For footballer James McClean, Remembrance Sunday is arguably his most difficult day of the year.
Since he first refused to wear the poppy in 2012, McClean and his family have been subjected to abuse both in football stadiums across England and online.
The Republic of Ireland international, who was born in Northern Ireland, has been outspoken about what the poppy and Remembrance Sunday mean to his community and its relationship to the British military.
But what is the poppy and why has it become so controversial in football?
The poppy finds its origins in a poem written by John McCrae during World War I, “the war to end all wars.”
Despite the death and destruction of WWI, poppies were a common sight amid the cloying mud of the Western Front, according to the Imperial War Museum.
These days, the red and black image of a poppy is displayed on footballers’ shirts in England during early November as a mark of remembrance to the UK’s fallen soldiers.
The distinctive, small flower has become a symbol used to remember the soldiers and other servicemen and women of Great Britain who fell in WWI.
Since the 1920s, the symbol has traditionally been worn around Remembrance Sunday – this year it falls on the November 13 – to honor those who gave their lives in service of the country and the freedoms gained from their sacrifice.
Sales of the poppies to the public go towards the Royal British Legion, a charity that supports members of the UK armed forces and veterans.
But as the years have gone by, the mourning and remembrance rituals evolved and now extend to all of those who have given their lives in service of the country.
For some in the UK and abroad, though, there is unease about honoring a military that carried out atrocities in their homelands across the globe – places such as Ireland and Northern Ireland – as funds that come from poppy sales go in part to support British veterans who served in Northern Ireland.
“Most Irish nationalists, most Irish Catholics in Northern Ireland regarded it as being not for them. It’s not part of their culture,” Ivan Gibbons, a lecturer in Modern Irish and British history, tells CNN Sport.
“[It is a] sort of a badge, an emblem or totem of British imperialism, British colonialism.”
McClean is one such dissenting voice.
The 33-year-old footballer has carved out a solid – if unspectacular – career in English football, plying his trade for various clubs in the top three divisions.
He was born and raised in Derry, a small town in Northern Ireland bordering the Republic. Derry was at the heart of “the Troubles,” a 20th century sectarian conflict between predominantly Catholic Irish nationalists, mostly Protestant Ulster loyalists and British security services over who controlled Northern Ireland.
In the bloodiest year of the conflict, 1972, nearly 500 people died from fighting. One explanation for this was the formation of the Provisional Irish Republican Army, broadly referred to as the IRA, in 1969, which embraced “armed struggle” against British rule.
Another was the introduction of internment without trial – the vast majority of those imprisoned were Catholic – which politicized many into the nationalist cause.
“Bloody Sunday” – when British soldiers shot and killed 14 unarmed nationalist protesters in Derry in January 1972 – was a flashpoint in the conflict. Some 38 years after, a 2010 British government inquiry found that the shooting was unjustified, and then-Prime Minister David Cameron offered an apology to the victims in parliament.
Six of those who were killed on Bloody Sunday hailed from the Creggan Estate in Derry where McClean grew up.
McClean publicly remembers Bloody Sunday and has posted on his social media accounts in commemoration of those victims and the day “innocence died.”
McClean initially played for Northern Ireland, part of the UK, making seven appearances for their under-21 side, but he jumped at the chance to play for the Republic, a team in which he felt he belonged.
At the time, he questioned the Northern Irish football team’s decision to play “God Save the Queen” as its national anthem.
“I cannot understand why it is played. Fifty per cent of the people in Northern Ireland do not recognize it as their anthem and among that 50%, quality footballers will emerge,” he said in a 2011 interview with the Belfast Telegraph.
In November 2012, the Premier League instituted the wearing of the poppy on the weekend of Remembrance Sunday for all players. McClean refused.
Having already received abuse for his decision to play for Ireland – so much so that he closed his Twitter account – fans went further by sending him death threats.
Since then, McClean has regularly received abuse from fans in stadiums in England as well as online. That abuse has regularly turned to death threats towards him as well as his family. In 2020, he revealed in an interview with the BBC that he has often received bullets in the mail and even considered retiring because of the abuse.
His wife, Erin McClean, said on Twitter in 2021: “Why should we have to read messages like that daily for almost a decade?
“We’ve been spat at, shouted at, nights out have been ruined by people making remarks towards him.
“I even remember once someone threatened him saying they were taking a gun with them to a certain match and I can still remember watching that match in absolute fear on the TV.”
McClean isn’t the only footballer to have chosen not to wear the poppy and receive abuse for that decision.
In 2018, Serbian midfielder Nemanja Matic – who then played for Manchester United – decided against wearing the symbol because of the “reminder” of the bombs dropped by NATO on his hometown Vrelo in Serbia.
“I do not want to undermine the poppy as a symbol of pride within Britain or offend anyone,” Matic wrote. “However, we are all a product of our own upbringing and this is a personal choice for the reasons outlined.”
Simon Akam, a military journalist and author, says that as fewer people are directly related to those the poppy remembers, it has become less of a personal symbol and more of a performative gesture.
“It’s both non-political and political … a kind of public notion of doing the right thing. But it’s ingrained within British society,” Akam told CNN Sport.
“In the 1920s, when [over] 800,000 casualties had been reported [as fatalities] by Britain in the First World War, everyone would have known people that had died. It [the poppy] would have had an immediate emotive response that would have been extraordinary,” adds Akam.
“In the conflicts that I wrote about in Iraq and Afghanistan, over 15 years Britain lost about 600 soldiers. The proportion of population who directly knew someone who’d been hurt or killed was [tiny].”
The abuse directed at McClean has often turned into anti-Catholic and anti-Irish abuse.
He recently posted a video taken from his match against former club Sunderland where thousands of fans chanted, “F**k the pope and the IRA.”
In his post, McClean also complained that football’s governing bodies have done very little to deal with the sectarian abuse he gets, but he doesn’t “expect anything to be done about this by the FA, EFL.”
When contacted by CNN Sport, a Football Association spokesperson said: “We strongly condemn all forms of discriminatory and offensive chanting. Any participants or fans who believe that they have been the subject of, or witness to, discrimination are encouraged to report it through the correct channels: The FA, the relevant club or via our partners at Kick It Out.
“The FA looks into any alleged discriminatory language or behaviour that is reported to us, and we work closely with the clubs and relevant authorities to ensure appropriate action is taken.”
Likewise, an English Football League – the governing body for the second-tier of English football – spokesperson said: “The EFL condemns all forms of discriminatory and offensive chanting and will provide assistance wherever appropriate in respect of any investigations undertaken by the Club, FA and other authorities.
“The League has worked with other football bodies in the past and will continue to do so in the future to provide support for James.
“At the beginning of the season, the EFL issued guidance to Clubs to support their match day operations to tackle discriminatory behaviour and hate crime.”
While governing bodies in England have been very vocal about trying to tackle racism in football, McClean asked in 2021 if “being abused for being Irish and anti-Irish abuse [is] acceptable?
“Is it not popular enough to be seen to be acknowledged or spoke out about too?”
Gibbons concurs: “The football authorities don’t see abuse of an Irish footballer on a par with abuse of Black footballers … Their mindset just doesn’t comprehend it.”
Last month, a video emerged of the Irish women’s team singing the “Celtic Symphony,” a popular Irish nationalist song that contains the line: “Ooh ah up the ‘RA,” a nod to the IRA – though not the Provisional IRA according to the writer of the song – for which the team was heavily criticized by English media outlets.
Both head coach Vera Pauw and player Chloe Mustaki publicly apologized for singing the song.
One TV presenter asked Mustaki if “education is needed” among the squad as well as for an apology – comments that offended some in Ireland, who argue it is people in England who need to be educated on British Imperialism.
“It is not for the British to interpret a former colony’s history, culture, or future,” said writer Tony Evans, who comes from Liverpool, a city with a strong connection to Ireland, following the country’s Great Famine in the 19th century when it’s estimated that approximately one million died and nearly two million were forced to emigrate, with Liverpool absorbing a huge number of Irish emigrants.
“The Empire is just a memory. The imperial mindset lingers on,” added Evans.
As expected, McClean – as the only player not wearing a poppy – was routinely booed during his Wigan’s side’s trip to Swansea last weekend.
This is despite McClean stating that, if the poppy was simply a reminder of those lost in the two World Wars, he would happily wear it. After all, over 50,000 Irish men died across the two conflicts.
Gibbons says that this is a common position in Ireland, saying that there has been a “dramatic change” in attitudes towards the poppy in Ireland and that more and more people are happy to use it to commemorate those lost in those two wars. Though Ireland was neutral in World War II, thousands of its citizens volunteered in the British Army.
As Gibbons points out: “People fought and died in World War I and particularly in World War II to ensure that people like McClean – who may have political views which we are uncomfortable with – has the right to express those things,” and that in abusing him for his views is indeed “the negation of the war fought against fascism.”