On Tuesday, I’d decided to ignore the existence of Bolton Wanderers. After all, soon will come the day where that will be the reality.
I decided to engross myself in far deeper and more philosophical matters. Visiting the battlefields surrounding Ypres in Belgium, I experienced once more the harrowing serenity of the cemeteries and memorials, and it is there that I am ashamed to say that my mind cast back to my passion, football.
The evening before, I had read an article on "poppy fascism" – this is an increasingly popular view, a revisionist interpretation of the poppy adorned by many on the days leading up to Remembrance Sunday, that the insistence of those who wear a poppy who impose their views on those who choose not to wear one is unreasonable, and flies in the face of the freedoms which servicemen fought and died for in conflicts gone by.
One famous example in recent times on the football pitch is West Bromwich Albion’s James McClean.
McClean is an Irish nationalist, a man born in Derry/Londonderry who wishes to see the province return to a unified Ireland. Subject to chants of "F*ck the IRA" by Sunderland supporters in last weekend’s game at The Hawthorns (in reference to McClean’s refusal in the past to wear a poppy), McClean reacted at full time with an exuberant celebration towards the away fans, almost sparking a melee on the pitch with former teammates Lee Cattermole and Danny Graham. Today, he was warned by the Football Association about his future conduct.
I will not discuss in this article the wrongdoings of Sunderland fans nor McClean’s reaction (for what it’s worth I’m a firm believer in you give as good as you get, and McClean had every right to celebrate as he did), but I am going to discuss McClean’s reasoning for not wearing a poppy. It is my belief that this reasoning is blinkered and short-sighted, and in need of reconsideration. My passion is football, but my job is History.
I think it’s time we gave Mr McClean a History lesson.
McClean’s justification for not wearing a poppy is thus:
"If the poppy was simply about World War One and Two victims alone, I would wear it without a problem. I would wear it every day of the year if that was the thing, but it stands for all the conflicts that Britain has been involved in. Because of the history where I come from in Derry, I cannot wear something that represents that."
McClean is making reference to Bloody Sunday, a tragedy that took place on 30th January 1972, some 17 years before McClean’s birth. On (London)Derry’s Catholic Bogside, civil rights protesters marched against internment within a wider movement to protest for equal rights within Northern Ireland.
The British 1st Battalion, Parachute Regiment opened fire on civilians, shooting 26 and killing 14, after receiving instruction to do so under supposed intelligence that Provisional IRA members were in the crowd, and armed.
They were not.
Only in 2010, upon the publication of the Saville Report, did David Cameron apologise for the massacre that day. No criminal investigation has ever been conducted into the actions of the British military on that day.
As a result, McClean and many other Catholic Northern Irishmen refuse to wear the poppy, perceiving it as a political symbol that celebrates the actions of the British military, including the events of Bloody Sunday.
To me, that notion is irrational. It is very different, and much more than that. I can wear a poppy with pride, and equally share my disgust at the murder of innocents committed on that day. To wear a poppy does not express full and unwavering support for every action made by members of the British military in its history.
Poppies are sold by the British Legion to remember those lost in conflict fighting for their country. The poppy was chosen after John McCrae’s now infamous poem, In Flanders Fields ("In Flanders fields the poppies grow, between the crosses, row on row"). The money raised by the sale of these poppies goes to veterans and the families of those killed on duty for the British military.
With the centenary of the First World War upon us, the poppy has been worn by millions to commemorate Remembrance Sunday, the anniversary of the armistice which ended the conflict in 1918. It is a symbol to show that the wearer is remembering the sacrifices made by military personnel for their country. It is not a celebration of Britain’s military history.
One cemetery I visited this week was Langemark, where the remains of over 44,000 soldiers, many unidentified, lie. At the front is a mass grave where the remains of some 25,000 bodies rest below the ground. On the surface were messages in a variety of languages; English, Flemish, French, German and Italian among others. And with those tributes lie a small number of poppies upon a 3" wooden cross, with the words "In remembrance, 1914-18". The reason I bring this up is that Langemark is a cemetery for German soldiers who died in the Great War.
The poppies were not there for the two British soldiers buried there, nor were they there to serve a reminder of Allied victory in 1918. They were there because remembrance supersedes nationality: those poppies were planted in a show of solidarity, a sign that all life lost in conflict, regardless of nationality or rank, military or civilian, is a tragedy.
The poppy represents loss on all scales, not just that of those born by chance on the British Isles.
McClean’s misguided stance is made further pertinent by the role of Ireland in the Great War. By 1918, 134,202 Irishmen fought on the battlefields of France and Belgium. Tyne Cot is the resting place of over 11,500 British and Commonwealth service personnel, the largest British cemetery on the globe. At the entrance, the names of 34,888 men who died between April 1917 and the end of war are inscribed; Englishmen, Scots, Indians, New Zealanders, Australians, and Irishmen, among others.
One regiment remembered there is the Royal Irish Rifles. Many of the names there are traditionally Catholic surnames; McNamara, O’Brien, Monaghan, O’Connell. But one name struck me more than the 34,887 others remembered there. It was at that moment when my thoughts turned to last weekend’s events.
Private William McClean (Royal Irish Rifles, 12th Battalion). Pvt McClean died fighting for the British forces on 15th April 1918. McClean was 26 when he died. McClean did not hail from Derry, but Kells, County Antrim, a town in Northern Ireland. The Irish Peace Tower, unveiled in 1998, is another monument which remembers the sacrifices of Irishmen in the Great War.
James McClean has every right to choose not to wear a red poppy. I hope he realises that the choice not to wear a poppy does by no means make him an IRA sympathiser, as insinuated by the chants of Sunderland fans last weekend. I hope, also, that he has studied the sacrifices made by his countrymen in the Great War, and if not, I would suggest he does so. Only then might he see that the poppy is not a symbol of celebration, but commemoration. If he cannot bring himself to wear a red poppy, he may consider the white poppy, worn as a symbol of peace as an alternative to that offered by the British Legion.
There are far more things in this life more important than football. The right of choice is one of those. The sacrifices made by Irishmen and countless others across the globe in military conflict is certainly another. McClean and many others should be made aware of that.
At the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we will remember them.