A Matter of Respect
For a couple of years now we have watched tasteless and jingoistic displays of ‘Britishness’ going on under the guise of ‘Armed Forces day’ or ‘Remembrance’ events at Ibrox stadium. The hijacking of these events by the loyalist fringe has taken place under the noses of the watching media and senior military personnel. This tacky exhibition reached a crescendo recently when we were treated to the disgraceful sight of uniformed soldiers singing along enthusiastically with blatantly sectarian songs. All of this has hardened the opinion of some who follow Celtic that they want nothing to do with the upcoming Poppy day and remembrance ceremonies. That is a right they chose to exercise and I understand why they feel that way. Similarly I can fully understand why Irish people may have similar feelings, given the behaviour of the British army in their country over the centuries. Today I ask simply that whatever you choose to do during remembrance week, you do so recognising the right of others to follow their own conscience. It is a matter of respect.
A while back I wrote an article about the display at a Celtic v Aberdeen match urging the club not to put a poppy onto our team’s shirts. The main point I made was that wearing a poppy in no way demonstrates support for the UK’s current military adventures or its bloody imperialist past. Rather, it recognises the charitable choice made by an individual to support former military personnel of all creeds and ethnicities who often had no choice but to serve in the forces. We are a pretty intermingled group of nations on these islands and loyalties are often mixed and boundaries blurred by the sheer complexity of our history. Never forget the Celtic players and supporters who served in a variety of conflicts and often made the supreme sacrifice. It is also right that we also remember the victims of British armed forces, be they Indian, Kenyan, Iraqis, Afghanis or Irish. Remembrance Day is about recalling them too.
I invite you to read the article I wrote a year back and ask you to respect the choices made by your fellow fans this November whether they choose to wear a poppy or not. The right to make an informed choice is available to us all and that is only right.
Poppy Protests and the bigger picture…In the early years of the 20th Century the demands for home rule in Ireland intensified. In the North of Ireland the Ulster Volunteers were formed to resist this movement, violently if necessary. In response to this the nationalist Irish Volunteers began to recruit, train and arm themselves. The possibility of Civil war in Ireland was high. In August 1914 World War one began and the British Government promoted it as a fight for ‘The Freedom of small nations’ the majority of the Irish Volunteers, under John Redmond, decided to fight on the allied side. They did this on the understanding that Home Rule would be granted after the war. So it was that the Irish 16th & 10th Irish Divisions joined the 36th Ulster Division on the Western front. At the Somme in 1916 they were slaughtered in huge numbers. Indeed the war memorial at the Island of Ireland Peace Park in Flanders states their casualties as follows: 10th (Irish) Division - 9,363 casualties, 16th (Irish) Division - 28,398 casualties and 36th (Ulster) Division - 32,186 casualties. That’s almost 70,000 Irishmen of all faiths killed or maimed. Of course the Easter Rising took place that same year and the brutal British suppression of it caused great consternation among Irish soldiers serving in France, India and many other places and led, eventually to full blown rebellion.
Selling Poppies to raise funds to support wounded service personnel and the widows and children of those lost began in 1921. It was inspired by John McCrea’s poem which began: ‘In Flanders Fields the Poppy’s blow, between the crosses row on row.’ At least seven former Celtic players died in the conflict including the excellent Peter Johnston, star of the six in a row team. Willie Maley, a former soldier himself, is said to have cried upon hearing the news of his death. Countless supporters of the club were maimed and killed in the war too. Others achieved distinction for acts of heroism up to and including winning the Victoria Cross. In World War 2 as Britain fought Fascism, 43,000 ‘Free State’ Irishmen fought for the UK as did hundreds of thousands of Irish and their descendants in Britain. This continued to be the case in every conflict Britain has rightly or wrongly become involved in. The poppy was the symbol of remembrance for all who suffered and died in these wars. It was, as far as these things can be, a non-political gesture by people choosing to show their gratitude for the sacrifices made. It raised few gripes for decades and I would wear a poppy to Celtic park with no comment being made about it at all.
That changed at an Aberdeen game at Celtic Park in November 2010. The much publicised banner display that day read: ‘Your Deeds Would Shame All the Devils in Hell – Afghanistan, Iraq, Ireland – No Blood Stained Poppy on our Hoops’ I am not for a moment defending the UK’s record in the countries mentioned. I know enough about history to know the sins of British Imperialism but in my opinion, this display targeted the wrong symbol. Wearing the Poppy demonstrates an awareness of the suffering of all involved in war, it is not a recognition that we agree with any war. It represents and commemorates all faiths and ethnicities, all social classes and political persuasions. My own Grandfather, a native of County Clare in Ireland, was injured by shell fire in World War 1 fighting on the Western front as part of Redmond’s Irish Volunteers. He was invalided out of the Army and put his military training to use in the war of Irish Independence fighting against the Army he once belonged to. He knew the suffering endured by all the men who slogged it out on the killing fields of France. He also saw the brutality of the British and their cohorts in Ireland but he wore his poppy every year to remember his lost comrades.
I’m not arguing that Celtic fans should wear a poppy. That is rightly an individual’s choice. What I am asking for is respect for those of us who do choose to wear one and of course for those who choose not to. That does not make us any less committed to Celtic or less proud of the club’s Irish heritage. Nor does it signify that we agree with any of the conflicts the UK has been involved in. On the contrary it will help us recall with pride and respect the countless Celtic men who gave their lives in wars throughout the Club’s 125 years of existence. You may disagree with every word I’ve written here and that is your right but I ask you all to accept that every person has the fundamental right to choose how to commemorate the lost souls of war.
Celtic fans were vilified in the national press for the banner display of 2010 and people the length of the UK associated Celtic FC with militant Republicanism and disrespect for the memory of the war dead. That was unfair because the supporters who organized the banner display are part of the Celtic Family, not its entirety. They do not speak for us all. Perhaps the most important words of this blog are to be found on the memorial at the Island of Ireland Peace Park in Flanders. An Irish round tower made from the stones of a demolished workhouse in County Westmeath, commemorates the Irish dead of the Great War. On stone plaques beneath the tower are inscribed the following words…
‘’As Protestants and Catholics, we apologise for the terrible deeds we have done to each other and ask forgiveness. From this sacred shrine of remembrance, where soldiers of all nationalities, creeds and political allegiances were united in death, we appeal to all people in Ireland to help build a peaceful and tolerant society. Let us remember the solidarity and trust that developed between Protestant and Catholic Soldiers when they served together in these trenches. As we jointly thank the armistice of 11 November 1918 – when the guns fell silent along this western front - we affirm that a fitting tribute to the principles for which men and women from the Island of Ireland died in both World Wars would be permanent peace.”
That is the message I take from the sufferings of all sides in wars. That message goes to the heart of the Celtic philosophy and is why the Club chose to play players of all faiths and none when other clubs were openly sectarian. It is why I hope all are welcome in the Celtic family irrespective of their political views, religious philosophy or ethnicity. We are a diverse bunch we Celtic fans but that is not a weakness, it is our greatest strength.