By Matt Ellison
The Taoiseach travelled to Fermanagh on Sunday to lay a wreath at the war memorial in Enniskillen, marking the anniversary of the 1918 Armistice that put an end to the savagery of the First World War.
It was an event steeped in distinctly Northern Irish undertones. The weekend also marked the 30th anniversary of an IRA bombing of a Remembrance Day parade in Enniskillen that claimed 12 lives. DUP leader Arlene Foster used the anniversary to call for Sinn Féin to return to the Power Sharing Executive which collapsed in January, leaving Northern Ireland without a government.
Leo Varadkar had brewed up a small storm during the week when he’d attended the Dáil wearing a stylised shamrock poppy in remembrance of the Irishmen who’d donned British uniform and gave their lives in the trenches of World War I and hedgerows of World War II.
The backlash against the Taoiseach even for his distinctively Irish spin on a uniquely British affectation is nothing new in the Irish cultural zeitgeist where our part in Britain’s wars are concerned. It wasn’t until 2013 that soldiers who defected from the Irish army to join up with the British to fight the Nazis were officially pardoned by the Irish government of the crime of desertion.
Indeed, the controversy over Ireland’s role in the wars predates even the Free State, and led to a split in the Irish Volunteer Force in 1914 and the formation of the National Volunteers, who enlisted in the British Army following the outbreak of war with Germany that year. Their former comrades in arms, who remained under the banner of the Irish Volunteers, were to go on to accept arms and ordnance from those same Germans for the execution of the Easter Rising in 1916.
An estimated 210,000 Irish people fought in British uniform during the First World War. In the Second that followed, some 60,000 are believed to have served, including in the Royal Air Force, among those ace Spitfire pilot Brendan “Paddy” Finucane who was credited with some 28 kills during the war.
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Officially, the State pays Ireland’s world war dead their due respects. A ceremony was held to commemorate the country’s servicemen interred in Glasnevin, the same cemetery where the bodies of Michael Collins, Kevin Barry and other prominent Republicans from the revolutionary period are buried, the same weekend Leo Varadkar was visiting Enniskillen.
And although the Irish Defence Forces (officially Óglaigh na hÉireann, an Irish-language designation it shares to this day with dissident factions of the IRA) claim a lineage stretching back through the National Army of the Civil War period to the War of Independence-era Irish Republican Army, thus separate from their British counterpart of the time, its service members are present during ceremonies dedicated to the war dead of Irish divisions of the British Army in the First World War.
Even so, the wearing of the poppy itself remains a controversy, likened by many in Ireland specifically to Britishness in the face of Irishness. Even in the UK the poppy is at the heart of an annual culture war between left and right, with opponents on the left arguing that the use of the poppy by politicians who support ongoing British engagements in morally grey overseas adventures belies the intended message of the poppies of Flanders Field. Those on the right, by contrast, see the poppy as a mark of respect for the country and those who’ve given their lives in service to the country, and mark the refusal to pay that due respect as akin to disrespecting the troops, not too dissimilar a notion to criticism of the national anthem protests currently rocking the NFL in the United States.
The spectrum of Irish discourse on the wearing of the poppy is more monotone, and the margin in favour far thinner. On a fundamental level, the poppy itself is a British symbol with proceeds from the purchase of poppies going towards the Royal British Legion, a foundation for British servicemen and women. North of the border, where the poppy is synonymous with unionism, memories of the British military’s legacy in Ireland filter down to colour discourse in the Republic. That the poppy is as much a symbol of the Black & Tans, the B Specials and the Ulster Defence Regiment as it is a symbol of the Irish divisions who fought at the Somme cannot be denied.
210,000 Irish fought on the British side in World War 1
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But the wearing of the poppy is not, despite the dog-whistle innuendo of the British gutter press, intended to signal support for the objects and mission of the British Army, nor of the wider foreign policy agenda of the British government. Its stated purpose, both literal and figurative, is to both support and commemorate the dead of war.
In this, Ireland has had a significant role to play.
Irishmen and women have fought in every British war since before there was a Britain, and in all likelihood since before there was even a substantial English presence beyond the Pale.
As well as the world wars of the 20th century, Irish soldiers fought and died in worldwide European conflicts such as the War of the Spanish Succession, the Nine Years’ War and the long series of Napoleonic Wars. The early years of the latter saw the notion of Irish Republicanism itself born during a French-backed insurrection by Wolfe Tone against the British government in Ireland in an eerie foreshadowing of the 1916 Rising.
The popular American Civil War marching song, When Johnny Came Marching Home, is widely believed to be a bastardisation of an Irish anti-war song using the same tune, Johnny I Hardly Knew Ya, which laments the injuries to a veteran of the Kandyan Wars, a conflict in Sri Lanka fought by the British East India Company in which Irish soldiers played a pivotal role.
Irish soldiers who lost their lives in war are no less Irish for the fact that the flag they may have fought under was British. The fact that a legal Irish Republic, entirely independent of the United Kingdom, is only 70 years old does not imply that there were no Irish people before 70 years ago. For those Irish people to be considered less Irish because Fianna Fáil had not yet had the Irish Constitution ratified is an argument that would never pass muster, for it would mean condemning as British names like Michael Collins, Padraig Pearse and Charles Stewart Parnell.
It would seem that it is this ideal that a Taoiseach with the surname Varadkar was emphasising in a decision to wear an Irish variant on the poppy. The Irish are the Irish, and no less so for the circumstances in which they may have been born – their sacrifice is no less worthy of remembrance than any other’s.
This, to Varadkar and proponents of an Irish poppy, is not about the British Army, past or present, but about those who died while in it. It is not the collective but the individual that is mourned, not the war but the victim of war that is honoured.
Through such a lens the poppy is not worn as a symbol of Britishness but as a symbol of Irishness – regardless of wider political rhetoric, Irish people died in the trenches of World War I. They deserve to be remembered, not because of for whom or for what they fought, but because of who they were.
And who they were was Irish.
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