Opinion: commemorating Covid-19 will be a complex task given that it will be difficult to commemorate something we might all want to forget

Over the coming months, government departments will collaborate with different stakeholders, including the National Archives, Creative Ireland and the Arts Council, to develop a programme of initiatives aimed at capturing the Covid-19 experience in Ireland.

However, capturing experience is different to commemorating it. Commemoration is a fundamental process through which we engage with significant moments in history, whether it is to mark a one year anniversary or a bicentenary. It involves both the shared presentation of the past and remembrance of the deceased. Commemoration is more than a ritual of wreath laying and token speeches from politicians. Importantly, practices of commemoration can play a functional role in society coming to terms with a difficult past.

Although this article may seem premature given that we are well and truly still in the middle of a global pandemic and continue to negotiate life with Covid-19 as a daily threat, anticipating how a significant moment in history will be commemorated is a common practice. Guy Beiner describes this attempt to predetermine how history would be remembered as prememory. We engage in prememory when we write personal diaries for the purpose of future reflection or say things like "In 20 years' time, we will look back and think about what a strange time this was".

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From RTÉ News in June 2020, then Taoiseach Leo Varadkar announces a Revised Roadmap for Reopening Ireland's Society and Business

Prememory has been at play in several speeches and advertisements throughout this pandemic. In a speech in June 2020 when announcing a Revised Roadmap for Reopening Ireland's Society and Business, the then Taoiseach Leo Varadkar stated how "in years to come, we will never forget how the world was upended in 2020."

While prememory is a conscious act of remembrance, it is important to emphasise how each act of remembrance also involves selective forgetfulness, which invokes particular versions of the past in the present. We must be mindful of the selective emphasis of some details and the omission of others with subsequent commemorations of Covid-19.

Any state-created commemorative narrative of Covid-19 is likely to focus on the thousands of victims of happenstance and the heroism of frontline workers rather than the often questionable decisions of government officials and committees. Perhaps the most effective gesture from the government would be to compensate frontline workers and, in particular, student nurses, with improved pay conditions.

From RTÉ Brainstorm, the low-paid workers keeping Ireland open during the pandemic

Collecting memories and material associated with Covid-19 has been taking place for many months. EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum are collecting stories that celebrate the positive difference Irish people at home and abroad are making in response Covid-19. Monaghan County Museum issued a public call for the people of Monaghan to share photographs, drawings and stories that show life as it was during the pandemic. Any exhibition of collected material should be part of a travelling exhibition, making it available to as many people as possible. This would give the public an opportunity to engage with the living memory of the pandemic and offer opportunities for community engagement. We are all protagonists in this pandemic and should be provided with accessible opportunities to capture our experiences of it, should we wish to participate.

Unlike other moments in history we commemorate, power of place is not of utmost importance here. The virus transcends location and has spread to every corner of the country. It is therefore not a necessity to engage in commemorative rituals in the predictable locations, such as the Garden of Remembrance, Cork's City Hall or Dublin Castle. This presents an opportunity for commemorations to take place in a visionary venue in which we can actively reflect and consider the wider historical, cultural and political contexts of Covid-19.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, Cian McCormack reports from a church in Dublin remembering all those who have died with Covid-19 with a "wall of crosses".

Given the enormous death toll that Covid-19 has caused, how can we commemorate individuals on such a large scale? Local initiatives such as the 'Wall of Crosses’ in Balally in Dublin and a special mass at Knock Shrine in November 2020 have highlighted the amount of people who have lost their lives to date. 

But unifying a collective of thousands of people risks rendering individuals as nameless, a practice that already occurs when the death rate figures are released daily. If we want to invoke the tangible and comprehensive reality of Covid-19 to future generations, we must link the distressing experience of the pandemic to actual individual life-narratives.

Partaking in commemorations may help us to make sense of the losses we have agonised over

A national database of the life stories of those who have died as a result of the virus may serve as an accessible memorial for those who want to engage with such a resource. It is important that commemorations of Covid-19 should be inclusive but not compulsory. A commemorative gesture by a government official, a local museum or a church may provide little solace to a grieving family. We must be understanding of those who may wish to commemorate Covid-19 privately, if at all.

While it may be difficult for many of us to envisage a time when we are at ease to commemorate such a devastating phase of our lives, partaking in such commemorations may help us to make sense of the losses we have agonised over. Those losses vary considerably. For some it may be a job or the loss of a social life; for others, it may be the sudden loss of somebody they have known their entire lives. Commemorating Covid-19, whenever and wherever that might take place, is a complex task given that it will be difficult to commemorate something that we might all want to forget.


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