Why I no longer wear a poppy

A Scottish Fireman laments…

As the annual poppy debate reaches its inevitable crescendo, only to recede for another short year, I read various, diverse accounts explaining who is right, who is wrong, what causes offence, why one commemoration is exclusive  and so on, almost as if the very act of remembrance is a competition of some kind.

Every year, the same debate is regurgitated, only the arrangement of the wording seeming to differ.  Every year I feel vindicated in not wearing a poppy.  I should point out that I had already given up doing so, prior to relocating to Belfast some years ago.

Growing up in the quiet countryside of Scotland, the Troubles were something I lived via the 6 o’clock news.  Neither I nor my friends could fathom the blind hatred we saw based on perceived religion.  The whys and wherefores were not covered in history at school.  I attended a Protestant church (more through duress than desire) each Sunday and some of my classmates went to the Catholic one at the opposite end of the village.  That was as far as our reference to religion or experience of segregation went, for which I suppose, we should all be thankful.alva

At this time, I and most of my friends were among other things, members of the Boys’ Brigade, more for the opportunity to get a game of football each Saturday than anything else however, given the organisation’s links with the church, we attended a number of parades during the year.  One of these was the annual service of remembrance at the village war memorial.  We marched alongside the Scouts, Guides, church members and others, stood solemnly and paid our respects as a member of the local brass band played the Last Post and wreaths were laid.

At this time, my opinion was already clearly defined.  I was there to remember those who fought and died in the two world wars.  It would remind me that I was lucky, at that time, to have a great grandfather still living, who had served in both and also, the hundreds of thousands who had not returned.  The poppy was a simple, small mark of respect which I chose to wear.

As years passed, I left the Boys’ Brigade but I continued to wear a poppy, generally in the week leading up to Remembrance Sunday.  I can’t say with certainty, when I first noticed the change around the significance of the poppy.  There seemed to be a growing feeling of mass hysteria surrounding grief and how that should be displayed generally.  Perhaps a catalyst for this was the death of Princess Diana but I can’t be absolutely sure?

The poppy started to become a more long term fixture, appearing earlier each year and not vanishing the day after Remembrance Sunday.  Comments would be made if someone wasn’t wearing a poppy and it seemed television appearances were only permitted for poppy wearers.  More and more, the freedom of choice that those we were remembering fought for, was being denied almost hysterically by the media, to a disturbing level, some well-known figures being unjustly vilified for not wearing a poppy.  On the scale of irony, it was right up there.

I felt that it was becoming a mass movement, almost a commercial enterprise, where people were seeking inclusion, rather than expressing a free choice and I made my decision not to wear a poppy.  I paid my respect on an intimate and personal level and have done so ever since.

Years later I found myself in Belfast where I discovered all my preconceptions based on the news reports I’d seen were mostly ill-conceived.  It was refreshing to discover that trees actually grow in the city and the predominant architecture isn’t concrete (you may laugh but British media in the 70s/80s was not particularly complimentary).

Kilcooley Loyalist Memorial Garden

Kilcooley Loyalist Memorial Garden

I also discovered a whole new debacle surrounding the use and display of poppies and much of it disgusted me.  I understand many of the arguments from nationalists and unionists about the wearing of the poppy and I fully respect the fact that views contrast sharply on either side of the fence.  What I don’t understand is why anyone can think that trivialising the poppy by using it as a badge of allegiance, which is certainly how many appear to treat it, is deemed respectful in any way.  This especially applies to paramilitary groups carrying poppy wreaths and using the poppy in murals to commemorate murderers.

I’ve already explained why I stopped wearing a poppy and there is nothing here which convinces me to change my mind.  I’d be among the distinct minority in the area in which I live, in not wearing a poppy.  Sadly, it is all too obvious at times, that some people are making assumptions about me based on this one fact.

Crystal Poppy Brooch - 10% donation to Royal British Legion

Crystal Poppy Brooch – 10% donation to Royal British Legion

To a lesser degree, the new trend, quite literally, for fashion poppies further trivialises the solemnity I associate with them. Gaudy and flamboyant affairs adorn lapels both male and female, like Christmas baubles, which for me, only serves to further strip meaning from what used to be a poignant symbol.  The poppy makes an appearance in a multitude of products as diverse as whisky bottles, to flower planters.  For a symbol which is upheld by many as a mark of respect, it seems odd that the symbol itself is not treated with that same respect.

As it stands, I see little chance that I will ever wear a poppy again but I will at least be safe in the knowledge that I hold the utmost respect and gratitude for everyone who gave their lives for me to have the choice to make that decision.

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  • Stan McGlone

    Many in my family served in the military and many seen action from WW1, WW2 and Korea. I am also a veteran myself and I hardly wear a poppy. I do support the white poppy to remember all those who lost their lives. I always give money to the British legion if I see them. I don’t feel the need to wear a poppy. I know I served, I know my family served and that is a personal thing. I remember last year seeing the photos of the UDA/UFF lined up on the Shankill. All sorts of thuggish looking people who have never served a day in their life clinging on to the poppy and wars as if they somehow are soldiers themselves. I find them disgusting and they have no right at all. I also feel that the UVF have tried to claim all rights to the Somme and any aspect of WW1 in Northern Ireland.
    Wearing a poppy is a very personal matter and should never be used as a sectarian marker but sadly to some underclass types it is.

  • Jurassic Parke

    Sickening to see poppies used to ‘commemorate’ loyalist murderers.

  • carl marks

    Both of my grandfathers fought in WW1, my father in WW2, like Fireman every year i donate to the poppy fund but don’t take a poppy and many times in my work or outside has someone (usually in front of smirking friends) asked me why i don’t wear a poppy, i reply that its none of their f#*king business. but the truth is that people like them are the reason i don’t wear one!

  • Dan

    What poppy debate?

    If you want to wear one, wear one….if not, don’t. Haven’t heard anyone debating it in years.

  • Alan N/Ards

    Carl, It’s good that you donate money to the poopy fund as many old soldiers benefit from the fund. The fact that you don’t take a poppy is your business and business alone. There are morons everywhere on this island who go out of their way to dictate what we should do.
    I wear a poppy on Remembrance day to remember the fallen. On a more personal note my Grandfather and an uncle fell in WW2. I will remember them with pride on Sunday. I know the sadness that was felt in my family and for an aunt it lasted her whole life.

  • Alan N/Ards

    Stan, Totally agree with you. Well said!

  • sean treacy

    No journalist is allowed to appear on BBC or UTV without a poppy.Contrary to the myth pedalled by unionists and neo unionists the poppy commemorates members of the British forces active in ALL conflicts including imperialist adventures and the Northern troubles.Do these journalists not understand that by wearing a poppy they are taking the side of those who killed hundreds from the nationalist community and therefore can never be regarded as impartial .Their superior attitude when “exposing the men of violence” is therefore severely compromised and they can rightly be denounced as hypocrites.

  • Dan

    If a journalist’s principles and conscience rejects the managerial decision that a poppy is to be worn on air, well they can do the honourable thing and resign.
    I would if such a decision went against what my conscience dictated.

  • sean treacy

    None of them do the honourable thing because they see nothing wrong in supporting the crown forces.The problem is that they all have the brass neck to pretend that they are impartial.

  • The Lagan

    Totally agree with your article.
    It’s a bit like flags, where extremists claim ownership. hence making the symbols toxic to others.

  • Zig70

    I have to say as a father of 3 boys, the issue of any country asking me for their lives in return for political gain is very real. I haven’t seen anything in many years that would warrant it, but many that would argue otherwise on a purely political argument. Anyone who would take their lives for a political gain is a monster in my book. The poppy is a political tool to get working class kids to die for their country and as such is a real evil to me.

  • Zig70

    The fascist attitude to poppies on the BBC should end now. They are no better than north Korean TV otherwise.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    I completely agree with your stance, Carl. I can think of about seven people (including my mother in the WRAF) across my extended family who fought in the world wars, two of whom were highly decorated (MC, DFC), another was offered a Knighthood he had to decline as he was an American citizen active in the British forces from the first years of the war. Despite my pride in their record for about thirty years now I cannot participate in something that has been made into a mockery of what it was intended to be by people trying to soak off selfish political capitol.

    And Alan, while I completely support the wearing of poppys by any person with real reasons to wear them, I cannot get over the sense that people seeing me wear one in the street here would think I support the activities of the UFF. But I have nothing but respect for all who fought, suffered and died in both wars, and for those who remember them with honesty.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Stan, well said, and I cannot but agree with you all the way. This appropriation of the Somme for political ends has been going on ever since partition. My grandfather was the field commander for the 107th Trench Mortar battery at Thiepval and later (out there directing them in the actual fighting, not lurking in the jump off trenches) and was all his life scathing about the New Elite in local politics, both those who had avoided service, and those who had been in uniform, but had reputations for shirking anything dangerous or dirty. He , and his small group of companions, were still incandescent with rage at the Remembrance Day services I remember in the 1950s, where some of these shirkers would be solemnly laying wreaths in remembrance of those real soldiers whom, my grandfather would say, they would not even spit on.

    I still find my own rage rising when politicians descended from those who did not serve in either war wear their patriotism on their sleeves this time of year. The insult to people such as yourself is, to me, every way as disgusting as that of the paramilitaries. I will be with you in remembering those who died in a personal manner, away from the public insincerity.

  • Comrade Stalin

    I see this issue as very similar to the Irish language issue. There are a lot of parallels.

    The concept itself isn’t evil or bad. But in our inimitable local way, it gets co-opted by one of the two sides and from then on becomes part of the phoney war.

    Always at this time of the year you see letters to the editor, and articles from enraged unionists, complaining about a shop somewhere that has asked its staff not to wear a poppy, or a bar or club that has refused entry to someone wearing a poppy. Usually the people complaining have no real interest in the sacrifices, the cause, or the increasing view that the poppy represents an anti-war message as well as a remembrance. The Irish language is the same. You hear lots of complaints about the lack of promotion of the language from republicans who themselves barely speak it. Some of these republicans appear here on Slugger, and while they cannot converse in Irish they pepper their comments with the words I remember learning in Primary 3, “Slan”, “Chairde”, “A Chara” and so on. It has become a symbol that has been co-opted and perverting into serving the baser needs of those who are obsessed with identity.

    I would never be disrespectful to a soldier, past or present, and I would never criticise or question someone for wearing a poppy in public. I think it’s great that increasingly nationalists are able to participate in remembrance ceremonies. The Royal British Legion is a fine organization and has been doing a great deal of work behind the scenes to try to reverse the effect of identity politics on remembrance. But when, as Stan noted below, you have a situation where the likes of the UDA and UVF go unchallenged for their theft of what the poppy means, things are unlikely to improve much beyond where they are now.

  • Comrade Stalin

    North Korean TV spends every minute broadcasting propaganda about the government and the Leader. I really think that comparison is inappropriate.

    I was in the USA during the Iraq war in 2003. At the end of nearly every live TV show I saw, as the credits were rolling, the host of the programme would make a “we’re thinking of all the troops defending freedom in Iraq” type of a comment. It was bizarre.

  • Alan N/Ards

    Seaan, I totally accept what you are saying. I also hate to see loyalists wearing them. I know many unionists who also think it’s wrong.
    In many ways it’s like the issue around the flags. Nationalists see the loyalist morons abusing the Union flag and will never respect it for that reason. Unionists see the Tricolour being abused by republican morons and react in a similar way. It’s like being back in WW1. The trenches have been dug and we are going to stay put and grind the other side down by sniping at them. No mans land was a very dangerous place during the war and still is on this island.

  • Alan N/Ards

    Seaan, I can’t disagree with anything you have said. I will be remembering the fallen, at church on Sunday. The great and the good can have the Newtownards war memorial to themselves.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    I entirely agree Alan. I’ve recently been told on another Slugger thread that F.J. Bigger could not be considered as a reconciler. My family knew FJB, (a keen supporter of both lots of Irish/Ulster Volunteers in the Great War), a passionate cultural nationalist, yes, but with a sincere love of the “other tradition”, but finding myself simply stone walled no matter how much detailed information I posted reminded me again (if I needed reminding) just how deep the trenches are.

    I look forward to the day when the complex shared histories of all Irishmen, no matter what their political opinions, are a cause for mutual pride, but I think we can agree that those lights will not be re-lit even in our lifetimes.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    If only their cold hearts would melt as quickly as it did! I’ll think of you (and yours) on Sunday myself.

  • Sergiogiorgio

    My wife, who happens to me English, struggled with this for the first few years she lived in Belfast. Her dad is ex army and takes Remembrance Day very seriously. It broke my heart to see her struggling with the love and respect she has for her Dad, by wanting to wear the poppy; but at the same time not wanting to offend folks in her shared working environment. She chose the right course and now wears the poppy.

  • Peter Moore

    I, too, no longer wear a poppy. I despise the politicisation of it. I think, and this is my opinion, that the way it is used completely disregards the many Irishmen from the 26 counties who laid down their lives.

    I noted with interest the British Legion’s statement when it was proposed by the DUP to fly the Union Flag from the cenotaph every day as a ‘compromise’ in Belfast: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-22200174. They stated they were against it, as it politicisied the monument.

  • Stan McGlone

    There is a great book called Contact that was wrote by a Para officer who served in North/west Belfast during the 70’s. He even stated that his Para unit was shot at more times from the UVF on the Shankill than the IRA in Ardoyne at the time. Loyalist areas use to write “F*** the Army” and “Paras Out” on the walls. They often caught young UVF members spying on them. Now days loyalists have sadly latched on to the military and are now using those who serve as an extension of their sectarian hatred towards anything Irish. One moment they were burning RUC and soldiers out of loyalist areas and now the loyalist shops which you can find on eBay are selling RUC badges and showing support for them.
    A few soldiers I knew were killed over in Afghanistan back a few years ago and they like all victims of war deserve better than the politcal weapon that the poppy has become in NI.

  • Stan McGlone

    This Sunday the paramilitary groups will parade and then all head to their drinking dens to get drunk. Go have a look at these self professed soldiers falling around drunk on Remembrance Sunday and realise that real soldiers/veterans and families of those who served/died in any conflict simply go to a proper and dignified military service and then go home to be with their families.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    Good post Tovarish

    It sickens me how the paramilitaries have tarnished the poppy, I’m sure it must be even more galling for those who have actually served in the forces.

    Imagine finishing your military career then visiting NI only to see the poppy adorning murals of deceased terrorists.

    What a kick in the nuts…

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Thank you. Stan, I will check the book out. All politics, everywhere, seem to use things for other ends. As the poet and mystic AE (George Russell) said in 1923:

    “The champions of physical force have, I am sure, without intent, poisoned the soul of Ireland. All that was exquisite and lovable is dying. They have squandered a spirit created by poets, scholars, and patriots of a different order……….. thinking little of what they squander save that it gives a transitory gilding to their propaganda.”

    And indeed, those you mention deserve better than such cynical latching on.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    I am entirely with you in your indignation Stan. Actions all too clearly display the true motive. I’m also rather sensitive to the impression that the various governments enthusiastic latching on the anniversary of the Great War and the Decade of Commemorations feels all too much like an inappropriate gleeful Celebration than a sober remembrance of past loss.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Peter, good posting! I had a bit of a tussle myself some time back on Slugger when I mentioned that a greater number of Irishmen from “over the border” had died in the British forces in WWII serving against Hitler than the number count of those from the north. I’d not meant to suggest in any way that the sacrifice of those from this side of the border was lessened to any degree by this (we all of only suffer or die personally, and everything coms down to individuals), but sadly it led to that kind of response and I was wrongly blamed for priviledging the sacrifice of one “community” over another. But I suppose I was complaining about politicians whose fathers, etc, had shirked service making claim to service in both wars as some sort of creditable action by the population of NI as a whole, rather than something particular to those who served no matter where they came from.

    I’m delighted to have my attention drawn to the British Legions’s statement. I’ve long asked on Slugger for anyone to post information about the war records of the earlier family members of any of the “faces” in the DUP. I’ve been met with a mention of recent membership of the UDR, not exactly what I’d asked for.

  • Stan McGlone

    Honestly as a veteran, I would never ever encourage my kids to join a military. It is a waste of life and you spend the entire time being treated like dirt. Don’t get me wrong, I am proud that I served but it really is not worth it. I have seen dozens on young peoples lives ruined from serving in the middle east. PTSD being the key one.

  • Stan McGlone

    See the abuse that football player is getting right now on loyalist pages? Nothing but sickening. It is his right to wear or not wear.

  • tmitch57

    Fireman,
    A very thoughtful post. In America we don’t have a tradition of poppy wearing. The American equivalent is probably the wearing of American flag pins. During the Vietnam War, probably during the Nixon administration, Republicans began conspicuously wearing pins with tiny American flags in their suit lapels. I also served in the American Army during the Cold War and twice deployed to the Balkans with peacekeeping forces. Even though a decision was passed allowing us who served in Bosnia and Kosovo to join the Veterans of Foreign Wars I never joined it or the American Legion. The American flag has also become abused by politicians and many in the media (FOX News) as a sign of patriotism. So I understand your concerns.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    I did indeed Stan, simply uncalled for.

    If they can’t understand why a Derry lad of a nationalist background may not be too hot on the poppy then I despair (more than usual).

    Idiots….

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    Seaan
    I too would be interested in reading these records.

  • Thomas Girvan

    The problem with him is his previous stated choice of an IRA song as one of his favourites.
    He was asked to close his twitter account as a result.

  • Thomas Girvan

    Don’t worry Dan, you get this phoney debate every year from Republicans who want to politicise the poppy.
    You are right, if you want to wear one, wear one, if not, don’t.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    As a child I’d occasionally find myself at a wedding of some distant family acquaintance where the future Lord Bannside would also be a guest. My uncle, ex RAF, transferred to the Fusileers after the war, would sniff “I’d heard a number of people suggested that he joined up in 1944……”

    I’ve always been interested as to the actual reason why such a fervent highly active patriot in later years should have failed to take this opportunity to support his King and Country, Christian pacifism perhaps?

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    That’s not the only ‘problem’ with him though is it Thomas?

    Even if he didn’t make blunders like that he would still be public enemy no 1 for being straight-up about not wearing a poppy.

    I’m by no means enamoured by his actions but I’ll defend his right not to wear a poppy, it is his right and unlike other rights that are exercised by some I can’t say that he is NOT right to do so.

    A poppy means different things to him than it does to me.

    Furthermore, the negative interpretation of the poppy will only be exacerbated by its abuse by loyalist paramilitaries.

  • Thomas Girvan

    I agree that it is not his only problem.
    His track record does not portray him in a particularly savoury light.
    Of course if he doesn’t want to wear a poppy, so what?
    It is up to him.
    It is when he dresses it up as a matter of principle and how he respects the fallen of the wars, etc. etc.
    To sum it up,I just think he is a puke!

  • carl marks

    whats your opinion of loyalists abusing the poppy? he may not wear a poppy but at least he does not insult it.

  • Thomas Girvan

    There is not a lot I can do about low life of any description.
    The poppy is a symbol of remembrance and gratitude for those who gave the ultimate sacrifice.
    It should not be politicised, but in this country, people will use any opportunity to give or take offence.
    There is a saying in the country that sums it up,
    “What can you expect from a pig , only a grunt?”