* This article began as one covering my thoughts of the British tradition of wearing the poppy. It splintered off in several different directions. I will leave the title as is.
Now the sun shines down on the green fields of France
a warm summer wind makes the red poppies dance
The trenches have vanished under the plows,
there’s no gas no barbed wire, there’s no guns firing now
but here in this graveyard it’s still No Man’s land,
the countless white crosses stand mute in the sand
for man’s blind indifference to his fellow man,
to a whole generation that was butchered and damned
Green Fields of France – about Irish soldier who died fighting for The British in World War I
The Poppy has long been a symbol of remembering those who fought and died in World War I. More specifically British soldiers. Remembrance Day, Armistice Day, or simply Poppy Day is a day of commemoration every November 11th. World War I ended at the eleventh hour, of the eleventh day, of the eleventh month in 1918. Sunday, nine days ago, was the 100th anniversary of that momentous day.
At that time The British were our enemy, ongoing, but even more so during World War I. In 1916, the Irish Revolution occurred. The Easter Rising as it’s known at home. We tried to overthrow British rule of us, after 800 years. It was unsuccessful and the leaders were executed. What had been a quiet enough movement swelled to unprecedented levels. Any goodwill towards Britain was destroyed.
As an Irishwoman, formerly an Irish teen, and child, I grew up regarding the Poppy with scorn. I believe many Irish people felt similarly. For generations, of which I hope mine is the last, the poppy caused a visceral reaction. There is no way I would have dreamed of wearing one. I would have been disgusted to see one on the lapel of someone walking down the street in Dublin, my hometown. Us -v- them. I believed I would never forgive England for past injustices. Until there was a United Ireland, there would be no thought of forgiveness.
The Guildford Four were a group of four Irishmen who were convicted of terrorist attacks in Britain. They were alleged to have carried out two pub bombings in the English town of Guildford. They were released from prison in England. In 1989, their were sentences were overturned. This happened twenty nine years ago. I was eleven. Watching their release on television is imprinted in my mind. Three policemen were charged with “Perverting the Course of Justice.” They were all exonerated. All the evidence pointed to a conspiracy against the four.
Two years later a similar exoneration happened for the Birmingham Six. I was now thirteen. I was old enough to understand most of what was happening. Of the enormity and implications of multiple conspiracies against Irish people for terrorism. These people had lost years of their lives. I was thirteen at this stage and allowed to go into town (downtown) on my own on the train. I can’t remember whether I went in with a sibling(s), or friend(s). There was a rally of support for them right in the middle of town. It was held outside The G.P.O (The General Post Office). The building where our brothers fought for our freedom in 1916. Fuck The Brits! I remember each of the six speaking. The one who stayed most clearly in my mind was or in fact is Paddy Hill. He has very distinct eyes but that isn’t what grabbed me. He spoke with such passion, such anger, as he railed against the British Officials from the Government to the Police. The event was both a celebration of their release, and a protest at how the British treat(ed) my people in the land they occupy.
It is an exaggeration to say I became an I.R.A. supporter that day. I did not. I believe it may have been the first extreme disgust I felt for The British. The establishment. I don’t know when I learned of the concept of ‘Legitimate Targets’. It was sometime around these events. A legitimate target is a member of the occupying force (of any country) and of the police in the case of Northern Ireland. The police were the Royal Ulster Constabulary. They were predominantly Protestant and hence loyal to the crown. Catholics were openly discriminated against by them. I understood and agreed with the concept of legitimate targets. Civilians were not legitimate targets. I did not celebrate when people from these two organizations were killed, but I did not feel a sadness like I did when innocent civilians from either side were hurt. If you are a soldier or a police officer of a nation (Britain) that is occupying another nation (Ireland), I firmly believe that the oppressed have every right to act against the oppressor. It is to be expected.
Something I grew up in, was an atmosphere of intense distrust of the British. Things that happened before I was born were ingrained in my being. You can’t grow up hearing of discrimination and in fact atrocities against your people by a foreign power, and be able to overcome it. January 30, 1972 was six years almost to the day before my birthday. There was a civil rights March in Derry, a city in Northern Ireland. The marchers were almost exclusively Catholic, wanting a united Ireland. More importantly at that time they were protesting discriminated by Protestant leaders, business owners, and The Police. They had long been treated as second class citizens. At 15:55 the first two victims were shot by British troops. By the end of the day 28 men had been shot, 14 of them fatally. All were shot by the occupying (British) forces of my country. The British soldiers said the civilians had been shooting and throwing bombs at them. A tribunal, held by the British shortly afterwards, exonerated the British soldiers. Three days later, on February 2, 1972, a general strike was held in The Republic of Ireland. It was the largest, per capita, since World War II. The British Embassy in Dublin was burned to the ground. I know if I had been an adult I would have been front and center. In 2010, then British Prime Minister, David Cameron, apologized on behalf of the British Government for the events that were ‘unjustified’ and ‘unjustifiable’. The victims had no guns or bombs. The British soldiers lied to cover up their actions. The British Government had said the guns had been destroyed. Some were found in other conflicts. Just as the Irish knew all along, it was cover-up, after lie, after cover-up, after lie. U2 penned and sang a song of the same name: ‘Bloody Sunday’. It was a huge hit. I was at a U2 concert this past summer with my 12-year old daughter. Larry Mullen came out on stage beating his drum in the telltale rhythm of the song – immediate tears in my eyes. They had a graphical display mostly of images of Derry, then added other events including Selma and Martin Luther King Jr. and many other freedom fighters. As The Americans all around us whistled and sang along, oblivious to the significance of the song, I burst into tears. I held my half Irish American daughter and swayed with her and cried. This song, written when I was five years old, about an event that happened eleven years earlier, had me devastated inside. This is part of me. You cannot take my anger, distrust, and pain away. It is up to me, as an Irishwoman of the twenty-first century to grow. To allow myself to change. Am I going to be part of the problem by holding onto hate? Am I part of the solution, by thinking how to be a part of moving Ireland (North and South) and Britain forward. Despite my distance, I am one more Irishman who wants it all to stop. Will it stop?
I would say I was bordering on pro-I.R.A. during my teens. There were attacks on both sides, and Catholics (pro Irish) were oppressed. There were times later when I couldn’t understand how I ever had thought terrorism might be the answer. Was it that I knew the Catholics were going to be held back and treated like dirt forever. Did I feel that justified this back and forth tit-for-tat murder? I suppose I did. Were we supposed to take it? I didn’t even live in the part of the country that was occupied. I lived in The Republic of Ireland which hadn’t seen a terrorist attack since 1974. We did have the odd bomb scare, but that was about it. It was easy for me in calmness to support murderers in the occupied part of the country. Yes, I wanted a Unity Ireland. At what cost?
I’m not sure when my thoughts changed, and whether it was gradual or sudden. Past attacks became prevalent in my mind. Terrorist attacks that had no legitimate value, in my mind. The one that sticks out the most to me is the Warrington bombing in February 1993. Two boys were killed while out shopping with their parents. Their names are burned into my memory. Jonathon Ball (2) and Tim Perry (12). What do their deaths do to achieve peace or parity? You destroy their families’ worlds forever, and take two people’s lives that had barely begun. The Omagh Bomb in August 1998 was carried out by The Real I.R.A. as opposed to the I.R.A. The Real I.R.A. was a splinter group of The I.R.A. The I.R.A. were and still are honoring a ceasefire. This splinter group opposed the ceasefire. There was a huge backlash against them in the wake of the attack. They phoned in a warning with a known code word telling the police there was a bomb near the courthouse. These warnings were somewhat common practice. The police moved people away from the courthouse and unknowingly moved them into the path of the bomb. Usually it was a case of honor among thieves in these circumstances. This time around they had purposely killed more innocent people. Cowardly scumbags. Protestants, Catholics, six teenagers, six children, a mother pregnant with twins, two Spanish students and others on a day trip from the Republic of Ireland.
The relationship between all nations within The British Isles has long been a complicated one. In my forty years of life there have been appreciable changes on a governmental level, and among the people. I cannot speak for the entire population of Ireland, but most, many… are letting the past go. Willing to let go of the hatred of the British for 800 years of oppression. It is easier for those of us living in the Republic of Ireland – correction – for those of us who hail from there. I left Ireland fifteen years ago. As mentioned above, Britain having rule over six counties of Ireland’s thirty two is a lot less impactful when you’re part of the twenty six free ones. This brings the saying “26 + 6 = 1” to mind. A slogan that wouldn’t make sense to anyone outside this struggle. I used to want a tattoo of it. I think I would be helping with divisiveness rather than healing. A united Ireland would still be a beautiful thing to see in my lifetime. Not at the cost of peace. I do not want one more Protestant/Unionist/Loyalist to die in my name. Of course I don’t want any Catholics/Nationalists/Republicans dying. I would prefer a separated Ireland with no violence that a United Ireland with bloodshed on both or either side of the divide. That’s what it has been – a divide. Can we hope to bring people closer together? With each generation, more interfaith marriages, and less discrimination is it probably that eventually there will be a critical mass? That the amount of good, will outweigh the bad. And what do I tell my children? I suppose it will different than what I would have told them were they being raised in Ireland. I am keenly aware of Irish-Americans more staunch opinions on Irish Republicans than the Irish themselves. Last week an American man in his 60s and I talked. The first thing he said to me was “Tiocfaidh ár lá.” It is an Irish phrase meaning ‘Our Day Will Come’. It was/is used by the I.R.A. the largest terrorist organize whose aim was a United Ireland. 20-25 years ago I would not have labelled them as terrorists. My grandfather was a member before they were ‘bad’. I looked at the Irish-American man in disbelief. He appeared to think it would bond us – it had a repulsing effect on me.
In June 2016 Britain voted to pull out of the European Union – a concept nicknamed ‘Brexit’. Let me correct the use of the word ‘Britain’. It is an island. A physical piece of earth. Also known as Great Britain. It is comprised of Scotland, England, and Wales. Britain is not a country. The legal name of the sovereign state that Americans think of as Britain is The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. That is the legal name of the country. When Brexit happens, it is The entire United Kingdom that will pull out. Since the Northern Irish peace process, the border between The Republic and The North has been virtually non-existent. The fact that the U.K. and Ireland (colloquial name for The Republic of Ireland) are both in the E.U. makes border control between the two nations easy. This also helps calm Republicans and Nationalists. The fact there is easy travel between the two parts of Ireland, where there used to be militarized border checkpoints and towers. I’ve been ‘up north’ a few times. The time that sticks out in my head was 1992. I was 14. We were going to visit my eldest sister in University in Glasgow, Scotland. The boat sailed from Larne (Northern Ireland) to Stranraer (Scotland). My mom and I drove up from Dublin the day before. We stayed with friends of hers that night and got the boat the next morning. The previous year I’d been to Belfast with my parents for a day visit. We had taken the train. I don’t remember much in the way of knowing we were crossing an international border. This time was a stark contrast. We were ordered to the stop the car – still on Irish (Republic) soil – my country. Several British soldiers, three or four, walked around the car, their machine guns pointed at the car. Mirrors searched the underside of the car. They opened the trunk. From what I remember my mom did not have to answer any questions. I was livid. This is my fucking country. North and South. Who the fuck do you think you are to have the right to stop me. To try to intimidate me in my homeland. Go the fuck home. After we were waved on, we drove through a zig-zag structure, designed so no one from one side of the border could see the other. There were lookout towers, and military bases nearby. I knew these things existed. Seeing them was another matter. Remember this was only one year after I had seen The Birmingham Six in person on a packed O’Connell Street in Dublin. Anything I viewed as a display of occupation riled me up more and more. Of course I was turning into a stauncher Nationalist/Republican day by day. I believe this would have happened regardless of my age, but teenagers become stronger advocates, more quickly, and without the pragmatism of adults. Is it any wonder that the I.R.A. had no problem recruiting Northern Irish Catholic teens? They lived in the effected part of the country. They were discriminated against. They were in danger. If a teenager like me, living in The Republic, angry on their behalf, and my country in general, could be become so anti-English, it made perfect sense that an overwhelming majority of them would. Brexit will necessitate a strengthening on the Irish border. No one knows what that will look like yet. What it will mean. There are fears, valid fears, that it will cause destabilization of the situation in Northern Ireland. Hopefully we are far enough in time from the ‘bad old days’ so things down return to the ways of the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. A generation has come up in peace. I hope that is strong enough a fabric, that if things at the border become fraught, if the British have to, or chose to, deploy troops, some form of terrorism will not resurge. It might lead to a tinderbox, with one event sparking another. A tit-tat disaster waiting to happen. Brexit is far from effecting Britain alone. Ireland could suffer disastrously.
Back to 2018. Chicago. Me. Poppy Day. Veteran’s Day. I don’t think I’d be able to find a poppy to wear if I tried. I did not try. If it becomes a tradition I might. If I was in Britain on that day I think I would wear one. It is impossible for me to know until presented with the choice. It is respect for men, in many cases boys, who lost their lives. They fought on the side of what most people (including the opposing countries) believe was the right side. The just side. Is their nationality the most important thing? Are my Irish brethren whose blood was spilled on The Green Fields of France deserving of recognition? By the British? By the Irish? I believe they are.
I am in no position to tell others what to think or do. I am in a position to form my own opinion, and to choose my actions based on that opinion. I’m tired. I don’t want to fight, and I’m not even fighting. I have tears in my eyes. Who are they for? The four minors among the fourteen people murdered by British troops on Bloody Sunday. The ten people in The Guildford Four and Birmingham Six whose best years were stolen from them by a corrupt and malicious British Establishment. The many others who had the same thing done to them. The baby twins who died inside their mammy and twenty eight others in Omagh. The thirty three people and one unborn person in the still unsolved murders in Monaghan and Dublin in The Republic. I am not forgetting the countless innocent English victims. All of the murdered are gone. All of the families are still grieving. All of the people are tired. Please. Just give me a poppy. I doubt I will ever feel healed enough to were a Union Jack (The Flag of the U.K.). I doubt there would be a reason to. I suppose there are those who have been directly effected who might wear a Union Jack. Some may say if they can… I should… As I mention above, I have my road to travel, everyone has theirs. I see it as my duty to push myself to the limits of tolerance and acceptance, and actively work on being a positive force within my own bounds. I think that’s all any of us can do in any situation – do our best.
Let’s remember what this article started out to be about… Ten million men who died as soldiers in World War I.
Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam – May his soul be on the right side of God