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As we approach the centenary of Armistice Day, here's why I'm asking Irish politicians to wear a Shamrock Poppy

It’s time to stop airbrushing the Irish soldiers who died in World War I out of our history, writes Fine Gael senator Frank Feighan.

Frank Feighan

MILITARY HISTORIAN TOM Burnell estimates that more than 200,000 Irish people fought in World War I. Around 50,000 of them died and 30,000 of the people who died came from the counties that later became the Republic of Ireland.

Unlike in Britain there was no conscription on the island of Ireland, so all those soldiers chose to fight, around one in seven men of service age enlisted voluntarily.

The thousands of Irish people who fought and died in World War I were shop workers, farm labourers, brothers, sons and daughters. They came from every city, town, village and townland across the island of Ireland.

Soldiers signed up for different reasons, including financial necessity, out of a sense of adventure, or importantly in an effort to secure the long-awaited Home Rule Bill for Ireland.

In my own county of Roscommon, more than 550 people are estimated to have lost their lives and 126 of them came from my home town of Boyle. Indeed, I only discovered recently that four of my close neighbours died in the war – they were the Wynne brothers, who had lived only 100 yards from my house.

As we all know too well, Ireland and the UK have a shared and divided history. It is a history marked by tragedy and triumph, success and failure, loss and hope.

Understanding history

As Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said this week, by understanding Irish history, we help to encourage understanding of it – but not with the intention of challenging anyone’s loyalty.

Part of my own family’s political lineage illustrates the complexities of Irish history. My grandfather James Feely was a Commander in the Old IRA in North Roscommon, a Sinn Féin councillor and was a prisoner in Mountjoy and the Curragh during the War of Independence.

Along with all other prisoners, he was released on the signing of the Anglo-Irish agreement in 1921 and later became one of the first members of the Irish State’s fledgling police force, an Garda Síochána.

The shamrock poppy pin which I am wearing this week was commissioned by the Limerick branch of the Royal British Legion in 2014 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of World War I and to remember the tens of thousands of Irish men and women from the across the island of Ireland who lost their lives.

I believe that this Irish version of the poppy should be more acceptable for those people, who otherwise would be reluctant to wear the poppy, to remember the Irish dead.

Commemorative Symbol

To me, the poppy is a commemorative symbol: poppies grew in the fields where the battles and slaughter in World War I took place, a place where many Irish men are now buried.

The poppy was made famous in a poem written by Lieutenant Colonel McCrae, a serving military doctor from Canada. As the start of the poem goes:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow; Between the crosses, row on row. 

From the 1920s onwards, the poppy was adopted as a symbol of remembrance.

Thankfully, I believe we have arrived at a point where the poppy is no longer a controversial symbol in this country.

There is a new political dawn in this country where our shared histories on this island allow us to remember all those who served and died, especially those from the 26 counties whose sacrifices up until very recently were ignored.

The current climate of tolerance and understanding gave me the opportunity to make an important gesture, when in 2012, I wore a poppy in Dáil Éireann on Remembrance Day.

Since then, we have had a very successful and historically informative decade of commemorations, which opened up access to historical records.

These records, along with local and national historical and cultural information have enhanced our understanding and respect for different traditions and versions of seminal moments, which shaped who we are today.

Those events include the campaign for Home Rule; the Great Lock-out; the Suffragette movement; the signing of the Ulster Covenant; the outbreak of World War 1; the Easter Rising; the War of Independence and the foundation of the Free State.

For me, being the first politician in 16 years to wear the poppy in the Irish parliament back in 2012 was a symbolic gesture to recognise those Irish people who fought and whose sacrifices were airbrushed out of our history.

varadkar poppy Taoiseach wearing Poppy in the Dail 2017

Last year, I presented an Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, with a Shamrock Poppy pin which he proudly wore in the Dáil to commemorate and remember the sacrifices of Irish soldiers – both nationalist and unionist – across the island of Ireland who fought and died in the First World War.

11 November 2018 will mark a very significant centenary – the end of the First World War. So this year I sent a shamrock poppy pin to every Irish MEP, member of the Oireachtas and councillor as well as to members of the UK Parliament.

In doing so, I invited them to mark the centenary of the upcoming Armistice Day, in their own way, either by wearing one of these pins or making another gesture.

I believe it is important more than ever to remember and honour these Irish men and women. Lest we forget.

Fine Gael Senator Frank Feighan is Vice-Chair of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly and a member of the Good Friday Implementation Committee.

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