The Poppy and Ireland: An Uneasy Mix

Flanders Field, Tijl Vercaemer

In 1918, Moina Michael wrote a tribute to John McCrae’s poem ‘In Flanders Fields’ entitled ‘We Shall Keep the Faith’. At the annual YWCA Overseas War Secretaries’ Conference in New York, she wore a silk-red poppy attached to her lapel and distributed 25 to other delegates. Two years later, at the National American Legion’s convention, the poppy was proclaimed as the national remembrance symbol.

Flanders Field, Tijl Vercaemer
Flanders Field, Tijl Vercaemer

Attending was Madame E Guerin, who saw poppy sales as a unique way to raise funds for children who had been left orphaned from the war in France. She organised the sale of millions of poppies made by French widows in the U.S. and within a year, she had dispatched her poppy sellers to London, to the founder of the Royal British Legion, Field Marshall Douglas Haig, who embraced the idea. And so, the annual tradition of wearing a poppy in the month of November began.

Last year, Republic of Ireland and then Wigan Athletic footballer James McClean did not wear a poppy on his jersey, sparking controversy and abuse from the stands. In a concise, heart-felt, open letter to his club’s chairman, Dave Whelan, McClean outlined his personal reasons for not wearing the symbol which all of his team-mates and opposition wore.

Citing the Bloody Sunday massacre in Derry in 1972, McClean, a Derry native, explained his position; “For people from the North of Ireland such as myself, and specifically those in Derry, scene of the 1972 Bloody Sunday massacre, the poppy has come to mean something very different.

“For me to wear a poppy would be as much a gesture of disrespect for the innocent people who lost their lives in the Troubles.

“It would be seen as an act of disrespect to those people; to my people”.

At a UFC event in Dublin this October, Conor McGregor wore a poppy, and was subsequently derided online for doing so. Previously, former Ireland rugby captain Keith Wood chose to wear the poppy when providing punditry for The BBCs coverage of The Six Nations while then-captain Brian O’Driscoll and Rob Kearney didn’t.

Over 50,000 Irishmen died in the First World War. 100,000 people lined College Green in 1928 to commemorate the war dead on the tenth anniversary of Armistice Day in this fledgling state. The poppy was seen as a suitable way to remember sons, fathers and brothers who had died so recently on foreign fields, let alone the fight for independence at home.

Today, the poppy can be seen all over the world, including territories that are, or were, part of the Commonwealth. However the poppy is auspicious in its absence in the Republic. Sales of the poppy in the Republic are down; have the Irish people forgotten about their collective past, or is it a selective past they choose to remember?

“Most people that wear the poppy, have relatives that fought in the Great War and World War Two,” says David McFarlane, a committee member of the Royal British Legion Branch formerly on Frederick St. “Because of Ireland’s ‘peculiar’ history with Britain, many people believe that wearing the poppy is a jingoistic symbol and against what it means to be a real ‘Irishman’.”

According to The British Legion’s website which co-ordinates the annual poppy appeal, it safeguards “the memory of those who have made the ultimate sacrifice and raises money to help those in need today”. This would appear to include veterans of the current wars of Afghanistan and Gulf War Two, but also veterans of previous conflicts; including members of the Auxiliary forces, particularly, the infamous Black and Tans. The atrocities carried out by this brigade, who themselves were World War One veterans, are promulgated by those who are against the wearing of a remembrance poppy in Ireland.

“In times gone by, there have been cases of hostility towards the poppy,” say McFarlane, “however this has decreased since the Good Friday Agreement. Now, people are becoming more and more au fait with the poppy and its significance”.

The conduct of the State, particularly its reconciliatory stance towards the Troubles, has greatly decreased the hyperbole surrounding the poppy in Ireland. This was exemplified on Remembrance Sunday, when the Taoiseach Enda Kenny laid a green wreath at the war memorial in Belfast last year. The continuing impact of atrocities demonstrated the need to deal with “with the consequences of the past and the need for reconciliation,” Mr Kenny said. In Dublin, President Michael D. Higgins attended the British Legion’s Memorial Service in St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

For the first time in 70 years, the Irish Ambassador to The UK, Dan Mulhall, was invited to lay a wreath at the war memorial in London. Mr Mulhall said he was “honoured to be the first Irish ambassador since 1946 to lay a wreath at the Cenotaph in remembrance of 50,000 Irish who died in World War One”.

Is there a future for the poppy in Ireland? Though sales are down, mainly due to the British Legion’s relocating to its Belfast headquarters last year and the lack of resources, awareness of remembrance ceremonies is on the increase according to McFarlane. People’s “interest in their ancestry and the centenary anniversary of the First World War have motivated people to contact us to find out about their relative’s past”.

The poppy may never be fully accepted by the Irish public- Its symbolism has too many conflicting meanings with that of the predominately nationalist Republic. A green poppy has been suggested by a conciliatory few, much like the French white lily, however its appeal is diluted by the upcoming Easter Rising centenary. The poppy is a strange, often forgotten and certainly misinterpreted anomaly of Irish history, yet it is important to remember where it came from;

“And now the Torch and Poppy Red

We wear in honor of our dead.

Fear not that ye have died for naught;

We’ll teach the lesson that ye wrought”



How do you feel about the poppy in Ireland? Is it disrespectful, offensive or appropriate? Could there be a middle-ground? Leave a comment