The poppy. Not a celebration of war but as an expression of sympathy for those who were wounded or who lost their lives in a tragic and unnecessary conflict…

Arnold Carton is a retired schoolteacher from Belfast.

The controversy over the wearing of the Poppy in Ireland, with vandals throwing paint at the door of the Royal British Legion office in Dublin, got me thinking about my community’s reasons for wearing the poppy.

Approximately 50 years ago, I was a Year 10 (Form 3) pupil in a North Antrim school. Like most of my peer group, I was wearing a poppy, and my school had made an effort to explain its meaning to us.

In History, we studied the series of unfortunate events that led to the breakout of WW1, of how by committing a murder, Gavrilo Princip (a young man very similar in many ways to Padraig Pearse) had accidentally triggered a series of events that led to the death of millions of young men. We read in disbelief how some British ‘patriots’ had initially celebrated the declaration of war, only to later discover the brutal waste and cruelty of modern warfare.

Because my school was well organised, while we studied the reasons for war in History, we studied in parallel the poetry of Wilfred Owen in English classes. Like many teenage males, I had little interest in poetry until I read Owen’s searing indictment of the patriot’s desire for war in ‘Dulce et Decorum est’, or in ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’ and in the saddest poem I had ever read, ‘Futility’. I could scarcely believe the cruelty of forcing men who had stopped to play football together at Christmas to continue to kill each other after Christmas. (An event later remembered in Jonah Lewie’s December 2017 single, ‘Stop the Cavalry’.)

The fact that many Nationalists see the wearing of a Poppy as a celebration of war, or as triumphalist does not surprise me, misunderstandings between our communities are still common.

When I went to QUB In 1978, I had no real understanding of the republican or nationalist experience of N. Ireland but having found the opportunity to listen to those who had different experiences, it was clear that my understanding of my country was at best incomplete. My nationalist friends and I held very different views of much of the history of our country.

One thing we did share was a love of the poetry of Wilfred Owen, but I was surprised that the same people who admired Owen’s scorn for the bloodthirsty rhetoric of 1914 could at the same time admire Padraig Pearse’s support for a blood sacrifice in 1916. From anything I have read, Gavrilo Princip who fired the first shot of WW1 and Padraig Pearse, who inspired decades of violence in Ireland were similar people who made the same mistake of believing that a violent response to injustice would be a shortcut to a peaceful and just society.

If you have not already guessed it, the point I am making is that we were not taught to see the poppy as a celebration of war but as an expression of sympathy for those who were wounded or who lost their lives in a tragic and unnecessary conflict. I would condemn all attempts to bully anyone into wearing a poppy, but I would hope equally that the right of those who want to wear a poppy will be respected across Ireland.

I am well aware that in more recent years (particularly since the shameful UVF gunrunning celebrations in Larne during 2014) there have been attempts to link the loss of life in WW1 to the unionist community only, ignoring the many nationalists who lost their lives in both wars. Many brave men from both traditions needlessly lost their lives at the start of the last century, having been misled by patriotic fervour.

Sadly, once more, we have people who would risk the safety of others for personal political advantage, we can see them creeping towards the use of patriotic rhetoric to trick our young into accepting politically motivated violence.

It was said after WW1 that the soldiers were ‘Lions led by Donkeys’. It is important for the sake of both our communities that we resist this attempt by the patriotic donkeys to take back control.

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