There is little more rousing or life-affirming than a man or woman standing tall for his or her beliefs. So take a bow James McClean, who for the second time as a professional footballer chose not to join his team-mates in the national display of commemorative poppy wearing when Wigan met Bolton on Friday night.
At least as impressive as his conviction was the powerful letter he penned beforehand to Wigan’s chairman, Dave Whelan, articulating his position. In less than one page of A4, 25-year-old McClean rescued the reputation of the literary sportsman from the pre-Christmas pap peddled by a raft of ubernames in tiresome autobiographies.
Understanding the emotive pull of the red flower of Flanders, McClean must have known he would be booed by the mob. While a Sunderland player two years ago he refused the poppy in a match against Everton.
But no amount of petty hatred fuelled by wholesale ignorance was going to shift him. McClean is an Irishman from a divided city, connected down the generations to a centuries-old struggle against injustice and oppression.
The history of (London)Derry is a desperate commentary on Anglo-Irish relations in the imperial age. McClean’s poppy-free declaration was an expression of unity and empathy with his forebears, not a slight against men who lost their lives in war. The Irish Catholic tradition from which he comes, rooted in a particular part of the north of Ireland, suffered more than most from the extremist elements of imperial British power from the reign of Henry VIII to the Troubles.
To wear a poppy in sympathy with the British forces that inflicted appalling misery and institutional thuggery on the Catholic majority in Derry, not least in the last hundred years with which the poppy has become associated, would be to turn his back on all those who fought first to have their rights recognised and then protected.
Happily, we live in more accommodating times, at least most of us do. The terraces framing a local derby can be intolerant playgrounds, which makes McClean’s gesture all the more remarkable.
Here was a footballer demonstrating his grasp of the wider world around him, showing us a layer of interest above and beyond the standard fascination with conspicuous consumption. A full transcript of McClean’s letter to his chairman is posted on the Wigan Athletic website. Here is a snippet addressing the central point:
“Please understand, Mr Whelan, that when you come from Creggan like myself or the Bogside, Brandywell or the majority of places in Derry, every person still lives in the shadow of one of the darkest days in Ireland’s history – even if, like me, you were born nearly 20 years after the event.
“For me to wear a poppy would be as much a gesture of disrespect for the innocent people who lost their lives in the Troubles – and Bloody Sunday especially... It would be seen as an act of disrespect to my people.
“I am not a warmonger, or anti-British, or a terrorist or any of the accusations levelled at me. I am a peaceful guy, I believe everyone should live side by side, whatever their religious or political beliefs, which I respect and ask for people to respect mine in return. I am very proud of where I come from and I just cannot do something that I believe is wrong.”
Give me McClean’s honest, political engagement above the vacuous ramblings of the self-important nincompoops who are filling bookshelves with their navel-gazing just in time for Christmas.
The night did not end well for McClean, with Wigan losing 3-1. But it is hard to see his contribution to the evening as a defeat. It is never easy to stand alone, especially in a setting where emotion holds sway over reason.
Football should be proud of McClean, whose act of dignified defiance belied the impression casually acquired that footballers are a non-sentient subspecies of overly groomed narcissists, capable only of satisfying their physical appetites.
We should thank him for contributing a critical dimension to balance the romanticising elements we witness when reflecting on the epic acts of bravery shown by ordinary working men who went to their deaths in both world wars.
My father served in the Parachute Regiment in the Second World War. He was barely out of his teens when the regiment was formed in 1942. His mind was set on joining the army long before Hitler invaded Poland, not to serve some mighty cause, or to roll back evil from our shores, but as a way of escaping the grim experience of life in a northern mill town.
He was in effect an accidental participant in a conflict not of his making. He signed up as a boy soldier to see the world, though he understood the demand when duty called. It is unlikely that my father was alone in his motivation for entering the military. McClean’s stand invites us to reflect on this, too.Reuse content