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Lest We Forget? The Irish Did

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Last week as I made my way through Dublin's crowds to get a bus home, I passed by a well-dressed man walking from Abbey Street onto O'Connell Street. I would never have bothered to take notice of him if it weren't for what he clearly went out of his way to buy and wear on his lapel; a red poppy. I was surprised to see such a rarity in the Irish capital, but while some may see it as disgraceful, I had nothing but respect for him.

Whether right or wrong, it's extremely uncommon in Ireland to see anyone wearing a poppy, commemorating those who died while serving in the British Army. If one were to ask why, an initial response could be that it is a British custom and not an Irish one. South of the UK's only land border (i.e. the one between Northern Ireland and the Republic), wearing a poppy can be regarded at best as being "West-British," and at worst as an affront to Irish people who died at the hands of British forces over the years. What makes the situation so complicated, however, is that there are so many Irishmen and women who join the British Army's Royal Irish Regiment each year. So, while the British honour those who died while serving their country from WWI onwards, the Irish turn a blind eye. Why? Because they're too torn to know how they should feel about it.

Recently, Sunderland footballer and Derry native James McClean decided not to wear a poppy. Not being a soccer fan, I had never heard of McClean until his name was spread across Twitter, with people having strong feelings on his decision. While some respect and support it, others noted that it was ironic for a man who played for a British football club to refuse to partake in a British custom. It's probably worth noting that three Argentinian players wore poppies on their shirts, despite being from a country that isn't the UK's best friend, thanks to the Falklands.

The Irish problem with wearing the poppy is in no way straightforward, and McClean is in some ways a victim of this. British soldiers killed many Irish civilians over the years, from those on the streets of Dublin in 1916 to Bloody Sunday in Derry in 1972. On the other hand, there were over 49,000 Irish soldiers who died for King and Country in the First World War. Although key figures such as the President will lay wreaths on commemorative days, those soldiers aren't remembered or honoured by the general public in Ireland. They've been forgotten, as if Ireland was never involved in the war.

It's perfectly respectable in my opinion, if not admirable, that the Republic is a neutral state and does not partake in war. Instead, the Irish Army plays its part in UN peacekeeping missions. Peacekeepers are not immune to attack, though, and 86 Irish soldiers have died during peacekeeping missions since 1986. The number of British soldiers who have died during the same time is probably much higher, but one must keep in mind that Ireland is a much smaller country than the UK; the Republic's population is 4.6 million, while the UK's is roughly 62.2 million. Such a death toll is substantial to a relatively small country.

What is disappointing, however, is that unlike the UK, the Irish do not have a culture of honouring those who fought for their nation. The Irish who fought alongside the British in WWI did so for a number of reasons. Some thought that if they fought alongside their oppressor, they would gain enough respect to be awarded Home Rule. Some signed up because they had no other way of earning a few shillings. Some at the time felt no need for an independent country, and had no problem fighting for King and Country. All of them, though, were Irishmen, and should be remembered. Maybe the red poppy is too politicised for the Irish to wear, but there's nothing to say that they couldn't come up with an equivalent symbol.

"Lest we forget" are the famous words, originally penned by Kipling. It seems that in Ireland, though, we're either too ashamed or too nervous to remember.