Poppy Day

Published in 20th-century / Contemporary History, Issue 2 (Summer 1999), Letters, Letters, Volume 7

Sir,—I agree with Brian Hanley (HI Spring 1999) that ‘the conflictssurrounding Poppy Day in the ‘20s and ‘30s were more complexthan         present-day commentators have allowed’.One-hundred-and-seventy-thousand out of 180,000 Volunteers had remainedloyal to their elected political leader in his constitutional approach.A significant number had put their lives on the line on the Somme andother battlefields. Afterwards pressure (political and physical) wasexerted to prevent them from commemorating their dead. How this wasdone included Frank Ryan’s ‘fists, boots and guns’. But the ‘why?’ iswhere the complexity resides. The much-bruited ‘reason’ was that thesemen were ‘traitors’. But by whose definition? Despite the small numbersof those who indulged in nostalgic imperialism, the vast majority wereCatholic Nationalists who had seen the war as a patriotic duty and astep on the road to Home Rule.
It seems fair to identify the real reason for the virulence of theIRA-dominated anti-Poppy platforms as fear. The fear that if theconstitutional nationalists were entitled to recognition then logicallythe ‘physical force’ elements were, if not wrong, at least not asexclusively and gloriously right as their official self-concept. Itwould puncture the myth that all ‘real Irishmen’ were either in the GPOor in support. The Poppy was gladly handed over to Northern Unionists.There were good grounds for this ‘Republican’ fear: the unprecedentedcrowds on the city streets to welcome home the men after the war; the20,000 Irishmen who enlisted in the British Army during 1919-1921; thecontinued enthusiasm for the commemorations. The ‘Boys of Kilmichael’,Soloheadbeg and other scenes of ‘glory’ felt entitled to the spoils ofwar. Were the boys of Messines likely to demand equal recognition? Werethose who followed Pearse down the ‘road he saw before him’ going to berobbed of their glorious, pious and immortal, as well as rewarding,status? That road inevitably led to Omagh, but happily the majorityheld to the constitutional line of advance and are now at last makingsome amends, most notably by the people in their massive vote for theGood Friday Agreement, but specifically by our President at the sceneof victory by 30,000 Irishmen of the two politico-religious traditionsat Messines.—Yours etc.,



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