On Poppies and Remembering

You will notice that I link below to the stimulating blog by Kevin Hargaden.  In a recent offering, he repeats some of his previously-noted convictions relating to remembrance day, poppies etc.  It is worth reading (some may need to read it sitting down with a strong drink in hand), I offer my response below.


I don’t want this to become an annual spat. Nevertheless:

Some brief points.
For those who may not know me let me lay my cards on the table, so that what I say later will not be misunderstood as being pro-British unreconstructed war-glorification;

Firstly, Politically I am an Irish nationalist (if that matters);
Secondly, I have made a stand on this issue in the past to some little cost: declining to have the British National Anthem played on a Remembrance Day service of worship that I was leading as I believed it was not a song of worship (at least not the right kind of worship). I got vitriolic correspondence, incandescently angry, vein-bulging parishioners in my face and even some negative national press coverage, as a result. I don’t want a medal- just letting people know some of what to expect if you attempt something as mild as that.

Thirdly, I have preached against the use of language such as “supreme sacrifice” and anything that seeks to equate death in war with the atonement of Christ, or see death in war as a short-cut to heaven, bypassing conversion to the Prince of Peace

Fourthly, in my “act of remembrance” yesterday, I asked that we have a moment’s silence to ‘remember’ (as we would in all of our services if a member of the congregation had passed away that week) those who had died in conflict in Ireland and abroad both recently and in the past, for those serving in Irish forces and the forces of other countries. We also ‘remembered’ one family in the congregation whose son is in Afghanistan (the way we would also ‘remember’ from time to time those who are known to us who serve overseas in other capacities). I concluded by saying something along the lines of: “As we remember those who have died in war and as a result of fallen man’s inhumanity to man (sorry about the sexist language but it is a literary quote), we pray for the reign of the Prince of Peace to be extended throughout our earth, that war would cease and swords would be beaten in to ploughshares.” Glorifying war?

Fifthly, by way of context we have, as I said, one family whose son is in Afghanistan, and at least one other Irish Catholic family who served in the British Navy, as well as those who served in the Irish forces of law and order who lost colleagues to republican violence.

Last week, having checked what she was going to say, I allowed one lady to speak briefly about the sale of poppies and outline the charitable work done by the fund for Irish families who had lost sons and daughters in world conflict.

Was I wrong? I decided our concern for the poor, the widow and the childless could not be confined to those whose politics we may or may not share- I’m sure you would agree!

Now, to the substance of your rant. I’m sorry, but today the poppy does not signify either the glorification of war, nor an exclusive remembrance of the British, no matter how much revisionist republican symbolism you want to attach to it. One of the things that has gratified me most in post-peace-process Ireland, and which is a clear sign of our maturing, is the recognition that remembering those who lost their lives senselessly in conflict belongs to us all, along with the rehabilitation of those Irish war-dead whose families were never allowed to grieve their passing because of the reactionary hostility in the community and the totalitarian attitude of their fellow-Irish, post-Independence.

You seem to make a big thing of “war not being mentioned” Ah- so there is something that dare not breathe its name in modern Irish churches? Is excluding war from discussion when the rest of the world is remembering it, not classic head-in-the-sand avoidance. What better time to speak about or conduct a worship service around the reality and the tragedy and barbarism of war and the implications of the Peace of Christ? Is ignoring it not tantamount to what many northern churches did for 30 years and avoided anything to do with sectarianism, because it is ‘too political’?

Your point on homogeneity is strange. The day of remembrance surely is becoming a global opportunity to remember (they were “world wars” after all). If Premiership football grounds with 96 different nationalities represented can have a moment’s silence, surely that is an indictment on any church that chooses not to remember on the basis of some misplaced understanding of remembering, or some quasi-pacifist agenda- (in which case, who is actually imposing a political position on the gospel? Those who inclusively remember all the fallen and mourn their loss of whatever tribe or tongue, or those who will make dogmatic pacifism an article of faith?)

I hesitate to get into “what-aboutery” but you make your anti-British comments so strongly in your opening point, that I think any discussion will be incomplete without the gentle reminder that in contemporary Irish churches, the vast majority of members who have died in conflict within living memory will have done so cruelly at the hands of republican terrorists. The fact that this has happened again in the last two weeks makes the focus of your polemic rather anachronistic. I hope your home church prayed for the family of the prison officer so cruelly murdered in the name of our country.

So, do we remember in our worship all who die in other ways? Yes we do. Does that mean we shouldn’t remember those fallen in war?  No, it does not.

Do we remember those serving in British forces?  If relevant to our community, yes we do.  Does it mean that we exclude other nationalities or think that a German, or Irish, or Iraqi death is worth less than a British one? God forbid, No it doesn’t.

Do we pray for those who have chosen that as a career?   Yes we do, just as our prayers of intercessions cover all professions over a given year.  Does it mean that we agree with everything a given government or army does?  No it does not.

Do we mention the reality of war and take into consideration the cultural reality that a certain weekend has been set aside to remember that reality?  Yes we do. Does it mean that we glorify war in so doing?  No, it cannot!

Do we allow people to contribute to a fund that helps the dependents of young Irish fathers and mothers whose lives were cruelly cut short, and wear a symbol that says they care?  Yes, we do. Should we limit that to cancer support?  No.

Yesterday, post-peace-process, post-Queen’s visit, I rejoiced in the new maturity present on my island today by, possibly for the first time, feeling comfortable wearing my poppy out and about town; not just in church, but in the street and even at the bar as I watched the boys in blue (eventually) beat Spurs.

If no-one in the local pub looked disapprovingly at me for wearing a poppy, then I would hope any who chose to wear one in your local church would have been granted the same courtesy.



  1. […] those who have marked our lives. And judging from the interactions I have had with the minister of Greystones Presbyterian Church and Fitzroy Presbyterian Church, the format of the rememberance consciously avoids over […]

  2. […] in my primary school book or the Enniskillen bombing. And some of my friends blogging  a, b,  c  and d  and some of the comments that my friends made here. (which I’m thankful they made […]

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Irish theologian, Kevin Hargaden

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