One of my favourite things to teach at junior cycle English is World War One poetry. Siegfried Sassoon and the tragic Wilfred Owen, in particular, provide a raw and visceral insight into the grim reality of life in the trenches. The rage and anger they felt drips off the pages by the bucketload. The haunting imagery Owen confronts us with in Dulce et Decorum Est, has the tendency to leave our jaws on the floor. Onomatopoeia has scarcely ever been so disturbing. Phrases like ‘guttering, choking, drowning’ bring his poor comrade straight into view, as he succumbs to the horrors of the gas. Terrifying.
Trying to teach the context of these poems can be tricky. Just what, after all were they fighting for? WWI still leaves many puzzled; all this blood and chaos for pride and border layout? It seemed so. The war left an indelible mark on humanity. It was the first conflict to use heavy artillery and weaponise the skies through airplane bombers. The result was devastating.
The Poppy became a symbol for this seemingly pointless loss. Thanks to John McCrae’s poem In Flanders Fields. It was the only flower that could grow on scorched earth. A powerful symbol that showed hope could spring from grimmest of places. The symbol today carries far different connotations however. For me, it has been distorted.
The soldiers came home crushed and mutilated forever. Footage I show of soldiers suffering from shellshock shakes me to the core every time. What they must have endured. This is, however, where the waters get muddied, from an Irish perspective. Lots of Irish blood was spilled on the fields of Flanders, yet even more was spilled at home in the aftermath.
Soldiers arriving home to mainland Britain were heavily traumatised, and disillusioned with what they suffered for. Damaged permanently and struggling to renew normal life, Churchill threw some a lifeline. In a time of scarce employment, a new opportunity was offered in the form of going on duty in Ireland, where revolt was in the air. These guys became the notorious Black and Tans.
This is where things get complicated. The soldiers who suffered and endured the unimaginable, were inflicting suffering and trauma of their own, on these shores. Not all but some. I’ve always seen the poppy as a symbol of the loss in WWI, however for this now to represent all British soldiers including the Tans is problematic for me to say the least. How could anyone here now see the poppy as a symbol for them?
Should Football be Apolitical?
I have often wondered how any Irish player could wear such a symbol. Albeit, it is not for me to dictate what another individual should do. If they want to remain apolitical, that is, after all, their right. I did wonder how they got on with James McClean though. Did he feel slighted? His comments this week show that he does feel that way, given his teammates’ recent politicising with Black Lives Matter.
McClean has been clear on his reasons for not wearing one from the outset of his time in England. Even writing a very eloquent letter, outlining respectfully why he feels he can’t wear a poppy in good conscience. It was not enough, alas. He has taken years of disgusting abuse from the terraces and the twitter machine. It seems regardless of what he says, he is fair game.
Nemanja Matic was allowed explain how he couldn’t wear one due to NATO bombing his homeland, and this was accepted. Noble you could say, if he hadn’t neglected to address the why in the bombing of Serbia; the genocide. Probably best to omit that in fairness. Yet why no outcry there?
It seems hate can only focus laser-like on one figure of reproach at a time. What is he to do? FIFA have made it clear no political symbols can be displayed on jerseys, yet during poppy season, this is ignored. It seems clubs are trying to out do each other in poppy-procession, with some self parodying attempts (see photo below). Those who do not wish to partake like James are vilified. So, how exactly is this symbol not political now, as the F.A argue?
The point of a peace process is to get those to move on from the violence of the past peacefully. Yet, it sometimes feels like the nationalist side are held to a higher moral standard, being constantly reminded of their actions in the past.
Where was the outcry following the damning portrayal of some British soldier’s actions in the North, following the inquest in Belfast, last summer, into the Ballymurphy Massacre? Or why, only recently, were two journalists making a documentary on The Loughinisland Massacre, arrested forcibly in front of their children, with their research taken? All very unsettling.
Live and Let Live
Unfortunately for McClean he has largely played for clubs in strong pro-Brexit areas. It has been levelled at McClean that since he lives and works in England, what right has he to complain? If you don’t like it leave. However, surely condemning someone who pays taxes, buys into the social contract and is a part of a given society shouldn’t happen. Should they be ran out just because they have different political views on certain issues? Do we all agree with everything in the society we live in?
Being part of a democratic society means we are free to voice our dissent in a peaceful fashion. The Black Lives Matter movement has been a watershed moment, and rightly so. Such an empowering thing to see and no doubt be part of. This giving a voice to the voiceless is the great equaliser we all need. Yet shouldn’t sectarian abuse be recognised too? For too long it has gone on, unchecked.
Why? I cannot say for sure. It has at times seemed like Britain is uncomfortable with confronting its past relationship with these shores, north and south. Easier to say nothing. We all have difficulties with confronting the shadier aspects of the past, but it must be done for any real progression. All very complex, and should be nowhere near a football ground.
Let’s Face it Together
To accept there is an issue is the start of tackling said issue. Whilst there have been plenty of voices highlighting the issue of sectarian hatred in our world, it is now time to push that further. People saying sure he hasn’t helped himself are not helpful.
Standing up for your political beliefs, due to your own experience, is not bringing trouble on yourself. For me, it is more like ensuring you can look yourself in the mirror each morning, and look your kids in their innocent eyes. James is merely ensuring he can do this. For us to stand by and say nothing, as he is basically victim shamed, is so wrong for me.
The time to stand by as tricolours are burned in the name of ‘culture’ (despite orange being represented), is at an end. It was refreshing to see Arlene Foster condemn such behaviour. We should all do likewise, and stand together in the face of this hatred alongside James McClean. If not now…when?
Always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.-Elie Wiesel (Nobel laureate,Holocaust survivor).