Q&A: What is the poppy appeal and why is it so controversial?

A symbol of remembrance or a symbol of British imperialism?

The poppy is sold by the Royal British Legion (RBL) to raise funds for serving or ex-British servicemen and their dependents.

The poppy is sold by the Royal British Legion (RBL) to raise funds for serving or ex-British servicemen and their dependents.


Taoiseach Leo Varadkar wore a shamrock poppy in the Dáil on Tuesday. It commemorates those who died during the First World War between 1914 and 1918.

What is the shamrock poppy that Leo Varadkar wore?

The poppy is sold by the Royal British Legion (RBL) to raise funds for serving or ex-British servicemen and their dependents. The appeal raised £46.7 million (€52.8 million) last year. The money goes towards supporting serving and former British service personnel such as those injured on duty. It also helps their dependents.

The Legion have long recognised that the poppy is a contentious symbol in Ireland. In 2011 the Limerick branch of the Royal British Legion came up with a compromise featuring a shamrock-shaped badge with a poppy and the slogan “lest we forget”.

“We wanted a way that was uniquely Irish without losing the connection with Great Britain,” explained Ken Martin, the chairman of the Royal British Legion Republic of Ireland branch.

Where does the money raised by the shamrock poppy go?

“Money raised from the sale of shamrock poppy pins in the Republic of Ireland supports those resident in Ireland who have served or are serving with the UK armed forces, and their families,” says Bethan Herbert, RBL spokeswoman for Wales and Northern Ireland.

Is the Royal British Legion active in the Republic today?

Yes, very much so. The legion aids between 37,000 and 42,000 ex-service people and/or their dependents in the Republic. The size of this figure may surprise a lot of people, but there is a tradition stretching back centuries of the Irish in the British armed forces even after Irish independence.

The RBL Republic of Ireland branch is also actively involved in remembrance of the Irish who fought and died in both world wars in either the British or Commonwealth forces. It is providing €540,000 over the next five years to partially fund memorials to the Irish dead of the First World War.

What is the Royal British Legion?

The British Legion was founded in 1921 to alleviate the immense suffering of British and Commonwealth servicemen who survived the first World War. It became the Royal British Legion in 1971.

The poppy symbol comes from the famous poem In Flanders Fields written in 1915 by the Canadian doctor John McCrae. “In Flanders Fields the poppies blow between the crosses row on row”. The poppy grew mostly on disturbed ground such as trenches and shellholes during the first World War. Hence the symbolism.

What has the British Legion got to do with Ireland?

A lot as it turns out. The Legion was very active in the years after independence in raising funds for Irishmen who had served in the British armed forces. The war caused enormous suffering in Ireland. In 1926 A.P Connolly, the chairman of the British Legion in Ireland, estimated that 165,000 Irish children had lost a parent, mostly a father, during the war period, 35,000 Irishmen had lost a leg or arm, 6,450 Irishmen had gone insane and were detained in “lunatic asylums” and 3,150 were suffering from epilepsy.

The poppy was sold openly on the streets of major towns after independence, but even in the 1920s it was a controversial symbol. Many were torn, as they are now, between remembering the Irish dead and being perceived to glorify British imperialism.

What is poppy fascism?

Wearing a poppy is supposed to be a voluntary gesture, but woe betide anybody who appears on television, in parliament or on a football pitch in UK during poppy season without one.

Republic of Ireland winger James McClean has consistently said he will not wear a poppy because of what happened in his native Derry during Bloody Sunday.

For his troubles he has been targeted in the press and booed at grounds around England. Last Saturday, while playing for West Bromwich Albion (WBA) against Huddersfield Town, he had missiles thrown at him.

What does the Royal British Legion have to say about the treatment meted out to James McClean?

RBL spokeswoman Rebecca Warren says: “I absolutely agree that it is appalling the way that James McClean has been treated. For James McClean or anybody else who makes the decision, it must be a personal choice.

“We absolutely oppose anybody who would criticise or coerce somebody into wearing a poppy. The poppy stands for freedom of thought.

“Anyone who chooses not to wear a poppy is fine by us. When we have been asked to comment, we will always defend that choice not to wear one. We always come out in the strongest possible terms that we can.

“I’ve been in TV studios where it says on the door, ‘don’t forget to wear your poppy’. I don’t agree with that. If it is not a personal choice, it loses its meaning.”