Since the first notified cases of AIDS in Ireland (in 1985), there have been over 300 deaths and thousands upon thousands of HIV infections. Globally, over 30 million people have died of AIDS complications.
People are still dying of AIDS somewhere on the globe. People are still acquiring AIDS somewhere in Ireland. The reasons behind global AIDS deaths are self-evident, generally a combination of poverty, lack of sex education and decent health care and a moribund religious ideology. Closer to home, it’s more often ignorance around sexual health and lack of access to sexual health education resulting in late diagnoses that underlines new cases of full blown AIDS.
Trying to get a handle on the staggering destruction wrought from AIDS has been hugely problematic, especially for those of us who survived the war. At one time or another, AIDS (and indeed HIV) has been so comprehensively enveloped in criminality, transgressiveness, taboo, misinformation and marginalisation that many of us have not been allowed to modulate the grief, hurt and anger we have carried since the brutality of that war between 1984 and 1996.
Thankfully, the process of remembering and commemorating AIDS loss is changing around the globe, especially in the US, Canada, South Africa and continental Europe.
And rightly so. For what is remembered, lives. Not just the names of our deceased, but their voices, their bright faces are refocused. Lives lived in adversity and often despair are recalibrated, not only for those of us mourning our dearly departed friends and lovers, but for successive generations.
Individual memories are jogged, formal histories are refined. Previous anonymous or forgotten individuals live again among us. Their stories become threaded into our personal and formal historical narratives. These stories go on and reverberate and, if we’re good to each other, have consequences.
A place of memory is so important in the mobilisation of a community, and of our society. Memorialising our loss and grief allows us to better value and share the coping mechanisms and survival strategies of a previous generation. Nowhere is this more apparent and more necessary than in our Rainbow Society - The LGBT community - where we have traditionally lacked a collective memory.
A place of memory can take many forms. It can be physical, as in a monument, but it can also be expressed through the cultural medium: touring exhibitions, documentary theatre, performance, literature. One such example - the Irish Names Project, the quilt instigated in the early 1990’s by Mary Shannon, toured the country with quilt panels that sadly now remain in storage, reminding us of its fragile, ephemeral nature.
Current plans to develop a physical AIDS memorial in Ireland have also embraced the need for dynamic representations of HIV/AIDS history in Ireland. Building a monument to the AIDS epidemic not only demands a physical totem but an acknowledgement of the ritual work of reconciliation and awareness that is so important to developing a more holistic HIV education culture, something so crucial to burying those last remaining vestiges of shame, guilt and trauma that have been attached to AIDS these 30-odd years.
If the history of the struggle has taught us anything, we must refuse to allow our collective memory to be erased. Digitisation and open access of the Names Project, along with the archives of HIV Ireland, Gay Health Action (1985-1989), and HIV/AIDS-related documents held in the collections of the Irish Queer Archive at the National Library of Ireland is a necessary requisite to memorialising the loss and destruction of the AIDS crisis.
Tonie’s new show ‘I Am Tonie Walsh’ will premiere in Project Arts Centre on November 27 and run until December 1.