In Britain, poppies matter, especially ahead of Remembrance Day on Nov. 11. Exactly 888,246 ceramic red poppies — one for every Commonwealth soldier slain in World War I — were placed by the Tower of London, as discussed here by my colleague Karla Adam. Poppies are almost mandatory fixtures on the lapels of politicians and anyone else in British public life.
That includes, conspicuously, soccer players. In honor of Remembrance Day, every player in the country's soccer leagues dons a jersey embroidered with a red poppy. But this weekend, there was an exception.
James McClean, a 25-year-old midfielder who plays for the Irish national team and Wigan Athletic, a club in the second tier of English soccer, chose not to wear a poppy on his jersey. It's a decision he has made before, to the ire of some in Britain's jingoistic tabloid press.
This time, he wrote a letter to Wigan's chairman explaining his choice not to wear a poppy. It was published on the club's Web site and is a statement of commendable maturity and honesty. The letter opens:
I have complete respect for those who fought and died in both World Wars — many I know were Irish-born...
I mourn their deaths like every other decent person and if the Poppy was a symbol only for the lost souls of World War I and II I would wear one.
I want to make that 100% clear. You must understand this.
But the Poppy is used to remember victims of other conflicts since 1945 and this is where the problem starts for me.
The poppy is an emotional symbol in Britain, a flower that bloomed atop the blasted, bloody battlefields of Flanders and was memorialized in a poem by Canadian soldier John McCrae. The poem's last lines are:
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
The poppy swiftly became an insignia of remembrance, honoring those who served in the British armed forces. Some 200,000 Irishmen served during the war.
But for McClean, who was born in the Northern Irish city of Derry, the poppy has a more complex legacy. His home town witnessed the events of Bloody Sunday in 1972, when British troops fired upon a crowd of civil society protesters, killing 13 (another died four months later from wounds suffered that day).
The event was one of the most famous moments of the Troubles, the period of sectarian Catholic-Protestant tensions that roiled Northern Ireland and still, at times, seems only thinly buried beneath the surface. McClean goes on to conclude his statement:
For me to wear a poppy would be as much a gesture of disrespect for the innocent people who lost their lives in the Troubles — and Bloody Sunday especially — as I have in the past been accused of disrespecting the victims of WWI and WWII.
It would be seen as an act of disrespect to those people; to my people.
I am not a war monger, or anti-British, or a terrorist or any of the accusations levelled at me in the past. I am a peaceful guy, I believe everyone should live side by side, whatever their religious or political beliefs which I respect and ask for people to respect mine in return. Since last year, I am a father and I want my daughter to grow up in a peaceful world, like any parent.
I am very proud of where I come from and I just cannot do something that I believe is wrong. In life, if you’re a man you should stand up for what you believe in.
He's hardly the only public figure to boycott wearing a poppy. In 2010, the musician who composed one of the main pieces in an official commemoration of Britain's World War I dead refused to wear a poppy as a protest of the nation's involvement in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"I am not a pacifist and I back the need for the first two world wars and pay tribute to the huge sacrifice made by those who took part in those wars," Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, who is also recognized as a Master of the Queen's Music, the musical equivalent of a poet laureate, said in an interview with the Telegraph newspaper. "But I feel Remembrance Day and the whole poppy appeal has been hijacked by politicians for propaganda purposes to support the unjustified wars in Afghanistan and Iraq."