soldiers in my family tree, including a great-grand uncle who was killed on the first day of the big German offensive in March 1918. However I would not wear a oppy, because it commemorates not just the First World War (problematic in itself) but the British war dead since then, which includes Malaya, Kenya, Aden and any number of other colonial and post-colonial wars. I have no particular desire to commemorate the Paras or the SAS either. The idea that the visibilty of the poppy represents some great act of tolerence is not one I agree with, particularly since the BBC and other media outlets now enforce it on presenters and even on guests; similarly premier league footballers, X-Factor contestants etc.
    I remember a letter in the Irish Times a few years ago from Padraig Yeates whose father served in the Second World War but who never wore a oppy, as he and other ex-soldiers associated the British Legion with the Tories. There certainly has been a major effort to ramp up the poppy since Britain went to war in the Middle East. So, to cut a long story short, not for me thanks.

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