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Poppy Fascism and the English Education System

Photo Source Chairman of the Joint Chiefs | CC BY 2.0


‘And still they teach you in your school, about those glorious days of rule’

What Jon Snow, the Channel 4 broadcaster (on English television), wisely discerned as ‘poppy fascism’ several years ago, reached its crescendo this weekend – as it does every year now it seems, with more vitality. However, this year, 2018, being the centenary of the Armistice of World War I, the crescendo’s pitch felt louder than usual.

As, mid-week, I watched Sky News Live on YouTube from my Philadelphia apartment, a seemingly unwitting child appeared on my screen and announced the importance of passing down the ‘knowledge’ of the First World War from those who had gone before him. This segment was aired alongside report on an ‘artist’ [read, ‘lunatic’] named Rob Heard who had carved thousands of wooden figurines, over a period of five years, of British soldiers killed in the conflict and laid them out on the ground somewhere in England to commemorate this centenary of futile slaughter. No context, ever.

Lest we get ahead of ourselves and assume that the fanaticism cease there, we’re reminded intermittently throughout the week from various English news sources that 10,000 torches (remember those torches carried by Trumpite fascists in Charlottesville last year?) are lit each night at the Tower of London to remember the ‘fallen’.

But the brief interview Sky had conducted with the young boy sparked a reminder in me of a line or two from Ireland’s chief political troubadour in present times, Damien Dempsey:

And still they teach you in your school
About those glorious days of rule
And how it’s your destiny to be
Superior to me

What must the history curriculum be of these children, in the country on whose empire the sun would never set? A cursory smidgín (smidgeon; a borrowed word from Irish aka Gaeilge) of research reveals that although the master curriculum of schools in England, and by forced extension Wales and Scotland, mentioned the history of colonisation of other countries, these aspects were not ‘statutory’. Essentially, there exists an aspirational wish list of what the general child and teenage populace of the UK might learn in school, but which we know in reality is reduced in the majority of cases to the banal study of royal lineage – or, in many cases, imperial/capitalist homage.

How can the Irish state, or those who reside in it, sustain a justifiable complaint without seeming hypocritical? Did we not allow the removal of history from the Junior Cert [middle school] cycle as a core subject? Without protest, without a murmur – really.

The chief protagonists in decolonial discourse in modern times appear to emanate not from Ireland, but from elsewhere; from other formerly colonised climbs. Shashi Tharoor, an Indian parliamentarian and academic, has spoken vociferously in recent years about the violent colonialism of Britain and the Raj in his country of origin. Yet, all the crimes of Britain have seemed to ring silent in Ireland – England’s first colony ‘lest we forget’ – as each November rolls around.

Indeed, not only does the so-called Irish state see fit to erect a garishly large World War I ‘haunting soldier’ sculpture in one of the crucibles of revolutionary republican resistance in 1916 (St. Stephen’s Green), its promoters such as Leo Varadkar (Taoiseach/Prime Minister) and Frank Feighan (TD/Minister/general West-British lickspittle) insist we wear a shamrock emblazoned with a blood-stained poppy. What a sham, indeed.

Opponents will trot out the usual defence; that, we ought to remember ‘all those who died’ in the past for humanitarian reasons. This, however, clearly glosses over the actual remembrance element of the poppy, which is supposedly so central to its symbolism. Current British soldiers – who have served in Afghanistan and Iraq – give regular media interviews for British media outlets that clearly link the senseless slaughter of yesteryear with contemporary imperial exploits.

Why is it never even mooted that the alternative white poppy (which is sans the British Legion baggage), symbolising peace and an end to all war, be worn? The simple, and the truest, answer is because the red – as opposed to the white – poppy, is utilised to advance a militarist agenda in Britain. One which is eerily reminiscent of the militarism of the early twentieth century in the lead-up to World War I.

The irony of all this, of course, is that sportsmen like James McClean, the ‘Republic’ of Ireland international soccer player, who dare to reject this rank poppy militarism/fascism, face the wrath of a large swathe of the British public whose very forbears supposedly fought to quell the advance of authoritarianism and intolerance between 1939-1945. Lest we forget, indeed.

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Dr Kerron Ó Luain is an historian from Dublin, Ireland. His latest journal article examines Irish republican democracy in Belfast during 1846-48.

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