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.