It was around the end of the 1980’s. Joe, my friend, was after testing positive for HIV. He educated me all about it. After he died, another chap was in America and he came home with a book about the American quilt and we thought we would make one for Joe.
A few of us got together, we had the use of the board room in Dublin AIDS Alliance. We put out the word about what we were doing and people started coming in to help or to make panels for someone they had lost. We put out word that we wanted buttons and little nik-naks to sew on the panels. We used to get dresses and skirts as bits of material. Two of the lads were great characters, they used to put on the dresses. It brought laughter into the room, it wasn’t all doom and gloom.
Everybody who was in there had been affected in one way or another by HIV and AIDS, so everybody could talk to one another, there was nothing that couldn’t be said. It was a great help because people used to come in to us that couldn’t talk outside the office. A neighbour wouldn’t know what another neighbour died of. People went to England because they couldn’t stay here due to their status. It was awful on their families, people couldn’t grieve because they couldn’t talk about it. Working on the quilt, working on their loved one’s panel, gave people an opportunity to grieve.
We have one panel that’s made of the map of Ireland with no borders and no boundaries because AIDS knows no borders and no boundaries. We have another one of a mother who had HIV, as well as her eldest daughter and her youngest son. Her panel, her husband came in and worked on it, we got the kids to do little drawings on the material. Another was made for all the babies that have died. It wasn’t just for gay people, there was no creed, no matter who wanted to make a panel - we helped them make it.
They had a service in America with quilts from all over the world. That’s something I will never forget as long as I live. Where the Washington Memorial is, they laid them out and they covered over 17 acres. There were 4,000 volunteers and they could tell you exactly where your panel or quilt was. This group had come down to find a panel they had made for their friend. They had their friend’s dog and he got off the leash. Word went round quickly there was a dog loose because you can’t wash the quilts. When they found the dog, he was sitting on the quilt, on his master’s panel. They left him there.
It was overwhelming at first because you would see all of these families with their son or daughter on their t-shirt. After the opening ceremony, the names were called out, hundreds of people calling out the names of those who died. From all over the world, whatever countries had quilts, they were all there. They can’t do an event like that again because the quilt is too big now, there’s nowhere big enough to hold it.
It’s awful to see the quilt just stored in bags now. I would love everybody to get a chance to see it, because every time you take out the quilt, you bring the people out, it brings the personal out. It shows the person behind the disease. There was such stigma because of ignorance. We need to get more information and education, especially to the kids out there who are still in school.
Tickets for the event can be booked on Eventbrite.ie