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Poppy Sunday – If Ye Break Faith We Shall Not Sleep

The 11th November, each year, we remember our dead from the two Great World Wars,1914-18 and 1939-45. This date is the day that World War One ended in 1918, and when the armistice was signed in Compiègne, Northern France, at 5am.  On the closest Sunday to this November date, we remember the dead in our Church ceremonies. This Sunday is known as Remembrance Sunday or Poppy Sunday.

It was on the 7th. November 1919, King George V first issued a proclamation which called for a two-minute silence, having read a letter published in the London Evening News of the 8th. May 1919, by a Melbourne journalist, Edward George Honey. It was Honey who first proposed a two minute silence in memory of those, who so willingly sacrificed their lives for the relative peace and freedom we enjoy today. The proclamation reads All locomotion should cease, so that, in perfect stillness, the thoughts of everyone may be concentrated on reverent remembrance of the glorious dead”.

Thanks to research, first undertaken by a local Holycross resident Tom Burnell, we have been able to trace seventy two military personnel, born in the town of Thurles who gave their lives in World War One. Their names are now carved on a limestone wall, funded and erected by Thurles Urban District Council. Like most war memorials, that famous forth stanza, by war poet Laurence Binyon (1869 – 1943), taken from his poem ‘For the Fallen’, takes pride of place in the centre of all those named.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

As stated, Remembrance Sunday is also known as Poppy Sunday, because, since 1921, it is traditional for people to wear an artificial poppy in their lapel. Very few poppies are worn in Ireland mainly because of politicians, community leaders and press not being in possession of the facts and who fall short in attempts to ascertain truth. Indeed a recently aired programme by RTE One, last week, supports this former statement. Due to this misinformed debate many people in Ireland see the humble majestic poppy as a symbol of some kind of British Imperialism which of course it can never and will never be.

The poppy was first worn by an American, one Moira Michael. Moira wore the poppy in an act of remembrance. She bought some poppies, wore one, and sold others, raising money for ex-servicemen. Her colleague, French YMCA Secretary, Madame E. Guerin, greatly impressed with Miss Michael’s idea of the Flanders poppy as a badge of remembrance, decided that upon her return to France, she would sell handmade Flanders Poppies as a relief project for war orphans and poor children. Thus the red poppy, worn to keep faith and in remembrance of the War Dead, began in France. So where is the British Imperialism connection?. Perhaps it stems from the fact that the idea from these simple actions spread and the Royal British Legion, a charity dedicated to supporting war veterans and their families, began to offer these poppies for sale at no stated price, in November 1921, with total proceeds going to their worthy cause. Indeed many deserving Irish residents have reaped the benefits of this charitable work. To claim that the red poppy is associated with British Imperialism demonstrates only ignorance and greatly belittles the truth.

Poppy seed remains dormant deep within the soil until disturbed. On the Western Front this seed would have lain dormant for years, but the battles being fought in Flanders had churned up the ground bringing this seed to the surface. The most magnificent profusion of poppy bloom reported in World War One was in Ypres, a town in Flanders, Belgium, which then was so important to allied defences. It was also here that the new chlorine gas with which the Germans experimented, was first used. Disturbance of the soil brought forth the poppies in greatest abundance, thus inspiring a Canadian soldier, Major John McCrae,(1872-1918) to write his most famous poem “In Flanders Fields”.

Major John McCrae was a Canadian physician and fought on the Western Front in 1914. He was later transferred to the medical corps and assigned to a hospital in France. While on active duty he died of pneumonia in 1918, the final year of World War One.
Those of you who still remain unsure, for whatever reason as to what the poppy represents, please humour me, by reading this poem at least once.

In Flanders Fields
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.
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.

Over 200,000 Irish soldiers fought on the British side in the first World War, with over 35.000 casualties resulting in death. Some of these were from Northern Ireland but most were from Southern Ireland. I am happy to report that each year on Poppy Sunday, wreaths of poppies are placed at the First World War memorial wall beside St.Mary’s Famine and War Museum in Thurles.

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