It’s getting close to Remembrance Day, and if it’s not exactly a political hot potato the discussion of remembrance opens up significantly differing narratives for unionists and nationalists (and even northerners and southerners)… Fionnuala O’Connor notes that regardless of their personal views on the matter, the BBC requires all its presenters to wear a red poppy. In our house it is – and it always was – a matter for individual conscience. I’ve known English ex servicemen who’d served in WWII who refused to wear anything but the white Poppy. But in general terms in Northern Ireland, the Poppy has become as alien to Catholics as it is reassuring to Protestants. As it happens, I was on an early plane out of Belfast this morning, catching up with a year’s downloads from the Beeb, RTE and few great podcasters. I spent most of the flight and after listening to Our War, as series of three live lectures RTE convened last year for the 90th anniversary of the ending of the First World War. It’s a fascinating multifarious look at just one major line in history…
Two of the contributions in the Belfast event stuck out for me. Phil Orr (author of the Road to the Somme): argues that “the cultural impact on the both communities was immense”. He gave as an example the Catholic community in Carrickfergus, who he stated had given a tremendous amount in sacrifice to the effort in what was known then as the Great War. Yet, he noted that until the early sixties, the only monuments to the fallen in that war were in Protestant churches in that town. In
the Republic Free State most towns with large populations of ex soldiers had some kind of cenotaph by November 1926.
Danny Morrison noted in his contribution that the history of Irish nationalism has been informed by British militarism for centuries. His grandfather, Jimmy Morrison lied about his age to join up in the first war, then when back in Belfast at least flirted with joining the IRA in the 20s, and then joined up with RAF in 1939. Yet he never wore a poppy.
After Morrison himself had spent time in the Maze, his father asked him about the Nissen huts, had it been cold. Morrison asked whether he had been interned? But no his father had stayed there when he joined the RAF towards the end of the second war.
His view was that it was ‘easier celebrate victories than defeats’, and politically at home, the cause Nationalists north and south had joined in promise of Home Rule for the island had ended in partition. Besides, he noted, ‘one community had abrogated the war’. And the use of the poppy. Remembrance Day he claimed had been used by successive Unionist government as a litmus test of loyalty its Catholic citizens would largely always fail.
More telling though was the line from his colleague, Frank Quigley, who had told Morrison that in paying for a poppy he would be contributing to welfare of people who had shot the people he served with in the IRA. No problem remembering the people who died.
There’s a lot more in there besides that. In the first programme, it is Prof David Fitzpatrick, I think, who describes the Irish condition over it’s considerable number of Irish war dead in the first war as a form of collective aphasia (inability to speak on such matters), more than Roy Foster’s preferred term, amnesia (an inability to remember as such).
Perhaps it is best, as Niall Ferguson has argued, to let Remembrance gently slip as each successive generation passes away… But with the Poppies sold today going to help the wounded veterans of the UK’s ongoing foreign wars that seems unlikely for the foreseeable future…
In the meantime, Northern Irish Catholics and Protestants continue to be divided by their history even when shared through that mad apotheosis of Carl von Clausewitz’s Total War; otherwise known as World War I.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty