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Opinion: 'The poppy argument in Ireland is an ideological battle that's been raging since the 19th century'

Caoimhín de Barra looks at nationalism and unionism, and the conflicting emotions people have around the use of the poppy.

Caoimhín De Barra Assistant professor of history, Gonzaga University, Washington

THE MONTH OF November brings with it colder weather and darker days.

It marks the moment when the cheer of Christmas appears hopefully on the horizon.

And it also spawns an annual furore about an innocuous little red flower called the papaver rhoeas: better known as the poppy.

On the surface, the debate about whether Irish politicians, or Irish people more generally, should wear a poppy seems to be focused on the question of what is the most appropriate way to honour those Irish soldiers who died during the First World War.

But in reality, the poppy argument in Ireland is a proxy war in an ideological battle to define Irishness that has been raging since at least the 19th century.

Identity

When one mentions ideology and Irish identity, people naturally assume this refers to nationalism. Modern Irish nationalism emerged in the 19th century, and its main feature is the idea that Ireland is culturally unique and distinctive, especially from Britain.

Those influenced by nationalism view Irish history as an endless struggle against British rule, and geographically speaking they see Ireland as completely separate from Britain, denying there is any such entity as the “British Isles”.

Politically, Irish nationalists promote the concept of a single, united Ireland. They tend to celebrate Gaelic games as a marker of Irish identity, often accompanied with a suspicion that soccer or rugby are overtly English. They cherish unique hallmarks of Irish culture, such as our indigenous language, music, and dance.

The opposing force to Irish nationalism was traditionally unionism, which provided the philosophical justification for British rule in Ireland. Of course, most people assume that unionism, at least in the south, died out after Ireland became independent.

But it didn’t. Ideologies that have had a powerful influence over people for an extended period of time simply don’t vanish into thin air. They evolve and change, but their influence continues to be felt.

Slavery and race

Perhaps the best example of this can be seen in the United States. In 1990, historian Barbara Jeanne Fields published a seminal article called Slavery, Race, and Ideology in the United States.

In it, Fields sought to answer the question of which came first in American history: slavery, or racism?

To grossly simplify a highly nuanced argument, Fields showed that slavery came first, and then racism evolved in its wake, as people sought some ideological validation for why they treated their fellow human being so terribly.

Of course, slavery was abolished in the United States in the middle of the 19th century. Yet the racism that it begot continues to wield a powerful influence in contemporary American society.

Southern unionism did not die out in Ireland in the 1920s. It merely evolved, becoming a form of nationalism itself. Its adherents, like all nationalists, developed a vision for what their nation should look like in the future.

We might call the traditional form of nationalism in Ireland by these terms that I like to apply to the situation: “Éire nationalism”, and its remodelled unionist counterpart “Irelandshire nationalism”.

Irelandshire nationalists accept the independence of the 26-county Irish state, but they celebrate the social and cultural connections between Ireland and Britain, viewing themselves as more enlightened and inclusive for doing so.

Their version of Irish history stresses the links and connections between Ireland and Britain, and downplays differences between the two.

Irelandshire nationalists are suspicious of efforts to bring about a political union between Ireland and Northern Ireland, as they fear what they see as the zealotry of Irish republicans who live north of the border.

They celebrate the international and cosmopolitan nature of sports like soccer and rugby, often with an accompanying sense that Gaelic games are inferior or parochial. They usually have nothing but contempt for aspects of a distinct Irish culture, such as the Gaelic language.

To be clear, one should not think of these forms of Irish nationalism in “either-or” terms, where everyone either falls into one camp or the other. Instead it would be better to think of these as being two ends of a spectrum.

Certainly, you can find people who would tick all of the boxes on one side or the other, but the world view of most Irish people is formed by some combination of the two.

It is with this understanding of the ever-contested nature of Irish identity that the argument about the wearing of the poppy should be analysed.

It is certainly possible to wish to wear the poppy out of a desire to commemorate fallen soldiers, and nothing more. Although one wonders if it might be more appropriate to find a different way to commemorate all Irish soldiers who have died overseas in foreign service through the centuries, including the almost 100 Irish men killed while serving in UN peacekeeping missions since 1960.

The issue with the poppy is that it is simply undeniable that some who champion its use do so first and foremost because it celebrates a historic link between Ireland and Britain.

In recent years, Senator Frank Feighan has encouraged more Irish politicians to wear poppies during November, and last year helped promote the shamrock poppy as a more acceptable Irish alternative.

Of course, Senator Feighan has also advocated in recent years that Ireland should consider rejoining the Commonwealth. 

This isn’t to say that Senator Feighan is wrong to hold those views, and that those who disagree with him are objectively right.

But these two positions together do suggest an ideological consistency in simultaneously placing a special emphasis on the historic relationship between Ireland and Britain while aspiring to deeper political ties once more in the future. That such positions are influenced by the lingering remnants of traditional Irish unionism should be obvious to all.

So let the great poppy debate commence once more. But let us not pretend that it is only about the fit and proper way to honour those Irish soldiers who died in the Great War of the last century.

Caoimhín De Barra is an assistant professor of history at Gonzaga University, Washington.  

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About the author:

Caoimhín De Barra  / Assistant professor of history, Gonzaga University, Washington

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