Of poppies and croppies

An Irishman’s Diary about war commemorations

When Seamus Heaney first read Requiem for the Croppies almost half a century ago, he could hardly have been misconstrued as glorifying war. Yes the poem was a tribute to the doomed heroism of the 1798 rebels, who died "shaking scythes at cannon". But even in 1966, when he wrote it, his central motif was still innocent of the meaning it acquired a few years later. Heaney opens with a reference to the "pockets of our greatcoats full of barley" – inspired by accounts of the emergency food supply United Irishmen supposedly carried while living rough in the months leading up to the rebellion. From there, the poem moves swiftly – as if on the run itself – through a 14-line history of the conspiracy, to the rout on Vinegar Hill. Then it reprises the motif, bleakly. "They buried us without shroud or coffin/And in August . . . the barley grew up out of our grave."

This last detail too was based on stories of the time. And many years after he wrote the poem, Heaney recalled having read it to Northern Protestants in the mid-1960s, as an exercise in “silence-breaking rather than rabble-rousing”.

But then 1969 happened, after which his lines became more than just a requiem. For those who saw the Troubles as unfinished business from an unbroken line of previous conflicts, including 1798, the barley growing from graves was a potent metaphor.

And being always careful not to add fuel to fires, Heaney worried about its potential for misuse. He didn’t want to have to ask, like Yeats: “Did that play of mine send out/Certain men the English shot?” So he stopped reading the poem.


I don't know if Heaney was consciously echoing John McCrea's In Flanders Fields when he wrote Requiem for the Croppies. In any case, his ears of barley have similarities with McCrea's poppies "between the crosses, row on row".

The poppy proliferates in Flanders and other scenes of the first World War’s greatest slaughters, and is triggered into germination by disturbed soil. In the shell-ploughed fields of France and Belgium, it looked like the flowers were growing from the graves of the countless dead. Which was why they were the perfect symbol of remembrance for those lost in that horror – being adopted first by Americans (McCrea was in fact Canadian), and only later in Britain and Ireland. But a century on, as letters on this page have testified, the poppy is still considered, by at least some in the Republic, to be a memorial to the 1914-18 war in particular, and maybe even exclusively.

Whereas British armies have fought in many other conflicts since – some (like the second World War) universally regarded as good causes, some (like Iraq) with more dubious reputations. And as its website makes clear, the annual Poppy Appeal commemorates the British victims of all these wars, with complete neutrality as to the moral basis for each.

“The poppy is a powerful symbol,” the website rightly says. “It is worn to commemorate the sacrifice of our Armed Forces and to show support to those still serving today . . .”

It certainly is a powerful symbol. It’s also an extraordinarily successful one. With its latter-day ubiquity on broadcasters’ lapels and with a season that, like Christmas, seems to get earlier every year, the poppy must be the envy of fundraisers everywhere.

In the meantime, its symbolism moves ever farther from its Flandrian origins. One of the ironies of the Poppy Appeal’s latter-day triumph is that never in the history of war have British (and indeed US) personnel been at less risk of a soldier’s grave, in Belgium or anywhere else.

Most of their recent campaigns have been fought far from Europe. And increasingly, they’re fought by remote control. British governments now commit “boots on the ground” only with the greatest reluctance.

As Ronan McCreevy wrote earlier this week, their entire losses in Afghanistan were less than on an average day of the first World War.

But so far as the poppy appealers are concerned, there remains an unbroken line between Flanders and Helmand, and wherever the next war involving British personnel happens, about which it will be equally supportive. My country right or wrong is the attitude. And that’s their perfect entitlement.

It’s also right that people in this State should honour the memories of ancestors who fought in the first World War. If I had a grandfather who had died in Flanders, I would want to honour him too. But I wouldn’t want my memorial to be misconstrued. So all things considered, I wouldn’t wear a poppy.