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Opinion: Why I Wear a Poppy

Its November, it means only one thing: everyone on UK television wearing Poppies. Every year there is a row over someone not wearing one. (and this year there was an added one on not ‘bowing deeply enough’ at the cenotaph).

Part of me says who cares?! Wearing a Poppy is a personal choice as it means different things to different people. Now I am not going to give you a lecture about wearing a Poppy, but I am going to explain why I, as Irishman, wear one.

The first reason I have for wearing a Poppy is family history. My Great-Grandfather fought in the Great War as part of the British Expeditionary Force and was captured early in the war and spent the rest of it in a German Prisoner of War Camp. I wear it to honour his memory and the memory of his friends and colleagues who didn’t survive the Great War.

Secondly I wear it to remember the Irish Soldiers who died in the two World Wars as well the Irish Soldiers who lost their lives on duty with the Irish Army, especially the 86 Irish Peacekeepers who lost their lives on Peacekeeping duty with the United Nations.

The sermon at the Remembrance Sunday Service in St Patrick’s Cathedral Dublin was given by The Revd Michael Roemmele, M.A., formerly Chaplain to H.M. Forces, currently Rector, Camus–Juxta–Bann, in the Diocese of Derry. He told the following story as part of the sermon,

Not far from Ypres in field of maize, close to the tiny village of Locre and tended by the villagers, is the solitary grave of an Irishman. William Redmond volunteered for military service with the 16th Division and joined the Royal Irish Regiment. He had been a Member of Parliament at Westminster, representing Wexford, North Fermanagh and East Clare for 34 years.

A convinced Irish Nationalist, he was a campaigner for Home Rule in Ireland, but his political views were not shared by many of Ireland’s population. Nonetheless, Redmond was highly respected. He had a warm and engaging personality and was regarded as a man of great integrity, even by his political opponents. On 17th June 1917 the 16th Irish Division and the 36th Ulster Division advanced side by side into the fierce battle for Messines Ridge as brothers–in– arms. Promoted to the rank of Major, Redmond, aged 56 led his men out of their trenches into no–man’s land. Almost at their objective he was seriously wounded by enemy fire. Some distance away, Private John Meeke a young medical orderly, a staunch Ulster loyalist, serving with the Inniskilling Fusiliers, saw Redmond fall. Meeke braved the machine gun fire and artillery shells and reached the wounded officer. Kneeling beside him, he began to bandage Redmond’s wounds, only to be wounded himself.

Redmond ordered the injured medic to leave him, return to his own lines and out of the line of fire. Meeke disobeyed and continued bandaging. He was shot again, and again Redmond ordered him to leave him. Once again, Meeke refused.

Bleeding profusely, he carried the Major out of the battlefield to a First Aid post, before going back to look for more casualties. He was shot a third time before being taken for medical attention. He recovered quickly and was soon back in action, only to be wounded again. This time he was repatriated. For his gallantry, he was awarded the Military Medal. He died soon afterwards as a local hero at his home near Ballymoney. Major Redmond, the man whose politics he vehemently opposed, but for whose life he had risked his own, was cared for by nuns in a nearby convent until he also died of his injuries. Irish and British soldiers stood side by side to honour him at his graveside when his body was buried. But he was not honoured at home. Until very recently his name was barely mentioned in the Irish Republic. Like many others who fought alongside the British in the First World War, he was regarded as a traitor to the nationalist cause.

War doesn’t discriminate between nationalities, all are equal in death and deserve to be remembered.

Thirdly, as we continue towards the 100 years celebrations of the events of 1916, we must remember those on all sides of the conflict. That Easter in 1916 most Irish people opposed the uprising, it was the events afterwards and the heavy-handed reaction from the British that swung support to those involved in the uprising. We cannot be selective in our history. People like William Redmond who for all his life was an Irish Nationalist, and others like him, who went to war to fight for the right of self determination of small nations and the hope of Home Rule following the War. These people’s contribution to Ireland should not be ignored because of who they fought for 100 years ago. Without them, Home Rule would never have been on the table and the Irish hope of an independent country would be a long way off.

Finally, and this I believe is the most important reason, is that the Poppy reminds us of the devastation that war can cause and makes us reflect on the decisions that we make to ensure that those mistakes are not repeated.

As the Revd Michael Roemmele said on Sunday,

The enormity of the losses in the First World War is beyond our ability to comprehend. Numbers numb our humanity.

They make us blind and insensitive to the human suffering caused by conflict. The awful loss of thousands of lives daily between 1914 and 1918, like the massacre of 6 million Jews, and the casualties of the blitz in World War 2 did not shock the world into laying down arms, or bring about peace, but rather the contrary.

One lesson from the history of conflict is that violence breeds violence with a self–prepetuating momentum.

It took the Armageddon–like destruction of Hiroshima on 6th August 1945 and the instant annihilation of 100,000 innocent citizens, to make the Japanese capitulate and break that cycle of violence in a way that horrified the world. But that was exceptional. Very rarely are wars brought to an end by force of arms or by military might, but rather by negotiation and through political settlement.

The phrases “Never Again” and “Lest we Forget” are often repeated at this time of year, and though we acknowledge we have failed many, many times since 1918 to prevent war from breaking out, we can continue to honour those who have laid down their lives, and hope this time, that it wont happen again.

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Stephen Spillane

30 year old Cork feen who should have left UCC years ago, but still writing for the Express. Has written for a number of websites including Spirituality Ireland and ESC Ireland. Interests include Politics, Religion and other things that shouldn't be spoken about in polite company.