5 November 2009 Edition
THE JULIA CARNEY COLUMN
Behind the red poppy
SO ME and the apolitical flatmate are on our way out of Starbucks (yes, Starbucks – I like the muffins) in Dublin last Saturday afternoon. We’d been shopping, we’re high on caffeine and full of muffinly goodness. All is well with the world and I’m only delighted to hold the door open for the young girl struggling in through the entrance with her hands full of Marks & Spencers bags. Ma Carney raised me well.
And then I saw it. That little flash of red and black on the girl’s grey jacket that you only ever see in the first couple of weeks of November.
The flatmate says the look that passed over my face would have soured milk and the harmless wee girl must have wondered what she’d done because she certainly picked up on the reaction.
But I always have that response to the first British Legion poppy of the year.
I know we’re trying to reach out to the unionist community, share our common history and all that. Fine. No problem. But poppies are where I draw the line. I don’t like them even though, no doubt, those who wear them are absolutely pleasant and lovely beneath it all.
The poppy honours those men and women who died, civilian and military, fighting on behalf of Britain and its commonwealth since World War One. No doubt many of the people it remembers were noble and courageous. Countless numbers fell fighting fascism. Some were Irish.
But it also commemorates the soldiers who killed Kenyans and Malayans, Indians and Arabs: anyone who dared think that they could run their country better than the chaps in the white hats from British public schools.
It remembers those who killed Irish men and women in Cork and in Derry, in Armagh and in Dublin, because they wanted to make the dream of 1916 a reality. It celebrates the imperialism of a nation that still, by its presence in Afghanistan, is wedded to a notion of its own superiority long gone from the real world.
SOUTHERN poppy aficionados are fond of saying that wearing poppies is a sign of how we’ve matured as a people. Let’s look at that.
It seems it is a fine thing to wear poppies to commemorate those who fought to keep Ireland unfree but it is wrong to wear an Easter Lily, or whatever your having yourself, to remember those who fought to make us free.
We should, it seems, remember the Black and Tans, but not Lynch, Barry and Brugha.
That’s not maturity. That’s the product of a diseased and twisted form of moral and mental degradation that brings to mind the old Steven Biko quote: “The most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.”
So, in Ireland, part of our society honours those who oppressed us but scorns those who fought to free us. Half of Dublin 4 should be in therapy if you ask me.
But then (and here’s the other bit of it) there’s the countless men and women across Ireland who lost loved ones and want to remember them. They don’t want to make a political statement. They’re not looking to endorse British imperialism, to gloat over the number of brown people Britain’s killed this year.
They lost a relative and want to remember. And they wear poppies because of our failure, as Irish society, to find a neutral way for them to do so that doesn’t endorse the rotten cause they died for.
Happily, there is an alternative.
In 1933, the Women’s Co-operative Guild in Britain introduced the white poppy. The white poppy is not about insulting British and Irish war dead.
Unlike the red poppy, which celebrates the slaughter of millions of working-class men and women, the white poppy is worn by those who wish to remember but who also reject militarism. Money raised from the sale of white poppies does not go to the British Legion but to support the work of the Peace Pledge Union, which campaigns for an end to all war.
They’ve even been endorsed by no less a figure than former British Prime Minister and alleged war criminal Margaret Thatcher, who called them “deeply distasteful”. If they’re bad enough for Thatcher, they’re good enough for me.
You can find out more at http://www.whitepoppy.org.uk/.