The London Visit — Family, Song, Kurdish Solidarity, the Red Poppy, Architecture, History.

Diarmuid Breatnach

I recently went to London in order to visit my daughter and son, their partners and their children. My son and his wife Natalie had recently had a baby girl; and my daughter and her husband Irwin have a boy and a girl. It turned out for a number of reasons that I had more spare time than I expected, so with the help of a friend I got in some sight-seeing and with the help of another, attendance at quite few singing sessions. I also attended one political rally. The following is an account of those events with the least said about my family and friends since their lives are private, with the exception of my host, Jim Radford, who has a very public side with regard to political and community activism and singing.

Archictecture and Transport System

Visiting London, where I spent 30 years of my life was strange, in particular staying about ten minutes’ walk from where I had lived for about half of my time in that city. I had a sense of being an observer at a familiar place but of which I was no longer part, something like a ghost, perhaps.

Not only Kings Cross Station but the whole area around it has been redeveloped and changed so much. In the early ’90s I worked shifts as a Project Worker in a ‘wet hostel’ (one where street drinkers are permitted to continue drinking), very near to St. Pancras Hospital and about fifteen minutes’ walk from the station (if one walks very fast, which I often did to get in for my early shift). On a late shift, walking down St. Pancras Road, on my way to the Underground to head back to SE London, I would often pass a solitary sex worker or two hoping for custom. Displaying the goods on sale is a trade requirement and I felt especially sorry for them in cold or wet weather.

The area was well-known for a high level of sex work and illegal drugs – selling and buying. Four years later, after two years as a Deputy Manager in a number of hostels in other parts of London, I was back in the area again, with a different NGO, as Manager of a hostel for active drug users (most of them injecting). The area had been very familiar to me then but visiting now I could hardly recognise it. The train and Underground stations have been remodeled and an international train station connecting with the Channel Tunnel has been built. In addition the areas in front of them and to the side are unrecogniseable. A big plaza fronts the station and around the side and back is another plaza with the de rigueur converted warehouses and similar-type buildings also around the back of the station now hosting eateries and fashionable offices.

No doubt the area is much more heavily policed now in order to present a clean image for tourists and the middle class young eating and drinking there but I am sure that sex work and drug commerce continues. Perhaps much more cocaine rather than heroin or crack is sold now for the new client group. But though I was there on a weekend night, I observed many of the restaurants and winebars only half-full.

I went out to Stratford too to see the Olympic Stadium and surrounding area. I had worked in that area as a community development worker for six months and taught an adult education beginners’ class in Irish for some years there too — but again, would not have recognised the area now. Like King’s Cross, it had changed completely but unlike the former, in almost unbelievable ugliness. The shopping centre wasn’t too bad but very much of the UStater “mall” type. Apparently many people in the US spend much of their free time in such places and, indeed, there seemed little other choice in Stratford now, especially for teenagers, unless they were of the outdoor type and accessed the Lee Valley, Wanstead Flats etc.

The observation tower/ sculpture by London Olympic Stadium, near Stratford, East London.
The observation tower/ sculpture by London Olympic Stadium, near Stratford, East London. (Photo DB)

An observation tower which is also a sculpture or “installation”, apparently, stands outside the the Olympic Stadium. It was chosen in competition but aesthetics can hardly have been one of the required features. I once saw metal girders and joists twisted in the aftermath of a very hot fire – the sculpture instantly brought back the memory.

 Unfortunately that was not the only ugly construction in the vecinity: almost in any direction one cared to look, other ugly and often grotesquely-shaped buildings came into view. It was in truth almost impossible to credit that not only was I in the same country but in the same city as the work that had been done around Kings Cross.

But sadly, it was not the only place for ugly buildings. Just by London Bridge I had seen a few others and indeed could see the same ones as part of the distant skyline from Stratford too. The “Shard” is one of them, looking like some kind of unsafe rocket about to take off. Another building reminds me of one of those free-standing electric fan heaters.

Some pieces of metal fell off the Shard recently – perhaps the beginning of a suicide attempt by the building, prompted by shame – and would have killed anyone they had struck. The various companies involved, both in its construction and in renting space in it, have said that there is no danger and everything is being checked again. I’m sure that is very reassuring to people working there and to passers-by.

Weird building near Stratford
A strange but not pleasing building near Stratford — in Dublin this would probably have earned a nickname like “The Handball Alley”. (Photo DB)
Long block Stratford
A barrack-looking building near Stratford. (Photo DB)
Another strange building near Stratford, East London
Another strange building near Stratford, East London. — Maybe it would have been called “The Cheesgrater” in Dubln? (Photo DB)
Various Tall Buildings Stratford
View from overpass, Stratford, looking south-westward (Photo DB)
London Olympic Stadium, Stratford, East London
London Olympic Stadium, Stratford, East London (Photo DB)

It occurred to me at some point that an Irishman taking photos of buildings around the Olympic arena could get into trouble, even these days — so took myself off inside the ‘mall’ to eat.

On a positive note about London other than the Kings Cross development, the new Overground system links up with much of the Underground and throws a public travel net around the city and outskirts, linking up a great many areas which were previously only accessible by using a combination of public transport systems often taking hours.

Irish tricolour in someone's yard right next to an Overground station in NW London
Irish tricolour in someone’s yard right next to an Overground station in NW London (Photo DB)

London Overground logo

I was told about the Overground and even used it but it was some time before I noticed that both that system and the Underground use exactly the same logo design, the difference being the word written across the bar and perhaps the colour. Once one becomes used to a symbol, one no longer reads the words on it or notices anything except very different colours. That didn’t matter until the day I had to catch an Overground train at a station not organically connected to the Underground, on which I was travelling. My ticket was good for both and the Overground station was less than a minute’s walk away down the street. Seeing what looked like the same design and taking it for another entrance to the Underground station I had left earlier, I walked past it three times and once almost got on to the nearby British Rail (intercity trains) platform and wondered why everyone was giving me wrong directions!

It was going down to an Overground station in NW London that I saw a big Irish tricolour in someone’s yard, flying right next to the station.


Kian, absorbed in an electronic game (Photo DB)

Although I had prepared myself, I was a little shocked at how tall my grandson Kian had become. He is (of course) a very bright lad and was doing tests and making applications for different secondary schools.

Caitlin Rose, his little sister, seemed very excited to see me and I only had to look at her to make her break out in laughter. Grandad is very funny, apparently. Sadly, they have only two living grandparents now – me and my ex-wife. Their other grandfather died shortly before Kian was born and their other grandmother only recently.

  Caitlin Rose was born prematurely – I dashed to London at the time and remember holding her in the palm of my hand fpr a little while out of the incubator. She did well but was later diagnosed as suffering from cerebral palsy – the most obvious way it affected her was that her muscles spasmed and drew the tendons in her calves and feet tight, bending her legs and putting her on tiptoe so that she could hardly walk. The condition can be aleviated but so far is incurable. But she is very competitive and determined as well as being very bright (of course). In addition, she had the SDR operation in the USA, a relatively new surgical technique, after which she improved enormously.  (See this incredible footage taken about a year after the operation, from the blog recording her progress and others in the family and promoting the SDR operation

Caitlin dancing
Caitlin dancing (Photo DB)
Caitlin Rose on her daily exercise treadmill
Caitlin Rose on her daily exercise treadmill in her gym, paid for by fundraising (Photo DB)

I didn’t get to spend much time during the day with my son-in-law, Irwin, who was busy figuring out how to plumb their new washing machine in to the waste water disposal system.  I am not familiar with the closed system so didn’t offer too much advice.  But later we went out to eat so I could chat to him a bit more.

The "plumber", my handsome son-in-law
The “plumber”, my handsome son-in-law Irwin. (Photo DB)

Eating out

We went out to a tapas restaurant not too far from where they live and I ordered the fish skewers from the menu, imagining them to be the size of pintxos in the Basque Country or chicken satay skewers one sees over here. When the skewers arrived I was shocked to see each contained three large pieces, each one the size of an individual fish portion in many expensive and niggardly restaurants, with what looked like a dagger or bayonet pushed through them, mounted on a stand.

The most surprising thing for me however was that all the staff were actually from the Spanish state1 with the exception of one from Latin America. In Dublin, I had become used to these places being staffed by people from non-Castillian-speaking countries.

In a Latin American restaurant in Camden to which a friend took me, allegedly Patagonian and with some beautiful enlarged photographs of that area on the wall, I asked our table attendant whether he knew any Welsh. There had been a Welsh-speaking colony in Patagonia, founded in 1865 and there is still some Welsh spoken there today. “Que va, hombre!” he exclaimed. “De eso no sé nada. Yo soy de Andlalucia” he concluded, smiling. (“Not at all, man! I know nothing about that — I’m from Andalucia”).

I queried some of the wines I didn’t recognise, not sure whether I wanted a glass or not, so he brought some for us to try and …. left the bottle! Of course it would have been discourteous to refuse such good fortune and, the wine being fine, we had a few glasses before he remembered and returned for the bottle. We paid for some of it, of course. I had a feeling he might have left it that long deliberately.

In a Turkish restaurant in Dalston, I wondered whether I might have a taste of a Turkish lager, which I had never previously tasted, before deciding whether to have a pint. The attendant paused and then nodded, coming back with a half-pint. I looked at her perplexed — “It’s on the house,” she said with a little smile. She was half-Scottish and half Egyptian, it turned out. I did like it and ordered some more.  Turkish food is nice enough but not one of the world’s more impressive cuisines, in my experience (and I have eaten it there too, including in Turkish-occupied Kurdistan).

Food from Everywhere, apparently on sale in this shop in Dalston
Food from Everywhere, apparently on sale in this shop in Dalston.  The smaller lettering along the bottom of the awning, lists that the shop caters for “English, Turkish, Polish, Italian, Spanish, Greek, French” food. (Photo DB)

Stoke Newington and Dalston are multi-ethnic areas but especially prominent are Kurdish and Turkish businesses. Without a doubt however the most visible ethnic minority are the Hassidic Jews, the men with their long black coats and homburgs, boys with skull caps and side-locks. This sect is anti-Zionist and they are known, on occasion, to demonstrate against the state of Israel. However, I was shocked to learn that the women shave their heads upon marriage and wear wigs when they go out.

Family again

Elora Mae -- I forgot to take any other photos of her :-(
Elora Mae — I forgot to take any other photos of her 😦

At the other end of London from my daughter and her family and also far from where I was staying, it was great to see my son Kevin and his wife Nat and the baby – Elora Mae. London is huge and a return ticket covering the zones on Underground and train cost nearly £10 each time. The Oyster Card they are introducing, like the Leap Card in Dublin, in an attempt to eliminate cash exchanges, makes the journeys a little cheaper but I hadn’t known about that.

I’m usually OK with babies but Elora Mae wouldn’t let me hold her for long before she started to cry. On my last visit, however, she seemed ok with me (or probably my smell) and even gave me a few lovely smiles. Smiling, by the way, as well as focusing on the face, are responses genetically built in to us. Babies do not “learn” to smile, which is instinctive programming but may learn different types of smiles, as well as appropriate times for smiling.

Songs and Singing in London

I was staying with a long-time folk and shanty singer, Jim Radford and he took me along with him to his weekly singing events. In one, an “open mic” event, I was not a little disturbed at the amount of noise in the bar in which it was held. Noise is distracting and I tend to sing louder to get over it, straining my voice and maybe also singing at the wrong pitch and key and therefore not at my best.  I got more and more apprehensive as my turn to sing, indicated by the MC to me, approached and in trepidation when my turn came, went up to the microphone to sing two songs as expected. I sang Danny Farrell as an Irish (and Dublin) song unlikely to antagonise anyone there and to my relief the noise level dropped somewhat. My second song was the Pat O’Donnell Ballad, which although it involves the the “Invincibles” and the British administration in Ireland, was not too confrontational, I thought. Besides, it the story is interesting as it may be the first recorded “witness protection” operation in history, though one that went very badly wrong for the “witness” (or traitor) in question.

I was asked to sing a third song, as a courtesy to a visiting guest, I thought. Into the second line of Go and Leave Me, the silence around me became profound – so much that it scared me a bit. But I took confidence from it too. The lyrics are not bad and the air is lovely, especially in my opinion when it’s sung the US version way. It’s a reasonably well-known song about love and desertion in preference for someone richer and is one in my regular repertoire. “Regular”, by the way, might mean “sung two or three times a year”, since I don’t like to sing the same song too often and, like many other frequent singers, I have quite a few others. My host has about 250 …. I might have around a hundred, built up over years. And a few discarded along the way too.

The following week, back at the venue, I was asked to sing three songs and chose the Jim Larkin ballad by Donagh Mac Donagh (son of the executed 1916 Proclamation, Thomas Mac Donagh) and The Ludlow Massacre, by Woody Guthrie. A lot connects these two songs to one another and although in general I dislike song introductions (or “spoken sleeve notes”), I briefly explained a few of those connections before singing them.

Both the Southern Colorado Coal Strike and the Dublin Lockout/Strike began in the same year, only a month apart, although the Colorado strike didn’t end until December 1914. Both strikes involved attacks by state forces and scabs on the workers resisted, in Ireland forming the Irish Citizen Army, although many more were killed in Colorado (and in turn were killed by workers fighting back too). Evictions from company houses were a feature throughout both strikes as was general media and court hostility with open collusion between the forces of the ‘justice’ system and the employers. And, of course, both strikes essentially lost in the short term but, in the longer term, the trade unions involved, the ITGWU and the UMA, far from being broken, came out stronger.

For the third song my choice was Back Home in Derry, lyrics from a poem by Bobby Sands organised into a song by Christy Moore but to my own air. With this song I break my general rule about not singing the same song often, because I want to popularise my air with the lyrics. The lyrics are currently mostly sung to the tune of Gordon Lightfoot’s The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald and I thought they deserved an air of their own.

At the various events, as one would in Dublin, I heard some good singers and some bad ones and some who were not particularly good but were interesting. However the general standard seemed noticeably lower than what I would encounter in the singing circles and sessions around Dublin – I have no idea why that should be but it can hardly be due to physiological differences. Also, many read from sheets while singing, a practice rarely seen in the Dublin singing circles (although prompts by mobile or IPad are not unknown).

On this trip I heard Jim sing a number of songs and a couple I remember in particular: The Shores of Normandy, Song for Stephen Lawrence and Home Boys Home. The last of those is about horses and English rural men in WWI and based on a poem, a lovely song which I have slowly started to learn. Jim wrote the other two himself.

Stephen Lawrence was a British Afro-Caribbean youth walking home in SE London with his friend in 1993 when they were both pursued by a gang of white racist young men. Stephen was mortally stabbed and left to bleed to death. Within a week the names of the murderers were on the lips of all the young people in the area. I can personally testify to that since the daughter of a friend was attending a school in that area at that time. First the police questioned Stephen’s surviving friend, treating him as a suspect. Then they couldn’t find the culprits, they said. But it turned out that the house in which some of the racists lived had been under police surveillance for some time and was actually being video-taped inside. It was a long time before that came to public knowledge.

Eventually five men were brought to trial but the incompetence (or sabotage) of police trial preparation allowed them to escape. In a long saga of the fight for justice by the Lawrence family and their supporters, two of the five racists were finally re-tried in 2012 and convicted, receiving long sentences. In the interim the McPherson Enquiry found the Metropolitan Police force to be “institutionally racist” (which Black, Asian and Irish people had been saying for decades) and later a former undercover police officer revealed that he had been tasked by his senior officers to find material with which to discredit the family and the campaign. The Lawrence family broke up under the strain and at least one of them left to go back to Jamaica. Jim’s song contains a powerful indictment of the racist murderers and of the police.

The Shores of Normandy was written by Jim when he visited the beach that he had last seen as a teenage seaman on D-Day on 6th June 1944. Jim was a merchant seaman on a tugboat, many of which were leased by the British Navy and their crews paid merchant seaman rates (which were higher than those of the Royal Navy). Over a few evenings sharing Jim’s whiskey and tea, he told me some things about the tugs’ role. They were of great importance to Britain in the War – they accompanied convoys and towed many torpedoed ships to safety, mainly merchant marine vessels (2. After some time the tugs themselves became targeted by submarines as they were saving so many tons of shipping to be repaired and re-outfitted to go to sea once more and 24 British naval rescue tugs were sunk.

Sherman tanks landing from transporting ship on to pier assembled at Normandy beach.  The sections were towed across the sea from Britain by tugboats then assembled under fire.
Sherman tanks landing from transporting ship on to pier assembled at Normandy beach during D-Day, WWII. The sections were towed from Britain by tugboats across the sea then assembled under fire at the beaches. (photo sourced on the Internet)

In some of the photographs of the Normandy landings one can clearly see piers being used to disembark vehicles, equipment and men. As Jim says: “Those piers didn’t drop from the sky”. (No, but death was dropping from the sky and scything across the beaches too. I thought). The piers were made of concrete caisons, hollow cubes that could float and were towed across the Channel by the tugs. When they reached Normandy they were maneuvered into position at the correct depth and the sea allowed to enter them until they sank in a line on the seabed, making a pier. All this was done under fire at least some of the time.   Over a year earlier, the battles of Stalingrad and Kursk had broken the Nazi advance and turned the war in East Europe, now the Sicily and Normandy Landings combined with the advances from the East towards the liberation of Western Europe and the final defeat of Nazi Germany. The air Jim chose for his lyrics is The Dawning of the Day.

Among the events at which Jim was to sing was the launch of Confronting a Culture of Militarism by David Gee, in Housmans Radical Bookshop.  The shop, a little like Connolly Books in Dublin, stores a wide variety of radical and socialist book, pamphlets and periodicals.  Looking at the many different British periodicals there, I reflected how much more impact they could have if many of them were to amalgamate.

The bookshop was soon crowded, with some late arrivals having to stand. First off was what I thought an impressive monologue performance by Steve Pratt, ex-SAS and now against war, also a painter. After that, David Gee, the author, spoke – a little too long but interestingly. Finally, Ben Griffin spoke, ex-Paratroopers and also SAS but now Secretary of Veterans for Peace. Ben referred to the vilification that soccer player James McClean had endured when playing for Sunderland and Wigan, for refusing to wear the Red Poppy. (3 He spoke about a visit Veterans for Peace had made to the Six Counties of Ireland in October and how people had spoken to them about harrassment, raids and shootings by the British Army during the recent 30 Years War; Ben asked how anyone could reasonably expect someone from one of those communities to wear the Poppy? (4

Jim was plugging the upcoming Cenotaph anti-war commemoration by Veterans for Peace and sang Where Have All the Flowers Gone?, inviting the audience to attend the ceremony and to sing the song with them. He also sang Eric Bogle’s famous anti-war song, No Man’s Land (better known to us as The Green Fields of France, thanks to the Fureys); he sang it in full to underline what a speaker had earlier said about the Joss Stone song promoted by the British Legion, a truncated version that sentimentalised the war and ripped the strong anti-war heart out of Bogle’s song.

Jim singing at the launch of David Gee's book at Housemans Radical Bookshop.
Jim singing at the launch of David Gee’s book at Housemans Radical Bookshop. (Photo DB)

Although a veteran libertarian socialist activist who considers the Royal Family to be “spongers”, Jim had accepted an invitation to sing The Shores of Normandy at the Albert Hall as part of the annual “Remembrance” concert, with members of the Royal Family present. He was wearing a Red Poppy too. I argued with him about the latter but his line is that the militarists and Royals have usurped Remembrance, which was intended to mark the terrible sense of loss after WWI with so many men dead in every town and village4.

The day after the concert, on “Remembrance” Sunday, when processions march in Whitehall and lay wreaths at the Cenotaph, Jim marched with comrades of Veterans for Peace there, with a banner declaring “Never Again!” They and their supporters sang Where Have All the Flowers Gone, an anti-war song, one recited a poem strongly attacking war and its financial foundations and they laid a wreath made entirely of White Poppies with two Red Poppies inside it. (5 Their bugler played The Last Post. I’d have been there to support them and to add my voice to the song but I was already several days back home in Dublin.

Jim brought me to a music session in The Jolly Farmer pub, right next to Lewisham Hospital. I had attended sessions there when I lived in Catford, 20 minutes’ walk away, and the pub now had another name. In those years there had been three, sometimes four weekly Irish traditional music sessions in the Borough of Lewisham, none very far from one another, in which I had played percussion and sung. There had been a few in the next borough, Greenwich, too. None of those seemed to be currently functioning.

The core of the Jolly Farmer session is formed by “Flaky” Jake on accordion, Guillermo on guitar and Jim on percussion (spoons and bodhrán), with other musicians and listeners in attendance. Jake has a huge repertoire of songs from rock to cajun, including songs in French and in Spanish. Guillermo knows some of the French ones and is from Mexico. During the course of the session we heard – and often sang – Rolling Stones, Irish ballads, Cajun songs, English shanties and music-hall, Woody Guthrie ….

Guillermo, Mexican musician at the Jolly Farmer session.
The core of the Jolly Farmer session: Flaky Jake on accordion, Jim Radford on bodhrán an spoons, both facing and Guillermo, guitar, seen from behind. Each also sings. (Photo DB)
Jim, Jake and violinist (whose name I can't remember)
Jim, Jake and violinist (whose name I can’t remember) at the weekly music session at the Jolly Farmer pub. (Photo DB)
Jolly Farmer session, looking down from higher up.
Jolly Farmer session, looking down. (Photo DB)

A few strange incidents occurred around that time in that pub. The first week, there was a man there with an undiscliplined German Shepherd dog on a leash which his owner kept yanking to get the dog to stay by him. A man entered in a wheelchair and the dog went up to him and stuck his nose in the man’s crotch, whereopon the offended man slapped the dog across the muzzle (but not too hard – the dog did not yelp but just went back to his master). The dog’s owner, who I think had not seen where the dog had put his nose, was livid and began to swear and act out how if the man were not in a wheelchair he would do this … and that …. The man in the wheelchair turned and wheeled himself out of the pub. The atmosphere continued somewhat tense for a while but eventually the man and dog left.

Later that evening, I went to the toilet and saw legs sticking out of the cubicle next to the urinal. I pushed open the door to see a man lying in there on the floor, apparently very drunk. I informed the landlady and left her to it, as she requested. Later, at a music party, we heard that after we had left the pub, there had been some kind of disturbance with a drunk breaking glasses and furniture and that the police had been called!

Jolly Farmers trio 2014
Another night at the music session at the Jolly Farmer. The guy on guitar there sang some interesting songs and was a good guitar player. Leaning back, black cap on head at extreme right of photo is Guillermo. (Photo DB)

The house party invitation came through afficionados of the session. Attendance at the house felt strange at first since I didn’t know the people but then I realised I did know one of them, although not well, a fiddle player. And later another person recalled that she remembered me from music sessions over a decade previously. When the music and singing got going it was great and again we covered a wide range. We went through a huge range of songs and tunes with accordion, guitar, fiddle, banjo, spoons and bodhrán. In honour of our hosts, one of whom was German, I sang Mus I’ Den and The Peat Bog Soldiers combined with Hans Beimler.

The first is a German folk song of departure by one promising to return and to be true to the other in the meantime. Such songs are fairly common and we have more than our fair share of them in Ireland. Elvis Presley’s songwriters used the tune for Wooden Heart in one of his many badly-acted and badly-scripted films GI Blues.   The first of the remaining two is a song that was sung by German political prisoners in Nazi concentration camps; somewhat allegorical, it was tolerated by the guards for awhile but eventually earned a death sentence for anyone heard to sing it. Hans Beimler was a German communist who was imprisoned by the Nazis but escaped and went to the Spanish state in 1936 to fight fascism there where, like many other International Brigaders, he was killed. Because of the history of each as well as because the Beimler song is a very short one, I like to precede it with two verses of the The Peat Bog Soldiers.

It happened that the “Return to Camden Festival” took place during my London visit, spread around a number of venues in the borough, including of course the Camden Irish Centre, which is where I went with a friend. I knew the Centre from a long time past, a social and welfare agency for Irish migrants run by the Catholic Church for many years and notable through much of my time in London for steering clear of politics. Of course one can never really do that and one ends up supporting one kind of politics or another. The Centre gradually secularised itself in a time of grants for ethnic minority support work but did not raise issues uncomfortable for the British state such as the unjust murder convictions of a score of Irish people in five different cases during the mid-1970s, the iniquities of the Prevention of Terrorism (sic) Act, nor the prevalence of anti-Irish racism in treatment by many state and local authority agencies and its wide acceptance in news and entertainment media.

Gradually during the late 1980s (or perhaps early 1990s) the Camden Irish Centre was pulled into some of those issues but in an NGO-type of way and within such parameters and re-branded itself as “The London Irish Centre” (there were by then another five Irish centres in different parts of London but none claiming to be The Irish Centre). By that time the Centre’s management was connecting itself to the Federation of Irish Societies, an organisation that infamously at its AGM in 1981, as news of the death of Bobby Sands reached delegates, failed to even table a vote of sympathy for the family of the deceased. (7

  The “Return to Camden Festival” at the Camden Irish Centre seemed to be owned by Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann (often mistakenly called “Ceoltas”), a huge largely volunteer organisation promoting Irish traditional music, song and dance. The Centre was heaving and service at the bar was quite slow. The bar staff were all young and someone told me that they were on job schemes, all employed by a contractor who manages the catering for the Centre. It was hardly suprising therefore that they understood not one word in Irish, not even go raibh maith agat.

We sat and listened to a large number of musicians playing together, some as young as eight or nine, then peeked in at the céilí, after which we set off for the singing session. It is run by a Connemara man who sings sean-nós style, who was very welcoming and encouraging; we sat in a circle and sang (or declined) in turn. Again I met people who remembered me from music sessions or from other Irish community activity. The singing was interesting and some singers were exceptional, especially a couple of young female musicians who had to leave early to play their instruments and a few others. I heard a couple of songs I had not heard before, which is always welcome, as well as some I had not heard in a long time. But after about two hours the session came to an end; time then to get something to eat and start the journey back across the city by Underground, changing to Overground at Canada Water station. Reaching Honor Oak Park and walking up to Jim’s house, I passed by foxes twice; the London ones probably became urbanised long before their Irish cousins did.

Solidarity with Kobane’s resistance to ISIS

I knew from an email notification that there was to be a Kobane solidarity demonstration scheduled for a Saturday in central London while I was there and, since this was not one of the days I was visiting grandchildren, I headed out to Charing Cross station, next to Trafalgar Square. Kobane is defended by a Kurdish guerrilla resistance organisation composed of the PKK, some Kurds within the Syrian state’s borders and the few Peshmergas who didn’t flee ISIS. There are probably some Assyrians and Yezidi involved in the defence too.

The Kurds are a huge nation of around 30 million people, spread over territory currently within the borders of Iraq, Turkey, Syria, Iran and Azerbaijan, with a sizable diaspora also in parts of the US and in some parts of Europe, notably in Germany and France. The politics of the Kurds within Turkish and Syrian borders tend to be secular and the PKK has always espoused some kind of socialism. Kobane, a town in the northern part of the Syrian state, is run mostly by Kurds from there and from the Kurdish resistance movement inside Turkey’s borders. Despite the hype about the Peshmergas (Iraqi Kurdish guerrillas), it was the PKK and Syrian Kurds who rescued the Yezidi and some other religious and ethnic minorities from ISIS in Sirjan and opened up a 100-Km long corridor to bring them to safety in Rojava (Kurdish northern “Syria”). A large proportion of these Kurdish guerrila fighters are women, perhaps as much as 30%, fighting inside their own units under the overall leadership of the PKK-affiliated organisation the YPG.

Kobane is under attack and surrounded on three sides by ISIS (“Islamic State”). The fourth side is the heavily-guarded Turkish border and the Turkish state is hostile to the Kurds, both within their own borders and within Syria. Based on ISIS behaviour to date, should Kobane fall, massacre of civilians and defenders will follow, along with enslavement of women as prostitutes or concubines.

Nelson during Kobane rally
Nelson looks down from his pedestal at the Kurdish solidarity rally in Trafalgar Square. (Photo DB) (A similar column and statue in Dublin was blown up in 1966 and the “Spire” now stands on the spot.)
Wide view Koban Rally Trafalgar Square
Wide view of the Kobane solidarity rally in Trafalgar Square, London. (Photo DB)

While living in London I had been to Trafalgar Square many times for rallies on different causes that I supported (including of course Ireland, until that plaza was banned to Irish solidarity demonstrations). Nelson stands tall on a pillar there, reminiscent of the one we had in Dublin city centre until it was blown up in 1966, the 50th anniversary of the Rising. I wondered whether I would meet people I knew, either from the British Left or from Kurdish solidarity work, in which I had been pretty active during the early 1990s (8. The area was a-flutter with various Kurdish organisational flags and some from the Turkish left, also some banners and a number of placards were on display.

A speaker at the Kobane solidarity rally (
A speaker at the Kobane solidarity rally (identity unknown) (Photo DB)
Another speaker at Kobane solidarity rally, London (idenity
Another speaker at Kobane solidarity rally, London (identity unknown to me).  (Photo DB)

Most of the crowd looked like they came from the Kurdish part of the world. The stage seemed to be taking a long time to get set up but eventually the Kurdish MCs, a man and a woman, began to announce the reason for the rally and to introduce a list of speakers to the crowd. I was suprised to hear an Irish priest, an O’Brien, I think, introduced as having been a long time active in Kurdish solidarity, although in the 1990s I had never come across him nor heard his name mentioned. I had the same reaction to a few others introduced in similar terms.

A Kurdish traditional musician, seemingly well-known, played a short percussion piece on what looked like a slim but wide bodhrán. Looking for it on Google, I would say it was the Daf, which apparently is in wide use across a number of Near and Middle Eastern regions by a number of ethnic groups. There was no song sung throughout the rally before I left.

The Irish priest introduced as a good friend of the Kurds
The Irish priest introduced as a good friend of the Kurds (Photo DB)

The speakers were from a number of British Left and ethnic minority organisations, one MEP and a number of elected representatives. There was also a report from Kobane itself broadcast through speakers. Mark Thomas, a left-wing comedian, spoke emotionally on the issue. Peter Thatchell spoke strongly as well. One Left-wing woman with an English accent, in the course of her speech, attacked the SWP for supporting Islamicism in the past. The next person to speak, also a woman with an English accent, declared that she was in the SWP and that her organisation is strongly in solidarity with Kobane and with the Kurds.

Comedian and political activist Mark Thomas speaking at the rally
Comedian and political activist Mark Thomas speaking at the rally (Photo DB)
MEP maybe Kobane Rally London
Another speaker at the rally (identity forgotten) (Photo DB). Images of the imprisoned PKK leader, Abdullah Ocalan, can be seen.

Some of the speakers praised the Kobane ‘government’, saying it was secular, egalitarian, socialistic …. The speakers all attacked ISIS and called for solidarity with Kobane. Some called for British Government intervention (to drop weapons and supplies to Kobane) while others called for military intervention against ISIS. Some called for the unbanning of the PKK and some for the release of Ocalan. The PKK was declared a “terrorist” organisation by the EU years ago, a totally unjustified action by any means of definition, since the organisation was engaged in armed resistance against the attacks of the Turkish state, which is still not a part of the EU; furthermore it was not engaged in any armed action outside its part of the world and nearly all of that within Turkey’s borders. (9

DB Kobane Rally London 2014
Me, holding a placard I borrowed from a Kurdish couple I had been talking to. The YPG is the Syrian Kurdish resistance, organised and led by Kurds but attracting some Arabs and Assyrians also. It contains large numbers of women fighters, organised in their separate units.
Kobane Rally near stage
Another speaker whose identity I cannot confirm. (Photo DB)

Abdullah Ocalan (pronounced “otch-al-an”) was the leader of the PKK when he was kidnapped in Nairobi by the CIA in 1999, taken to Turkey, sentenced to death and, after Turkey abolished its death penalty to gain EU entry, sentenced to life in prison. He is kept on an island prison – the only prisoner there, at least for 10 years. Prior to his incarceration, Ocalan had a position within the PKK that arguably went considerably beyond recognised leadership. Nicknamed “Apo” (“uncle” in Kurdish), his image was carried on Kurdish solidarity demonstrations and pickets by many Kurds in London and in Dublin.

Abdullah Ocalan, imprisoned leader of the PKK (image sourced on Internet)

After Ocalan’s capture he declared that the Turkish government should engage in peace talks with the Kurds, that the PKK were not seeking immediate independence but some kind of regional autonomy. Furthermore, he declared that his own release was a necessary prerequisite to carry this process through. This is not too disimilar to the position of Arnaldo Otegi, of the Basque independence movement’s leadership, also of the Sortu party and of many of their new allies since they renounced armed struggle and ETA declared a “permanent and verifiable ceasefire”.

Ocalan’s change of tack surprised many on the Left; I don’t know how the PKK’s own followers reacted at first but soon they were issuing statements along the same lines, (although they have given no hint of intention to disarm). That position of the PKK and of Ocalan explains to me the relatively sudden interest in them within much of liberal and Left quarters. The other factor is the Left and liberal fear of ISIS and the fact that the only coherent and effective defence of Kobane and the rescue of the Yezidi in Sinjar is and was carried out by the PKK, not the “Peshmergas” loudly praised by the Western media (but only mentioned by one speaker at the rally) or by the US, imaginatively claimed by some media.

Another Anarchist banner at the Kobane solidarity rally in Lon
Another Anarchist banner at the Kobane solidarity rally in London, October 2014. (Photo DB)
Anarchist banner at Kobane so
Anarchist banner at Kobane solidarity rally, Trafalgar Square, October 2014 (Photo DB)

The “Peshmergas” are Kurds and guerrillas, but of the tribal factions of Bardani and Talibani within Iraq’s borders. On one occasion years ago, they cooperated with a huge Turkish military operation against the PKK by attacking them simultaneously from their side of the border. During the war of the Western states against Iraq around Kuwait, the Peshmergas followed the call of the West to rise against Sadam Hussein; the Western powers then left them to be slaughtered by the Iraq military. During the Western powers’ invasion of Iraq, the peshmergas formed war bands that as well as attacking the Iraq military, looted the Iraqi hospitals, museums, commercial enterprises and people’s homes. At times they even fought among themselves and there were many accusations of murder of military and civilian prisoners, kidnapping for ransom and even of rape. Among much hype, some moved to the rescue of the Yezidi in Sinjar but most quickly withdrew after armed contact with ISIS, totally abandoning the Yazidi, although Sinjar is within Iraq’s borders.

Turkish AKP=ISIS Kobane Rally
Placard accuses Turkey of directly assisting ISIS (Photo DB)

Many speakers at the London rally denounced Turkey for their indirect assistance to ISIS by harrasssing PKK guerilla reinforcements trying to get through to reinforce their Kurdish brothers and sisters in Kobane. Some alleged more direct assistance to ISIS and called for the NATO and the EU to pressure Turkey into ceasing their obstruction of reinforcements for Kobane. Some spoke against Assad and one for him but mostly neither he, his government nor the war there were discussed.

I recognised not one of those speakers present as having been active on the Kurdish issue in London back in the early 1990s. This would be understandable of younger people who had not yet become politically active then, perhaps – but the others? No, Thatchell and others like him had not been. Back then, the PKK had been in armed struggle against the Turkish regime and was being looked to by national liberation activists around the world. But Turkey was – as it is now – an ally of the West, a member of NATO, so the EU did not want to attack it for its widescale abuse of human right among the Kurds, although it considered Turkey too unstable to admit it to the EU. The Left organisations were campaigning on other issues and had no time – or perhaps tolerance – for Kurdish solidarity.

Sun effect Trafalgar Kobane rally
Not a nuclear explosion over London but an interesting effect of the declining sun. (Photo DB)
Contrasting flags seen from Trafalgar Square -- and a spying eye in the sky
Contrasting flags seen from Trafalgar Square — and a spying eye in the sky (Photo DB)

But now that that the PKK has indicated a willingness to enter a “peace” process, they seem to have many friends in left and liberal quarters than they had before. They may even end up, like the Abertzale Left of the Basque Country and like Gerry Adams and Co. of Sinn Féin, having lots of capitalist and imperialist friends too. Some may say that is one important reason for entering a “peace process” but the problem seems to be that in order to keep those new friends on board one has to abandon so much of the goals about which one’s movement was that it becomes something very different, the goals hugely reduced and arguably bringing not peace but co-opting of resistance and a deferment of struggle, probably to another generation (as happened in Palestine, after Arafat’s and Al Fateh’s agreement at Oslo).

One or two of the speakers called for Western armed intervention to assist Kobane, most notably Peter Thatchell, who called for NATO intervention. It was noticeable that this call garnered hardly any applause from the crowd, as distinct from calls to pressurise Turkey to stop trying to block the PKK sending reinforcements to the beleaguered Kobane and for the EU to drop arms to the Kurdish resistance. The London Kurds seem to be quite politically sophisticated and know that NATO is far from being a friend of the Kurdish people. I expressed some of my opinions to a Kurdish couple in their 30s or early 40s and they indicated agreement, particularly the man, who confided many of his own opinions. After hearing about a dozen speakers, I shook hands with the Kurdish couple and bade them farewell, taking a similar journey back to my friend’s house as had Jim Connell, while writing The Red Flag in 1889.

The Red Flag, written by an Irishman in London

Although he had lived in the area for decades, Jim was not aware that Jim Connell, the author of the communist anthem The Red Flag, had been living nearby for many years and had in fact been on his way to his earlier address, also in SE London, by train from a Trafalgar Square demonstration, via Charing Cross, when he began to compose the song. Jim Connell was from Kells in Co. Meath and a member of the Socialist Democratic Federation and later of the Independent Labour Party. He put the lyrics to the Jacobite air The White Cockade. For some reason it began to be sung to the air of Tanenbaum, a German Christmas hymn, which upset Jim Connel: “Ye ruined me poem!” he stormed.

The plaque commemorating Jim Connell who lived in this house for many years, including when he wrote "The Red Flag".
View of former address of Jim Connell, the house with the tall hedge, from across the road (Photo DB)
Jim Connell plaque London
The plaque commemorating Jim Connell who lived in this house for many years. (Photo DB)
The house upon which the plaque
No. 22 Stondon Park, the house upon which outer wall the plaque to Jim Connell is affixed. (Photo DB)
Jim Connell plaque large
Lewisham IBRG influenced the wording of the plaque but unknown to them the words “Labour Party” were inscribed on the plaque. (photo sourced on Internet)

I knew a good bit about this because the Lewisham branch of the IBRG, of which I was Secretary, had been in correspondence with a local history employee of the local authority about putting a plaque on the house. The plaque had been the council employee’s idea but we had influenced the wording (10) and in 1989, the centenary of the writing of the song, attended the small unveiling ceremony outside the house. A little-known MP called Gordon Brown had spoken and never once mentioned Jim’s wish for a free Ireland or the war then going on in the Six Counties, so I felt obliged to jump up on a garden wall and in a short speech, supply the missing information. There were no police present and I was not interfered with although the applause was scattered. The event and the fact of my speech was covered in the Irish Post soon afterwards. A half-hour before I was to catch the train to Gatwick Airport, Jim drove me to Stondon Park and I found the house and photographed it and the plaque (and also Jim in front of it, for his own album).

It would probably be another year before I would see my kids, their spouses and my grandchildren in the flesh.  Of course, there is always Skype ….

Back home

Waiting for either the number 16 or 41 bus home from Dublin Airport, I noted the inadequate shelters from weather, the general lack of Dublin information and the tatty state of the one map of Dublin that someone had thoughtfully sticky-taped to one of the shelters.  Even the Bus Átha Cliath timetable for the 16 route was tattered and flapping in the breeze.  Ireland, I do love you but sometime you disgust me too.

Torn Dublin Bus poster airport
Tattered Bus timetable in inadequate weather shelters at Dublin Airport, Nov. 3014. (Photo DB)
Tattered Dub tourist map bus shelter
A tattered Dublin tourism map which someone had thoughtfully sticky-taped to the inside of one of the inadequate weather shelters at the No.s 16 and 41 route stops at Dublin Airport, Nov. 2014. (Photo DB)

I arrived home to find that in delaying paying my Eircom bill, they had without notice cut my ability to reply to emails but strangely the Facebook connection continued. I got some money together and paid my bill.

A chríoch/ Ends


1 I don’t like to say “Spain” as the term is objected to by people in a number of nations within the borders of that state, some of which want total independence and to create their own states.

2  Despite this, 2,426 ships of the British Merchant Marine were sunk with 25,070 men killed, including of course many Irish but also others from the British Commonwealth and many Chinese. In 1942 a special camp for merchant marine seamen prisoners was built at Westerimke ten miles north of the German port city of Hamburg. Around 5,000 men, including 2,985 from 211 British ships, were interned at this camp commonly known as ‘Milag Nord’.

3  McLean, from Derry, said that if the Poppy were just to commemorate the dead British soldiers of WWI and WWII, he would wear it. But as it was not, and in memory of Bloody Sunday in 1972, he could not do so. born-footballer-James-McClean-says-anger-Bloody-Sunday-decision-shun-poppy-embroidered-shirt.html

4  One wonders whether the footballer is aware of John Maclean (24 August 1879 – 30 November 1923), Republican Communist from Glasgow who was jailed in 1918 for “sedition” due to his anti-war activities and force-fed while on hunger strike.

5  I have written my reasons of disagreement with this line in an article, published in the Rebel Breeze blog:

6  Video: Veterans for Peace at the Cenotaph, Remembrance Sunday 2014 (Jim Radford, white-bearded, wearing mariner peaked cap):

7  There had been many pickets and demonstrations in Britain to try to save Sands’ life and those of the nine hunger-strikers to die subsequently. The 1981 Hunger Strikes had a huge effect on the Irish community in Britain, breaking the terror stranglehold of the Prevention of Terrorism Act and the neglect of the Federation of Irish Societies was answered by the formation of the Irish in Britain Representation Group.  See

8  Including a trip in a small delegation of trade unionists in the early 1990s across much of the Kurdistan lying within Turkey’s borders.

9 From Wikipedia: “…NATO has declared the PKK to be a terrorist group;[121] Turkey has been a member of NATO since 1952, and fields the group’s second-largest armed contingent. Closely tied to NATO,[122] the European Union—which Turkey aspires to join—officially lists the PKK as having “been involved in terrorist acts” and proscribes it as part of its Common Foreign and Security Policy.[123] First designated in 2002, the PKK was ordered to be removed from the EU terror list on 3 April 2008 by the European Court of First Instance on the grounds that the EU failed to give a proper justification for listing it in the first place.[124] However, EU officials dismissed the ruling, stating that the PKK would remain on the list regardless of the legal decision.[125] Most European Union member states have not individually listed the PKK as a terrorist group.” Three Permanent Members of the EU Security Council list it so but the remaining two, Russia and China, do not.

10  We had not been told that the words “Labour Party” would be affixed and only noticed it on the plaque much later.

THE BLOOD-RED POPPY – remembrance or war propaganda?

Diarmuid Breatnach

In the lands under the direct dominion of England, i.e. the “United Kingdom”, and in some others that are part of the British Commonwealth, the dominant class has called the people to join in a cultural festival in November which they call “Remembrance”. In this year of 2014, the centenary of the beginning of World War I, there is a particular focus in the Festival on that war.  

The organisation fronting this festival in the ‘UK’ is the Royal British Legion and their symbol for it (and registered trademark) is the Red Poppy, paper or fabric representations of which people are encouraged to buy and wear – and in some places, such as the BBC for personnel in front of the camera,  forced to wear. In many schools and churches throughout the ‘UK’, Poppies are sold and wreaths are laid at monuments to the dead soldiers in many different places. Prominent individuals, politicians and the media take part in a campaign to encourage the wearing of the Poppy and the festival of remembrance generally and of late, to extend the Festival for a longer period.

High points in the ‘The Festival of Remembrance’ are the Royal Albert Hall concerts on the Saturday and the military and veteran’s parades to the Cenotaph memorial in Whitehall, London, on “Remembrance Sunday”. According to the British Legion’s website, “The concert culminates with Servicemen and Women, with representatives from youth uniformed organizations and uniformed public security services of the City of London, parading down the aisles and on to the floor of the hall. There is a release of poppy petals from the roof of the hall.

The evening event on the Saturday is the more prestigious; tickets are only available to members of the Legion and their families, and senior members of the British Royal Family (the Queen, Prince Phillip, the Prince of Wales, the Duke of York and the Earl of Wessex) and starts and ends with the British national anthem, God Save the Queen.  The event is televised.

Musical accompaniment for the event is provided by a military band from the Household Division together with The Countess of Wessex’s String Orchestra.”

The money raised from the sale of the “Poppies” and associated merchandise is to be used to support former military service people in need and the families of those killed in conflict. On the face of it, military and royal pomp apart, the Festival may seem a worthy charitable endeavour and also one which commemorates very significant historical events — therefore a festival which at the very least should not be opposed by right-thinking and charitable people.  

Yet the main purpose of this festival and the symbol is neither remembrance nor charity but rather the exact opposite: to gloss over the realities of organised violence on a massive scale, to make us forget the experience of the world’s people of war and to prepare the ground for recruitment of more people for the next war or armed imperialist venture – and of course more premature deaths and injuries, including those of soldiers taking part.

Video and song On Remembrance Day from Veterans for Peace lists British conflicts (including Ireland) and condemns the Church of England for supporting the wars, calling also on people to wear the White Poppy

Partial Remembrance – obscuring the perpetrators and the realities of war

The Royal British Legion is the overall organiser of the Festival of Remembrance and has the sole legal ‘UK’ rights to use the Poppy trademark and to distribute the fabric or paper poppies in the ‘UK’. According to the organisation’s website, “As Custodian of Remembrance” one of the Legion’s two main purposes is to “ensure the memories of those who have fought and sacrificed in the British Armed Forces live on through the generations.”

By their own admission, the Legion’s “remembrance” is only to perpetuate the memories of those who fought and sacrificed in the British Armed Forces – it is therefore only a very partial (in both senses of the word) remembrance. It is left to others to commemorate the dead in the armies of the British Empire and colonies which Britain called to its support; in WWI, over 230,500 non-‘UK’ dead soldiers from the Empire and, of course, the ‘UK’ figure of 888,246 includes the 27,400 Irish dead.  

Cossack soldier volunteers WWI. Imperial Russia was an ally of Britain and France; the war was on of the causes of the Russian Socialist Revolution 1917. The following year, the war ended.
Cossack soldier volunteers WWI. Imperial Russia was an ally of Britain and France; the war was one of the causes of the Russian Socialist Revolution 1917. The following year, the war ended.

The Festival of Remembrance excludes not only the dead soldiers of the British Empire and of its colonies (not to mention thousands of Chinese, African, Arab and Indian labourers employed by the army) but also those of Britain’s allies: France, Belgium, Imperial Russia, Japan, USA and their colonies.

German soldiers playing cards during WWI. Photos of Germans in WWI more readily available show them wearing masks and looking like monsters.
German soldiers playing cards during WWI. Photos of Germans in WWI more readily available show them wearing masks and looking like monsters.

No question seems to arise of the Festival of Remembrance commemorating the fallen of the “enemy” but if the festival were really about full “remembrance”, it would commemorate the dead on each side of conflicts. That would particularly be appropriate in WWI, an imperialist war in every aspect.  But of course they don’t do that; if we feel equally sorry for the people of other nations, it will be difficult to get us to kill them in some future conflict.

A real festival of remembrance would commemorate too those civilians killed in war (seven million in WWI), the percentage of which in overall war casualty statistics has been steadily rising through the century with increasingly long-range means of warfare.

Civilian war refugees in Salonika, NW Greece, WWI
Civilian war refugees in Salonika, NW Greece, WWI

Civilians in the First World War died prematurely in epidemics and munitions factory explosions as well as in artillery and air bombardments, also in sunk shipping and killed in auxiliary logistical labour complements in battle areas and through hunger as feeding the military became the priority and farmhands became soldiers.

In WWII 85,000,000 civilians died in extermination camps or forced labour units, targeting of ethnic and social groups, air bombardments, as well as in hunger and disease arising from the destruction of harvests and infrastructure. Air bombardments, landmines, ethnic targeting and destruction of infrastructures continue to exact a high casualty rate among civilians in war areas: one admittedly low estimate up to 2009 gave figures of 3,500 dead in Iraq during the war and aftermath and another 100,000 dead from western trade sanctions, along with 32,000 dead civilians in Afghanistan. Another review up to 2011 gave a figure of 133,000 civilians killed directly as a result of violence in Iraq and “probably double that figure due to sanctions”. (1) 

The number of civilians injured, many of them permanently disabled, is of course higher than the numbers killed.  Most of those will bring an additional cost to health and social services where these are provided by the state and of course to families, whether state provision exists or not.

Real and impartial “remembrance” would include civilians but not even British civilians killed and injured are included in the Festival of Remembrance, revealing that the real purpose of the Festival is to support the existence of the armed forces and their activities (“shoulder to shoulder with our armed forces”) (2) contributing at the same time to a certain militarisation of society and of the dominant culture.  

If the Festival were really about “remembrance”, they would commemorate the numbers of injuries and detail the various types of weapons that caused them.  But that might reflect unfavourably on the armaments manufacturers, who run a multi-billion industry in whatever currency one cares to name, so of course they don’t.  

Gassed Australian soldiers awaiting hospitalisation, WWI 1916.
Australian soldiers who survived gas attack but injured by it awaiting hospitalisation, Northern France, WWI 1916.

And if really concerned about death and injury in war, they would campaign to end such conflict – for an end to imperial war. But then how else would the various imperial states sort out among themselves which one could extract which resources from which countries in the world and upon the markets of which country each imperial state could dump its produce? So of course the Royal British Legion doesn’t campaign against war.

Partial remembrance is indeed embodied in the song chosen by the British Legion to promote its Festival. No Man’s Land, sung by Joss Stone, is actually a truncated version of the song of the same title (better known in Ireland as the Furey’s The Green Fields of France), composed by Scottish-raised and Australian-based singer-songwriter Eric Bogle. The Joss Stone version contains the lyrics of the chorus as well as of one verse and one-half of another, omitting two and-a-half verses of Bogle’s song.  

Some of the British media created a kind of controversy, at the behest of who knows whom, to have the British Legion’s song included top of BBC’s Radio One playlist.  The song is reproduced in entirety below, with the lines sung by Joss Stone in italics and those she omitted in normal type. 

Well, how do you do, young Willie McBride?

Do you mind if I sit here down by your graveside?

And rest for a while in the warm summer sun,

I’ve been walking all day, and I’m nearly done.

I see by your gravestone you were only 19

When you joined the great fallen in 1916,

I hope you died well and I hope you died clean

Or, Willie McBride, was it slow and obscene?


Did they beat the drum slowly, did they play the fife lowly?

Did they sound the death march as they lowered you down?

Did the band play The Last Post in chorus?

And did the pipes play the Flowers of the Forest?

Did you leave a wife or a sweetheart behind

In some faithful heart is your memory enshrined?

Although, you died back in 1916,

In that faithful heart are you forever 19?

Or are you a stranger without even a name,

Enclosed forever behind the glass frame,

In an old photograph, torn, battered and stained,

And faded to yellow in a brown leather frame?


The sun now it shines on the green fields of France;

There’s a warm summer breeze that makes the red poppies dance.

And look how the sun shines from under the clouds

There’s no gas, no barbed wire, there’s no guns firing now.

But here in this graveyard it’s still No Man’s Land

The countless white crosses stand mute in the sand

To man’s blind indifference to his fellow man.

To a whole generation that were butchered and damned.


Ah young Willie McBride, I can’t help wonder why,

Do those that lie here know why did they die?

And did they believe when they answered the cause,

Did they really believe that this war would end wars?

Well the sorrow, the suffering, the glory, the pain,

The killing and dying, were all done in vain.

For Willie McBride, it all happened again,

And again, and again, and again, and again.


It’s easy to see why the Royal British Legion might shy away from the
omitted lyrics, which would hardly encourage recruitment or support for war. Interviewed on video, Joss Stone herself said how important it was to be “true to the lyrics” and that “the last thing one would want to do would be to disrespect the lyric; incredibly, she and John Cohen, the record producer, both separately claimed that they had captured the essence of the song lyrics in the British Legion’s version.(3) 

Although Bogle stated that he did not think the Joss Stone version glorifies war, he also said that it did not condemn it and was ultimately a sentimentalised version.

Believe it or not I wrote the song intending for the four verses of the original song to gradually build up to what I hoped would be a climactic and strong anti-war statement,” Bogle said. “Missing out two and a half verses from the original four verses very much negates that intention.” (apparently in a reply from Bogle to a blogger’s email and quoted in a number of newspaper reports).

The truncation of the song and the removal in particular of the anti-war lyrics epitomises partial “remembrance” and stands as a metaphor for it, the production of a lie by omission and obscuration.

If the main objective were really to care for soldiers and veterans and their families ….…

If the festival were really about caring for veterans and their families, would it not seek to allocate that responsibility completely to the State? It is the capitalist state (and prior to that, the feudal state) which sent people to fight for it, so it should be that state which cares for the military personnel and for their families. According to histories of the British Legion, one reason for its formation was the callous disregard of the British state and low level of provision for its military injured in the First World War and for the dependents of the dead. Taking that principle further, the State could impose a War Tax or Veterans’ Dependent’ Tax, say, on the big capitalists, on whose behalf the State has sent its armed forces off to fight. After all, it is those capitalists who will benefit from the plunder of resources and opening of markets for their produce, the very reasons the wars are being fought.  

Millions of artillery shell casings, each designed to kill and mutilate, each produced at a profit to Capitalists.
Millions of artillery shell casings, each designed to kill and mutilate, each produced at a profit to Capitalists.

Not only that, the capitalists directly profit from war itself; war is not merely a means of settling territorial disputes among capitalist nations – war itself is very big business. Every bullet, shell, bomb, rocket, mine was produced at a profit and when exploded, will be replaced by another, again at profit and so on, in huge production batches. Every gun, tank, armoured car, lorry, jeep, ship, plane, helicopter built … huge production, huge profits. Then uniforms, equipment, food production and packaging, deliveries …. it will be indeed a rare capitalist who does not profit from war while it is being fought.

The Royal British Legion does in fact do some campaigning around State support for armed forces personnel and their dependents.  On the Legion’s website, under the section on “Campaigning”, the following appears:

“In no particular order, our top five recommendations for the next Government are to:

  • Enable all Armed Forces widows to retain their pension should they decide to later cohabit or remarry

  • Ensure that all veterans with Service-induced hearing problems can have their MOD-issued hearing aids serviced and replaced at no cost, and that working-age veterans can access higher grade hearing aids, including ‘in-the-ear’ aids

  • Protect the lifetime income of injured veterans by uprating their military compensation by the higher of earnings, inflation or 2.5% (the ‘triple lock’)

  • Offer veterans evidence-based treatment for mental health problems within a maximum of 18 weeks from referral, provided by practitioners with an understanding of veterans’ needs, in line with the Government’s commitment to parity of esteem between physical and mental health

  • Include spouses and Early Service Leavers in the resettlement support provided by the Career Transition Partnership”

As one can see, these are pretty minimal demands of the State and in no way impede its engagement in war and may actually assist in recruitment.

Shhhh! Suicide and PTSD among military personnell

While campaigning for mental health provision for referrals of veterans and serving personnel may help reduce suicides among this group, nowhere in the official Festival of Remembrance is the existence of this component of mortality even alluded to. It is known in the USA that statistics of suicides in their armed forces since 2003 actually exceed their numbers killed in combat.  

Evidence is now emerging of suicide statistics among veterans of recent British armed conflicts too — and the statistics are rising.  According to a BBC Panorama documentary last year, more British soldiers committed suicide in 2012 than were killed in action in Afghanistan (the British Army does not publish records of suicide death but Panorama’s researchers dug up the statistics from various sources).

The Ministry of Defence does keep some records of diagnoses of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) among its serving personnell and says the incidence is lower than in the general population but many suspect that the figures do not reflect the full reality. Also, the same statistics show that male military under 20 years of age “had a 46% statistically significant increased risk of suicide than the rest of the general population”.(4)

PTSD was not recognised by the beligerents in World War One and many of those who were shot by firing squad for “cowardice”, “desertion” or “refusing an order” “in the face of the enemy”, were sufferers of that syndrome. Their dependents were left without a war pension too.  

Talking about PTSD and suicide among soldiers is hardly likely to encourage recruitment to the armed forces and so, despite its pledge to “support all members of the British Armed Forces past and present, and their families”(5), the British Legion draws a veil of silence over those aspects, particularly during the Festival.

Getting the public behind the armed services and war

Far from campaigning against war or even assigning financial and moral responsibility to the capitalists who cause war and also profit from it, the British Legion, through the promotion of the Poppy and “Remembrance”, strives to keep the public in support of militarism (6) and in readiness to support future wars.

It does this in a number of ways: it maintains a separation from the reality of war for the public, as well as a separation between the victims of the State-sponsored wars and the cause of their victimhood. It avoids mention of the causes of war and of those who profit by it. And it promotes the armed services and the conflicts in which they have participated uncritically, a promotion embodied in the Legion’s slogan in use until this year, “Shoulder to shoulder with all who Serve” (which it intends to replace with “Live On – To the memory of the fallen and the future of the living”).

War is presented in the mass media during the Festival and at other times as unfortunate but also as giving rise to uplifting heroic action and to comradeship. Feeling of comradeship is a real phenomenon among people suffering equal or similar conditions and, in the military, is most commonly seen among the lower ranks. When the British Legion was an organisation limited to veteran membership, presenting it as providing comradeship was understandable.  However, the British Legion has now extended its membership not only to families but to all kinds of supporters, whether active as volunteers (for example, selling “Poppies”) or completely passive (just paying an annual membership subscription). It now promotes a different kind of “comradeship” and, under that very heading, invites members of the public to “Become part of a network of people who care about the Armed Forces family”.(7)

The British Legion is actively seeking a different kind of ‘comradeship’ or solidarity to that existing among the military or veterans. But this is not an alternative such as the comradeship of humanity nor of the working class, which would lead the workers of the opposing armies to rise up against their masters, but of “the nation”.

This of course would be a misnomer anyway since there are a number of nations in the ‘UK’, for example. But even if the comradeship were for “England”, or “Australia”, these territorial-political units are by no means homogenous. All of them are divided into classes and in each, one class rules – the monopoly capitalist class. It is that class that decides on war and it is that class that profits from it, along with smaller profits for smaller capitalists. But it is not they who will be blowing up, shooting and stabbing one another in the wars they instigate – it is the working and lower middle classes.

The military casualties in war are presented as heroic sacrifices for “the nation”, a mythical concept often represented by neighbourhood and family. Family and neighbourhoods in all the countries in the conflict will suffer but it is neither the families nor the neighbourhoods which instigated the war, nor will they profit from it. In fact, their representatives will be sent to kill one another on the battlefields, leaving desolation and loss among their families and neighbourhoods.

However, as was pointed out by speakers at the recent launch of a book against militarism in a London bookshop recently(8) the fact that the British monopoly capitalist class is having, through the British Legion and its Festival, to exert itself to seek identification with its armed forces and support for war, is a sign that public opinion is not all going the way it would like.

Left and liberal support for the Red Poppy

People enlist in imperial and colonial armed forces for a variety of reasons. Excitement and adventure of course appeal to many but there is also the push of unemployment, the pull of education and training (however doubtful the usefulness of that training may be in later life although in the USA, serving and ex-armed forces people qualify for educational funding

Then of course there is the propaganda about the atrocities committed by enemy forces (whether real or not) and the alleged threat they pose to the population of the state doing the recruiting. The alleged threat is the propaganda reason most aggressive imperialist powers name their war ministries the Department or Ministry of Defence and that some even incorporate the concept into the title of their armed forces, viz. the “Israel Defence Force”).

British soldiers move up through a trench at the Somme battle, Northern France, to begin attack, WWI
British soldiers move up through a trench to begin attack at the Somme battle, Northern France, WWI

And, quite often, people are conscripted by force, as they were in Britain during both World Wars as well as for “National Service” up to 1960, as well as in other European countries (and in the USA in the draft for WWII, Korea, Vietnam). The standard punishment for refusing to join up when conscripted was a jail sentence but some conscientious objectors in WWI were shipped by the British Army to France, so that they could be shot for “desertion in the face of the enemy”. The penalty for certain acts in a war area, such as desertion, refusal to obey orders or striking an officer, could be death – during WWI, 306 British and Commonwealth soldiers were shot by firing squad, while others were executed in the armies of Britain’s allies, as well as in those of Germany, Austria and Turkey.

As an aside from the purpose of this article, it is noteworthy that the only area of the ‘UK’ where conscription was not introduced was Ireland, where opposition to it ran right across a spectrum from the IT&GWU and some other trade unions, through the Irish nationalist and republican movements to the Catholic Church hierarchy. The only area of the European-settler Commonwealth where it was not introduced, being defeated in two consecutive referenda, was Australia – where 40% of the population is said to be of Irish descent and where the Irish diaspora, with some justification, was blamed by supporters of conscription for the failure to introduce it. However, thousands of Irish and Australians did volunteer, especially in the earlier days of the war.

The issue of why and how people join the imperialist armed forces is often raised by Left and liberal advocates of wearing the Poppy or of similar commemoration festivals (e.g. Armed Forces Week in the USA, second Saturday to third Sunday of May). Another group contend that the real or original purpose of these commemorations and festivals is to commemorate the great human loss of their country or to support veterans and their families.

These commemorative events, these Left or liberal advocates often contend, have been hijacked by militarists and, in the case of the ‘UK’, by the Royals and they should not be allowed to get away with it. Accordingly, one may find socialists and anti-war people and even activists wearing the Poppy, as is the case for example with a few of the activists of the British-based group Veterans for Peace, although most of them do not wear the Red Poppy and many promote the White Poppy.

Personally, I do not believe that Left and liberal advocates of wearing the Red Poppy have correctly analysed the original purpose of those who created it. But even if they should be correct, clearly serious cognizance should be taken of how the Red Poppy symbol is being used today and what its main thrust is. It is pretty clear that this symbol and the commemorations in imperialist countries in general are being used to recruit personnel for the armed forces of those states and, above all, to swing public opinion behind not only those armed forces but also in support of their state’s armed actions against other states and in wars of conquest in other lands.

The White Poppyin Britain, Australia, Canada and in Ireland

To counter the propaganda offensive surrounding the Red Poppy, some in the ‘UK’ and in some Commonwealth countries advocate the wearing of a white poppy symbol. The idea of an alternative and anti-war symbol was apparently first proposed in 1926 and the White Poppy was first sold by the Women’s Cooperative Movement in Britain in 1933. The following year, the major anti-war organisation in Britain, the Peace Pledge Union, began its annual sale of the White Poppy symbol. Although tolerance of the White Poppy has been pronounced by the Royal British Legion, the wearing of it has been attacked by a number of public figures in Australia and in Britain, including Margaret Thatcher during Question Time in the House of Commons.

The White Poppy Emblem, worn as an alternative to the Red Poppy but also sometimes alongside it
The White Poppy Emblem, worn as an alternative to the Red Poppy but also sometimes alongside it

In 2006 the Royal Canadian Legion initiated legal action against the main Canadian distributor of the White Poppy symbol and against the Peace Pledge Union. This action gained considerable publicity in the Canadian media and, according to the PPU, “resulted in widespread support and a substantial increased sale of white poppies in Canada”(9). The PPU site also carries accounts of orchestrated hostility by the media, in church groups and schools, although some schools also provide the White alongside the Red Poppy symbol.

Reviewing the principle behind it and the history of its existence as a symbol, also not ignoring its pacifist associations (which are unwelcome to me), it does seem a progressive act for people in Britain and Australia, New Zealand and Canada to wear the White Poppy. The act of wearing that symbol is statement that the wearer dissents from the wearing of the Red Poppy and is opposed to imperialist and colonialist war.

I have no strong feeling about whether people should wear it in Ireland or not but nor do I see any reason to promote it (with the exception of within the “Unionist community”, where discussion around it could be useful, although the practice would almost certainly be dangerous). Although our whole nation was a part of the ‘UK’ during World War I, twenty-six of its 32 counties have since ceased to be so. The thrust that led to that current status was embodied in the 1916 Rising (itself an action against WWI) and the War of Independence 1919-1921, events of much greater historic national significance for us, despite their much smaller loss of Irish lives, than is the First World War. The symbol covering that period and in particular the 1916 Rising is the “Easter Lilly” (the Arum Lilly or Calla. Z. aethiopica), paper and metal badge representations of which are worn around that time, both in Ireland and in some cases abroad.

There has been a growing attempt in Ireland in recent years to have a national honouring of the Irish who died serving in the British Army and at the moment this is concentrating on the First World War period. This is far from unproblematic: they were soldiers in the armed forces of a state that was occupying our country, then a colony, and actively engaged in repression of our people – a repression which at that time had been going on for 700 years. The 1916 Rising had taken place right in the middle of WWI and had been suppressed by British troops – including units recruited in Ireland. Almost immediately after the end of World War One, the IRA had begun the War of Independence, during which its principal opponents in armed action were the British Army, the Royal Irish Constabulary and the special auxilliary forces of the latter (“’Tans” and “Auxies”).

As if that were not problematic enough, that same colonial power remains to this day in occupation of a part of our national territory. And that colonial occupation and its colonial police force is backed up by that same British Army, an army which only recently fought a 30-year war against Irish guerrilla forces in the colony. During that war, the British Army daily harassed civilians in ‘nationalist’ areas and at times gassed, arrested and beat them up or shot them dead. That same Army also colluded with sectarian assassination squads and carried out unofficial executions, i.e. murders, of guerrilla fighters and of political activists.

Given this history and current situation, it is curious that some determined efforts to commemorate Irish dead in the British Army during WWI continue. Some of its advocates may be motivated by nothing more than a genuine historical commemorative interest and some by some kind of sense of justice. But undoubtedly there exists in Ireland, as well as the unionist mentality in parts of the Six Counties, a nostalgia for the British among some in the Irish state. This is the “West Britain” mentality that never ceased to wish Ireland to be a part of the British Empire, reinforced by the desire of some other elements to see Ireland part of the British Commonwealth. For these elements, celebration of the Irish who fought in the British Army is a way of stating their claim to the past they like and the future to which they aspire. These tiny sections of the Irish population have some representation in Irish academic and public life and, one suspects, among the Irish capitalist class, a class with no sense of history but a strong sense of the quick Sterling, Punt,  or Euro – whichever seems best at the time.

Uncritical commemoration of Irish soldiers who died in the British Army and particularly in WWI is not only problematic but plays into the agenda of “West British” and Commonwealth enthusiasts and for those reasons the broad Irish Republican movement is right to oppose such commemorations. But the issue goes far beyond that of “Brits Out!” — for socialists, these commemorations screen the real purpose of imperialist wars and the ways in which working people are pulled into them, to fight their corresponding working people in other countries, for the profits and strategic interests of a tiny, parasitic minority.  

Certainly the Irish who fell in WWI in British military units should be remembered, as should all those working class and lower-middle class people of all countries who were sent to butcher their class brothers and be butchered in turn, along with the civilian casualties, in a dispute over territories, resources and markets between a small number of capitalists who would never fight one another in person and indeed who often wined and dined together and, not infrequently, intermarried. Those dead should be remembered as casualties of capitalism, imperialism and colonialism and their remembrance serve as part of a drive to overthrow those evils and to eliminate imperialist war forever.

End main article

Video Veterans for Peace at the Cenotaph, Remembrance Sunday 2014


1)    See “Civilian war dead” links at end of article
2)    Quotation from the Royal British Legion’s website (see link at end of article)
3)    She may be seen and heard saying those things and a number of other inane (or dishonest) things in a number of videos entitled Behind the Scenes of the Official Poppy single with Joss Stone and John Cohen can be seen and heard saying his piece on one of those too (see video links at end of article).
4)    From the British Legion’s website (see link at end of article)
5)    From The Female Front Line blog (see link at end of article)
6)  Members of the armed forces are recruited and maintained by successive Armed Forces Acts every five years as a specific, albeit continuing, derogation from the Bill of Rights 1689, which otherwise prohibits the Crown from maintaining a standing army.
7)   Quotation from the Royal British Legion’s website (see link at end of article)
8)    Confronting a Culture of Militarism by David Gee, in Housmans Radical Bookshop
9)    Referred to, without detail, on Peace Pledge Union site, about The White Poppy (see link at end of article)

Appendices: Historical Background, Natural History, Cultural Usage, Uses.

Historical background of the Poppy symbol

(Most of this section is taken from The Story Behind the Remembrance Poppy

The symbol of the Poppy was chosen, it is widely believed, because of the prevalence of this flower on battlefields in WWI. Although it grows reasonably well in meadows, the plant grows best of all on recently disturbed ground, so that rural battlefields, where bombs and shells have cratered the land and heavy vehicles and the tramp of human feet have flattened other vegetation and churned up the earth, suit it well. It has been seen as symbolic of some kind of rebirth and of course, the colour is that of blood.

In 1855, British historian Lord Macaulay, writing about the site of the Battle of Landen (in modern Belgium, not far from Ypres) in 1693, wrote “The next summer the soil, fertilised by twenty thousand corpses (apparently more like 28,000 human and many horse corpses – DB), broke forth into millions of poppies. The traveller who, on the road from Saint Tron to Tirlemont, saw that vast sheet of rich scarlet spreading from Landen to Neerwinden, could hardly help fancying that the figurative prediction of the Hebrew prophet (Isaiah – DB) was literally accomplished, that the earth was disclosing her blood and refusing to cover the slain.”

Moina Michael: “The Poppy Lady”

The origin of the red Flanders poppy as a modern-day symbol of Remembrance was the inspiration of an United States woman, Miss Moina Michael. According to her memoirs, while working in Overseas War HQ of the religious charitable organisation the YMCA, she was inspired by the poem “We Shall Not Sleep” (also known as In Flanders Fields) by Canadian Liutenant-Colonel John McCrae, which she read in The Ladies Home Journal, where it was illustrated by a vivid field of red poppies. Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae had died of pneumonia several months earlier on 28th January 1918. Part of his poem reads:

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

In her autobiography, entitled “The Miracle Flower”, Moina describes this experience as deeply spiritual. She felt as though she was actually being called in person by the voices which had been silenced by death and vowed always to wear a red poppy of Flanders Fields as a sign of remembrance.  She jotted down a poem in response, which she entitled “We Shall Keep the Faith”, of which the first verse read:  

Oh! you who sleep in Flanders Fields,  

Sleep sweet — to rise anew!  We caught the torch you threw

And holding high, we keep the Faith

With All who died.

The First Poppies Worn in Remembrance

Later that day Moina found one large and 24 small artificial red silk poppies in Wanamaker’s department store.  When she returned to duty at the YMCA HQ later that evening, the delegates from the conference being held there enthused about the symbols and she handed out all but one of them, which she kept for herself.  The inspirations for the Poppy as a symbol then, by its creator, can be said to be religious but also nationalistic and warlike: “Take up our struggle with the foe.”

Campaign for the Poppy as a National Memorial Symbol

Thereafter Moina Michael campaigned to get the Poppy emblem adopted in the United States as a national memorial symbol, in which she was encouraged by the press.

Originally she intended to use the simple red, four petalled field poppy of Flanders as the Memorial Poppy emblem. Mr. Lee Keedick was contracted to design a national emblem and in December 1918 he produced a final design, which was accepted. This emblem consisted of a border of blue on a white background with the Torch of Liberty and a Poppy entwined in the centre, containing the colours of the Allied flags: red, white, blue, black, green and yellow.

The Torch and the Poppy Emblem

The “Torch and Poppy” emblem was first used officially on 14th February, 1919 in Carnegie Hall, New York City. The event was a lecture given by the Canadian ace pilot, Colonel William Avery “Billy” Bishop, VC, CB, DSO & Bar, MC DFC, ED. His lecture was titled “Air Fighting in Flanders Fields”. As the lecture ended a large flag with the new torch and poppy emblem on it was unfurled at the back of the stage.

However, in spite of the interest raised by the appearance of the new emblem at the time, and Moina’s continued efforts to publicize the campaign, this emblem was not taken up by any group or individual to help establish it as a national symbol.

There was so little public interest in the enterprise that eventually the emblem’s designer, Mr Keedick, abandoned his interest in pursuing Moina’s campaign.

The Poppy and Help for Wounded Ex-Servicemen

During the winter of 1918/1919 Moina Michael continued working for the Staff of the Overseas YMCA Secretaries, including doing charitable work such as visiting wounded and sick men from her home state of Georgia in nine of the debarkation hospitals in and around New York City.

During the summer months of 1919 Moina taught a class of disabled servicemen. There were several hundred ex-servicemen in rehabilitation at the University of Georgia. Learning about their needs at first hand gave her the impetus to widen the scope of the Memorial Poppy idea so that it could be used to help all servicemen and their dependants.

Official Recognition of the Memorial Poppy

In the early 1920s a number of organizations did adopt the red poppy as a result of Moina’s dedicated campaign.

1920: The American Legion Adopts the Memorial Poppy

In 1919 the American Legion was founded as an organization by veterans of the United States armed forces to support those who had served in wartime in Europe during the First World War.

In August 1920 the Navy representative promised to present her case for the Memorial Poppy to the convention. The Georgia Convention subsequently adopted the Memorial Poppy but omitted the Torch symbol. The Convention also agreed to endorse the movement to have the Poppy adopted by the National American Legion and resolved to urge each member of the American Legion in Georgia to wear a red poppy annually on 11th November.

One month later, on 29th September 1920, the National American Legion convened in Cleveland. The Convention agreed on the use of the Flanders Fields Memorial Poppy as the United States’ national emblem of Remembrance.

Anna Guérin: “The French Poppy Lady”

Fund Raising for France with Poppies

A French woman by the name of Madame Anna E Guérin was present at the same American Legion convention as a representative of the French YMCA Secretariat. She considered that artificial poppies could be made and sold as a way of raising money for the benefit of the French people, especially the orphaned children, who were suffering as a result of the war.

Anna Guérin returned to France after the convention. She was the founder of the “American and French Children’s League” through which she organized French women, children and war veterans to make artificial poppies out of cloth. Her intention was that these poppies would be sold and the proceeds could be used to help fund the restoration of the war-torn regions of France.

Anna was determined to introduce the idea of the memorial poppy to the nations which had been Allied with France during the First World War. During 1921 she made visits or sent representatives to America, Australia, Britain, Canada and New Zealand.

Spreading the Message of the Memorial Poppy

1921: French Poppies Sold in America

In 1921 Madame Guérin made arrangements for the first nationwide distribution across America of poppies made in France by the American and French Childrens’ League. The funds raised from this venture went directly to the League to help with rehabilitation and resettlement of the areas of France devastated by the First World War. Millions of these French-made artificial poppies were sold in America between 1920 and 1924.

5th July 1921: Canada adopts the Flower of Remembrance

Madame Anna Guérin travelled to Canada, where she met with representatives of the Great War Veterans Association of Canada. This organization later became the Royal Canadian Legion. The Great War Veterans Association adopted the poppy as its national flower of Remembrance on 5th July 1921.

11th November 1921: The First British Legion Poppy Day Appeal

In 1921 Anna Guérin sent some French women to London to sell their artificial red poppies. This was the first introduction to the British people of Moina Michael’s idea of the Memorial Poppy. Madame Guérin went in person to visit Field Marshal Earl Douglas Haig, founder and President of The British Legion. She persuaded him to adopt the Flanders Poppy as an emblem for The Legion. This was formalized in the autumn of 1921.

The first British Poppy Day Appeal was launched that year, in the run up to 11th November 1921. It was the third anniversary of the Armistice to end the Great War. Proceeds from the sale of artificial French-made poppies were given to ex-servicemen in need of welfare and financial support.

Since that time the red poppy has been sold each year by The British Legion.

11th November 1921: Armistice Day Remembrance in Australia

A resolution was passed in Australia that from 11th November 1921 the red Memorial Poppy was to be worn on Armistice Day in Australia.

The American and French Childrens’ League sent a million artificial poppies to Australia for the 1921 Armistice Day commemoration. The Returned Soldiers and Sailors Imperial League sold poppies before 11th November. A poppy was sold for one shilling each. Of this, five pennies were donated to a French childrens’ charity, six pennies were donated to the Returned Soldiers and Sailors Imperial League and one penny was received by the government.

Since that time red poppies have been worn on the anniversary of Armistice in Australia, officially named Remembrance Day since 1977. Poppy wreaths are also laid in Australia on the day of national commemoration called ANZAC DAY on 25th April. This is the day when the ANZAC Force landed on the beaches of the Gallipoli penninsular at the start of that campaign on 25th April 1915.

24th April 1922: The First Poppy Day in New Zealand

In September 1921 a representative from Madame Guérin visited the New Zealand veterans’ association, called the New Zealand Returned Soldiers’ Association (NZRSA) at that time. This organization had been established in 1916 by returning wounded veterans.

With the aim of distributing poppies in advance of the anniversary of Armistice Day on 11th November that year, the NZRSA placed an order for 350,000 small and 16,000 large French-made poppies from the French and American Childrens’ League. Unfortunately the delivery of the poppies did not arrive in time to organize and publicize the first nationwide poppy campaign, the Association decided to hold the first Poppy Day on 24th April, the day before ANZAC Day, in the following year.

The first Poppy Day in New Zealand in 1922 raised funds of over £13,000. A proportion of this was sent to the French and American Childrens’ League and the remainder was used by the Association for support and welfare of returned soldiers in New Zealand.

May 1922: French-made Poppies Sold in the United States

In 1922 the organization of the American and French Childrens’ League was disbanded. Madam Guérin was still keen to raise funds for the French people who had suffered the destruction of their communities. She asked the American organization called Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) to help her with the distribution of her French-made poppies throughout the United States.

That year the VFW assisted with the sale of the poppies in America to help keep up the much needed funds for the battle-scarred areas of France. The poppies were sold before Memorial Day which was observed at that time on 30th May. This was the first time that a United States war veterans’ organization took on the task of selling the red poppy as a symbol of Remembrance and as a means of fund raising. The VFW decided to adopt the poppy as its own official memorial flower.

1923: The American Legion Sells Poppies in the United States

In 1923 the American Legion sold poppies in the United States which were made by a French company.

Remembrance Poppies Made by War Veterans

American Legion Auxiliary Pays for Poppies

The Auxiliary to the American Legion was an organization founded in 1919 to support The American Legion. It was for women who wanted to devote their voluntary services to veterans and young people. The first convention of the Auxiliary took place in September 1921 and delegates agreed to adopt the red poppy as the memorial flower for the organization.

The delegates at the convention also agreed that disabled American war veterans could make their own poppies to be sold within the United States. The Auxiliary believed that US veterans making their own poppies could generate much needed income for disabled and unemployed veterans who had no other means of earning money. The Auxiliary provided all the material for the artificial poppies and had it pre-cut to form easily into individual flowers. The Auxiliary paid a penny for each poppy that was made.

The American Legion Auxiliary continues its work to support veterans and promotes the wearing of a red poppy on the annual Memorial Day observed in May in the United States. Paper poppies are handmade by veterans who are paid for them.

The Buddy Poppy Factory, U.S.A.

Following the distribution of the red French-made poppies for Madame Guérin in 1922, the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) organization formally agreed in 1923 that American veterans of the Great War could also benefit from making and selling the red Memorial Poppy.

From 1924 disabled ex-servicemen started making poppies at the “Buddy Poppy” factory in Pittsburgh. The name “Buddy Poppy” was registered as a U.S. Patent in February 1924. In the following May a certificate was issued to grant trademark rights to the VWF for the manufacture of genuine “Buddy Poppies”.

Since the 1920s there are now 11 locations where the “Buddy Poppies” are made by disabled and needy veterans. Some 14 million “Buddy Poppies” are distributed each year in the United States.

Natural history and biology of the Red Poppy

(Taken in entirety from Wikipedia)

Papaver rhoeas (common names include common poppy, corn poppy, corn rose, field poppy, Flanders poppy, red poppy, red weed, coquelicot, and, due to its odour, which is said to cause them, as headache and headwark) is a herbaceous species of flowering plant in the poppy family, Papaveraceae. This poppy is notable as an agricultural weed (hence the “corn” and “field”).

Before the advent of herbicides, P. rhoeas sometimes was so abundant in agricultural fields that it could be mistaken for a crop. However the only species of Papaveraceae grown as a field crop on a large scale is Papaver somniferum, the opium poppy.

The origin of the Red Poppy plant is not known for certain. As with many such plants, the area of origin is often ascribed by Americans to Europe, and by northern Europeans to southern Europe. Its native range includes West Asia, North Africa and Europe. It is known to have been associated with agriculture in the Old World since early times and has had an old symbolism and association with agricultural fertility. It has most of the characteristics of a successful weed of agriculture. These include an annual lifecycle that fits into that of most cereals, a tolerance of simple weed control methods, the ability to flower and seed itself before the crop is harvested, and the ability to form a long-lived seed bank. The leaves and latex have an acrid taste and are mildly poisonous to grazing animals.

A sterile hybrid with Papaver dubium is known, P. x hungaricum, that is intermediate in all characters with P. rhoeas.

Cultural usage of the Red Poppy

(Taken in entirety from Wikipedia with addition of two asterisked sentences)

United States commemorative stamp depicting Moina Michael and corn poppies

Claude Monet, “Summer Field of Coquelicots”, 1875

Due to the extent of ground disturbance in warfare during World War I, corn poppies bloomed in between the trench lines and in no man’s lands on the Western Front. Poppies are a prominent feature of “In Flanders Fields” by Canadian Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, one of the most frequently quoted English-language poems composed during the First World War. It is also mentioned in one of Eric Bogle’s excellent anti-war songs, In No-Man’s Land (also known as The Green Fields of France), which has become a standard in the Irish folk-singing repertoire and part of which is being employed to opposite effect by the Royal Legion through the singing of Joss Stone.* 1

During the 20th century, the wearing of a poppy at and before Remembrance Day each year became an established custom in most western countries. It is also used at some other dates in some countries, such as at appeals for Anzac Day in Australia and New Zealand.

This poppy appears on a number of postage stamps, coins, banknotes, and national flags, including:

The common or corn poppy was voted the county flower of Essex and Norfolk in 2002 following a poll by the wild plant conservation charity Plantlife.

By what seems a strange coincidence, the red poppy has been a symbol of martyrdom and/or love in a number of older cultures.*

In Persian literature, red poppies, especially red corn poppy flowers, are considered the flower of love. They are often called the eternal lover flower. In classic and modern Persian poems, the poppy is a symbol of people who died for love (Persian: راه عشق).

Many poems interchange ‘poppy’ and ‘tulip’ (Persian: لاله).

[I] was asking the wind in the field of tulips during the sunrise: whose martyrs are these bloody shrouded?
[The wind] replied: Hafez, you and I are not capable of this secret, sing about red wine and sweet lips.

In Urdu literature, red poppies, or “Gul-e-Lalah”, are often a symbol of martyrdom, and sometimes of love.


Red Poppy:  The commonly-grown decorative Shirley Poppy is a cultivar of this plant.

P. rhoeas contains the alkaloid rhoeadine which is a mild sedative.

End Appendix


Red Poppy Symbol:

(see also Red Poppy and British Legion links)

British Legion:

Videos containing quotations from Joss Stone and John Cohen about how they have stayed “true to the song” or “lyric” of No Man’s Land by Eric Bogle and

White Poppy symbol:

Military Covenant:

WWI war dead:

Suicide in British Armed Forces – ref. BBC Panorama programme:

also Female Front Line blog with graphs

Controversy” over Legion’s 2014 Festival promotional song by Joss Stone (truncation of Eric Bogle’s No Man’s Land):

Civilian war deaths Iraq and Afghanistan to 2009

Civilian war deaths Iraq to 2011:

British and Commonwealth soldiers shot by firing squad

Images WWI

Veterans for Peace

Video and song On Remembrance Day from Veterans for Peace (lists British armed conflicts)

Video Veterans for Peace at the Cenotaph, Remembrance Sunday 2014

November 2014

1This was discussed near the beginning of the article, on p.2

CUSTOMERS, NOT CITIZENS: Consuming Education

By William Wall on The Ice Moon blog

(reprinted by kind permission of William Wall)

In the introduction to his most famous book on education, Ivan Illich says that for most of his life he never questioned that universal free education was an absolute good. This, I believe, would be the position of most people, even conservatives. But Illich went on to argue that institutionalising education (in fact as a service industry) has led to the institutionalising of society. In other words, education serves, not to emancipate the individual but to create a slavish attachment to the institutions. Illich’s solution is to abandon institutional education (the service industry) in favour of peer to peer education, what he calls a web of learners. Illich’s book preceded the creation of the internet as we now know it, and the development of peer to peer education as a service industry in its own right! Antonio Gramsci, mulling over the same problem in his prison cell in the 1930s came up with a similar analysis and a different solution. He wanted to subvert the institution, to create a school that would teach radicalism. The state controlled most forms of discourse, including that of educational institutions, he argued, therefore it was necessary for the radical left to create its own parallel institutions to defeat the hegemony of the state.

4 T
From the video accompanying Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” (copied and inserted by Rebel Breeze)

In Ireland (and throughout those countries where the doctrines of neo-liberalism have come to dominate public discourse) education has undergone a significant, but largely unremarked change, one that may well be founded on a gramscian understanding of the necessity for the state’s total control of public discourse (the gramscian concept of hegemony). Until the advent of neo-liberalism, the stated aim of modern education (whatever its real achievement) was founded on an etymological understanding, false or otherwise, of the verb to educate as deriving from the Latin educo ‘to lead out.’ The child was largely ignorant and needed to be led out of this ignorance. A child growing up in a wilderness and isolated from its peers would learn many useful things, but nothing of the wealth of human culture. The purpose of education was to enable a child to acquire modernity, enlightenment, civilisation.
Of course, all of these terms are themselves culturally laden and the concept itself was paternalistic in all its senses. Children are not ignorant – Joseph Jacottot proved that – otherwise they could not acquire such a sophisticated knowledge of language and culture. Nevertheless, the intelligent schoolteacher could attach herself/himself to the idea of enlightenment and enabling. One could, in fact, bring the best of intentions to teaching. Good teachers were expected to teach pupils, first and foremost, to be questioners, and here, at least, was some hope for change. Such teachers could argue that their purpose was to enable critical thinking, and that such thinking was for the betterment of the individual and society. It was a modest ambition, but a decent one, founded on a a belief that individual self-realisation and social change were important values.

But following the ascendancy of the ‘business model of politics’ in Irish political thinking, the curriculum has been crowded out with ‘business’ subjects. In Ireland what was once a single subject – Commerce – has tripled into Business Studies, Economics and Accountancy so that ‘business’ teachers are now the largest single homogenous group in any staffroom. History has suffered and all but disappeared in some schools. Geography, with its study of large-scale human interactions, has been drastically reduced. The classics, which at best encouraged a long view of human existence are now taught in a handful of schools. English has had a significant injection of ‘practical’ writing and reading and the texts used tend more towards the kind of books written specifically for teenagers (itself now a massive service industry). Chemistry, Biology and Physics are now sold as gateways to lucrative careers. Mathematics is moving towards the failed strategy of ‘problem-solving’ at the behest of industry. The Irish department of education’s website says:

‘This Government believes in education, both as a means of enabling all individuals to reach their full potential and as a major contributor to our current and future economic success. These two key priorities underpin the actions set out in this Statement of Strategy.’

Which translates as: education is a means of enabling individuals but it is also an element of capitalism. Significantly, the pupil/student is referred to as an ‘individual’, rather than a citizen, a pupil or a student all of which terms imply some form of community. The ‘individual’ is the base unit of neo-liberalism. Elsewhere in the site pupils/students are referred to as ‘clients’. She is to see herself as a cog in the machine, a contributor to current profit. In the section headed ‘Focusing on the needs of our clients’, the word ‘customer’ appears twelve times including in the following contexts: ‘The Department’s main customers are the Education Service Providers, i.e., teachers, management of schools and colleges and organisations providing education services’; ‘the Department is committed to delivering quality services that meet the needs of our customers and clients, particularly learners, at all levels. This commitment is reflected in the performance management process, where quality customer service is identified as a core competency for all our staff.’; ‘The Customer Charter describes the level of service that can be expected in accordance with the 12 Quality Customer Service (QCS) principles.’, etc.

This unsubtle use of language betrays two things: firstly, the department’s certainty that its use of terms like ‘customer’ for young people, parents and teachers is unremarkable; and secondly, the increasing brutalisation of the system as a whole. Neo-liberalism has turned us all into customers (‘a person or organization that buys goods or services from a store or business’) who must approach their own state wallet in hand to purchase ‘quality services’ and who can expect ‘core competencies’. Every department of government, every county council and city council and every state and semi-state company now has a ‘customer charter’, as do banks, insurance companies, oil companies, etc. In the neo-liberal state there are no citizens. In the ‘customer charter’ for the Department Of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, for example, the word ‘customer appears’ a total of forty times, while ‘citizen’ only appears in this sentence: ‘For complaints about service delivery in relation to Immigration, Citizenship, Visas or other services at INIS, please email’. Even here, the complaining citizen or non-citizen is directed to ‘customer complaints’.

Thus, the neo-liberal nirvana is so easily achieved.
In the course of two generations we went from citizens of a republic to customers of a state. Our government became a service industry with laudable aims like efficiency and value for money. Its old-fashioned Republican ideals (like liberty, equality and fraternity, perhaps?) now relate entirely to customer satisfaction. Not so long ago, in Easter 1916, the first provisnional government of the Irish Republic declared the following:

‘The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all the children of the nation equally’.

‘Citizens?’ Shouldn’t that be ‘customers?’ And surely we should substitute ‘Economy’ for ‘Republic’, after all, it is the economy that underpins our rights. In which case, we shouldn’t be a bit surprised if the word ‘equality’ is dropped in favour of ‘equal access to services’ and the word ‘happiness’ is dropped entirely or at least re-defined as ‘shopping’. And if we’re going to use the word ‘guarantee’, shouldn’t it be only used in the context of banks?

And why should we accept such changes? Well, we did it at school…



STATEMENT AGAINST DEMONISATION OF WATER METER RESISTERS ISSUED BY COMMUNITIES AGAINST WATER CHARGES NETWORK  — a very good statement apart from falling into the trap of agreeing to put “sinister, dissident republicans” in it and to separate themselves from political activists. “Standing together” includes “dissident republicans” and other political activists.  Diarmuid Breatnach.

“Resisting the Water Charges and Defending Our Right to Protest.

“We are residents of a number of communities in Dublin North East. Over the last number of months we have come together to resist the installation of water meters in our areas, and to oppose this unfair double taxation that the government calls water charges.

“For most of us, this is the first time in our lives that we have engaged in any sort of protest and have only done so because we simply cannot take any more of this government’s austerity agenda. At all times we have sought to resist the installation of these meters in a peaceful, dignified and resolute manner.

“We are therefore appalled at the recent developments in how An Garda Síochána have policed our protests, and with the blatant campaign to vilify and demonise us that the government and Gardai, supported by segments of the media, launched in recent days.

“They have claimed that Gardai are routinely assaulted at protests, and that our movement has been infiltrated by a “sinister fringe” or by “dissident republicans”. We categorically reject these claims. In recent weeks we have been subjected to heavy handed and abusive policing by the Gardai. Men and women, protesting peacefully, have been pushed, pulled and punched by Gardai. To our knowledge not one of our fellow protesters has been convicted of assaulting a member of An Garda Síochána, and violent protest is not something we would endorse or tolerate.

“With respect to the claim that our movement has been infiltrated by sinister elements, we reject this also. We are the people on the streets, day in, day out, peacefully resisting these meters; we are mothers, fathers, parents, pensioners, workers and unemployed – we are not sinister, dissident republicans.

“In light of these developments, we are genuinely fearful that the Gardai, at the behest of the government, are preparing to become even more aggressive towards our protests and to eviscerate our right to protest.
“We therefore call on all of the people of Ireland to come out and support us this coming Monday, 10 November 2014, in Dublin North East. We fear that GMC Sierra will attempt, with heavy Garda support, to enter our areas and install meters that we do not want. It is our intention to continue to resist this unjust tax in a peaceful and dignified manner, but we fear that the decision has been made to strip us of a meaningful right to protest.

“Each and every one of us has resolved to resist this tax and these meters, we will continue to do so in a peaceful way, but if we are to succeed we need the support of other communities. If we all stand together, we can resist these charges, retain water as a public good and human right, and vindicate our right to protest.”

Video against water charges — excellent lip-synching dubbing of excerpt from The Fiield film:

Video of Garda Armed Response Unit attending in support of Irish Water at housing estate in Clonmel:

Analysis of manipulation by mass media, the Government, Gardaí of annual statistics (of Garda provenance) on assaults on Gardai in order to demonise and criminalise water meter protesters: