Opinion: those who create spontaneous memorials address and articulate ideas that go beyond remembering the deceased

Spontaneous shrines are temporary memorials that people construct, at their own motivation, to mark the sites of untimely deaths. They have a variety of forms such as floral tributes, crosses, photographs and artworks, and can be associated with particular individuals or a number of deceased individuals. These shrines are not part of an official directive, but gain widespread attention which ensure that death does not pass unnoticed.

Different attitudes toward death can be observed when spontaneous memorials are constructed. These attitudes depend on two factors: the person who passed away and the cause of death. In general, spontaneous memorials appear if the person who passed away is a personality with a high mass-media status (John Lennon, Princess Diana, Michael Jackson etc.) or if those who are killed are considered victims (9/11 attacks, Bloody Sunday massacre). By memorialising death in public spaces through creating spontaneous shrines, those involved address and make widespread a number of ideas that go beyond remembering the deceased.

Providing comfort to the living

The most common form of spontaneous shrines in Ireland are roadside memorials, which are usually marked by a cross, a wreath or flowers. These shrines can be temporary, lasting up to a few weeks after the death or can become more permanent in the form of granite markers. While the primary purpose of their formation is to remember the deceased, roadside shrines memorialising victims of road traffic accidents can also act as warnings of the physical dangers to road users. The existence of roadside shrines is contested and their permanence is often dependant upon their location.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Liveline, Joe Deacy's father Adrian talks about Mayo County Council's removal of a memorial dedicated to his son

In January 2019, Mayo County Council removed a memorial dedicated to Joe Deacy who died after being found unconscious outside a house in Co. Mayo in 2017. The memorial, which consisted of a small wooden square with a base and a cross, was removed by officials as it was deemed "a visual distraction" and "did not receive prior approval from the council before being erected."

Roadside memorials often act as surrogate gravesides and for many, it is important to leave a memento at a death site because it is the last place the person was alive. Thus the sites, and the shrines, often signify life rather than death.

Demanding social change

On April 18th 2019, 29 year old journalist Lyra McKee was shot dead when a dissident republican gunman opened fire on police during rioting in the Creggan area of Derry. Her death caused outrage among political and community leaders and sparked headlines across the world.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland. Adam Turkington from Hit the North street art festival in Belfast talks about a new mural of Lyra McKee

In the wake of the murder, much was written on Northern Ireland's walls. Black, spray-painted lettering appeared on Free Derry Corner – the symbol of the city – proclaiming "Not in Our Name. RIP Lyra". A mural created by Dublin artist Emma Blake was unveiled in Belfast alongside the words of a powerful letter she wrote to her 14-year-old self: "It won't always be like this. It's going to get better." The words gained added poignancy given the violent circumstances of her death and became part of a new bid for political agreement at Stormont.

However, the positioning of Lyra McKee as a figurehead for social change in Northern Ireland has proved difficult for her family in their grieving process. The McKee family's wish to "reclaim" Lyra’s memory in a less public sphere demonstrates how spontaneous shrines can play a part in allowing death to be claimed or appropriated by persons other than the direct relatives.

Sending a message

Spontaneous shrines are seen as a portal to the otherworld, a place where many forms of communication can occur. Those who visit leave messages directly addressing the deceased and the sites become focal spaces for both protest and communication as well as mourning and reflection.

From RTÉ lyric fm's Culture File, a visit to the site of street artist Aches' image of Savita Halappanavar, which became an impromptu memorial for Dubliners in 2018

Savita Halappanavar died at Galway University Hospital on October 28th 2012 from septicemia, an infection she contracted after she was denied an abortion during a miscarriage. Her death set off outrage across the country and became synonymous with calls for repeal of Ireland’s Eighth Amendment, which effectively banned abortion in Ireland.

Savita’s story galvanised campaigners calling for an end to the ban and was cited repeatedly when Ireland overwhelmingly voted to repeal the amendment in 2018. Flowers, notes and candles amassed at a mural in central Dublin of Savita, smiling out from behind the word "YES" on polling day in May 2018. The messages that were left by the public at the mural are to be digitised and preserved by Dublin City Library and Archives, giving permanence to this spontaneous, temporary shrine.

Ultimately, spontaneous shrines are testimony to the importance of the place of death and to the continuing memory of the deceased. Their ability to act as sites of protest and gave momentum to growing calls for social change show how spontaneous shrines have deeper implications than being unofficial responses to an untimely death.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ