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Sunday 9 November 2014


Wear your shamrock, lily and poppy with pride

We can celebrate our release from the enslavement of narrow nationalist bigotry

Shamrock poppy

A Dublin friend rang me a few days ago to tell me joyfully that she'd bought a centenary Irish poppy pin in Limerick, complete with shamrock.

I sought it out on the internet and was delighted. Approved by the Royal British Legion, it was designed specifically "to honour and commemorate the memory of the Irish men and women from across the island of Ireland who gave their lives . . . in the Great Wars."

That same week, featuring a poppy on the masthead of the front page, the Irish World - a paper for Irish emigrants in Britain - had the headline: "Ireland to reclaim its war heroes," with the subtitle: "Ireland to take its place at Cenotaph to honour war dead."

And so we will today, Remembrance Sunday, when for the first time since 1946 Ireland's ambassador will lay a wreath, as the Taoiseach will in Enniskillen for the third year running.

As the Irish World reminded us, Irish diplomatic attendance at the Cenotaph marks the end of a decades-long taboo, and is a logical extension of recent important positive developments in Anglo-Irish relations, including the immensely successful state visits of the Queen and our President.

At the request of the representative body 'Irish in Britain', at the end of October Chris Ruane, a Welsh MP whose family came from Galway and had strong GAA connections, laid a wreath of poppies at the Ireland Peace Park in Messines.

It read: "Reflecting on a legacy of Irish grief; Unionist and Nationalist; Catholic and Protestant; from Ireland, Britain and throughout the world. A promise that former adversaries can become partners in peace."

Another wreath-layer there was Fine Gael's Frank Feighan, who two years ago became the first TD to wear a poppy in the Dail, in a week when ex-Taoiseach John Bruton wore it on British television.

I feel that consecutive Irish governments airbrushed these men out of history," he said, "and they had to grow up in a State which didn't dare talk about the bravery, the suffering, the service that they gave". Now that we had matured, he added, we could remember the thousands of dead young men.

I find it extraordinary how fast we've matured. When I lived in Dublin, you'd have had to go to Trinity College to buy a poppy and even a few years ago you'd be lucky if wearing it attracted only hostile words.

In Britain, as late as twenty years ago, the loudest voices in the Irish community were malcontent Brit-haters. Nowadays, spokesmen are loyal to the country in which they live as well as to the one from which they came.

It's been a long time in coming, but we can celebrate our graduate release from the enslavement of narrow nationalist bigotry. Today, even some members of Sinn Fein are prepared, in public, to acknowledge and honour ancestors who fought in British army uniform in the World Wars.

And in Britain, as the Irish World put it in an editorial, "joining in with our neighbours and friends in wearing a poppy - or choosing not to do so - is something we choose to do and not out of coercion."

This decade of commemorations is helping us to grow up and look squarely at some of the complexities of our history. Ambassador Mulhall is helping that process in London with lectures and discussions.

Last month, for instance, to mark the unveiling in Mayfair of an English Heritage Blue Plaque - "Daniel O'Connell, 'The Liberator', 1775-1847, Irish leader and champion of civil rights lived here in 1833" - he hosted an event at the embassy where O'Connell's biographer, TCD Professor Patrick Geoghegan, gave one of the best lectures I've ever heard.

Like the rest of our constitutional politicians, because of his opposition to violence, O'Connell was denigrated in the twentieth century by proponents of physical-force nationalism and airbrushed out like the Irish soldiers of World War I. Yet he was a great champion of the oppressed, someone who successfully fought discrimination against the Jews as well as the Irish.

A fervent campaigner against slavery, he would earn the admiration of Frederick Douglass, escaped slave and legendary abolitionist, who visited Ireland, became O'Connell's friend and was nick-named "the black O'Connell" when he returned home.

Beside a group of proud O'Connell descendants at the London events was Nettie Douglass, Frederick's great-granddaughter. Sadly, many of our emigrants were hostile to blacks, as demonstrated so shockingly in the New York race riots of 1863, but we can be proud that O'Connell showed we were capable of better.

Our decade of commemorations will involve much controversy and point-scoring, particularly as 2016 approaches, but perhaps our maturity has now reached the point of allowing civil discourse about our complex history.

The culture of the Sinn Fein party is ungenerous, so progress will be halting, but maybe some day we'll have an Ireland in which people feel as secure walking the streets in November wearing a poppy (with or without a shamrock) as at present others do at Easter wearing the lily.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards