Monument to a Plague

Several important milestones around the health of men who have sex with men have been observed in Ireland this year. HIV Ireland marked its 30th anniversary; so too did the GUIDE Clinic at Saint James’ Hospital; the Gay Men’s Health Service celebrated 25 years in existence;  KnowNow, the rapid HIV testing service relaunched after a brief but worrying hiatus; and pharmaceutical giant Gilead lost its court action against the manufacture of generic versions of PrEP, a significant step towards more equitable access to the drug in Ireland.

In 2018, 25 years will have passed since the decriminalisation of homosexual acts between men. Overall, this trajectory is startling. However, so too is the record number of new HIV diagnoses witnessed this year.

It is in the face of this HIV epidemic that masc reflects on the idea of a National AIDS Memorial for Ireland. A monument that ought to be seen as necessary in both grieving for and celebrating all those lives claimed by the disease, and timely in the face of government inaction and an enduring social stigma within and beyond the community – ghostly parallels with a grim past that linger.

Activist Tonie Walsh, pictured above, has led the call for a National AIDS Memorial. Living through, and surviving, Ireland’s plague years from 1984 to 1995, Tonie was entrusted with deeply personal narratives to be brought with him into present day. Biographies, as he sees them, of “our war-torn dead, fractured memories of our walking wounded”, sacred accounts of “the heroism, the steadfastness in the face of brutality and oppression, the sacrifice and enormous emotional costs to those who survived such appalling loss and destruction. Hidden histories that yearn to be heard”.

This powerful call was publicly supported at the HIV Ireland National Conference on HIV and Stigma in September. Niall Mulligan, Executive Director of HIV Ireland, echoed Tonie’s sentiment: “A national AIDS memorial would recognise the lives lost, the grief and sorrow of those left behind, as well as acting as a reminder that there is still work to do to eliminate new HIV infections in Ireland, and combatting HIV-related stigma and discrimination”. International examples of National AIDS Memorials can be found in Amsterdam, Cape Town, London and New York.


By default, a National AIDS Memorial transcends the present. At once, it is an invocation of the horror and heroism of the past and a suggestion of optimism and possibility in the future.

For Tonie, a National AIDS Memorial carries a facilitatory function, stoking “intergenerational dialogue around stories of survival, of hope and wisdom, stories to embolden new generations”. Speaking with masc, Niall Mulligan agrees: “For current and future generations, a National AIDS Memorial has to act as a powerful message of the ability of people to overcome and survive, and of the need to ensure events such as AIDS are not conveniently airbrushed out of the history of Ireland. It makes a national statement that Irish people, and the Irish government, will not forget this part of our very recent history”.

Speaking of Irish government, the absence of political will around the current crisis is blinding, at odds with an Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s declaration at Dublin Pride that, “the time is absolutely now to act up to the sexual health challenges that we face”. Meanwhile, the nickname Simon ‘Silent’ Harris – as dubbed by ACT UP Dublin, below – has stuck around for a reason.

For David France, author of How To Survive A Plague, a National AIDS Memorial must serve as more than a reminder of the deceased: “It is impossible to count the exact number of the dead, and there is no way to know their names. But we can name the people who allowed this to happen, who didn’t act at a time when the plague might have been contained, politicians and religious leaders who showed not a whisper of leadership at the dawn of a global health crisis. Any memorial to AIDS must hold them to account”.

A National AIDS Memorial can unite in hope, love and anger not just generations within a community. According to Leo Schenk, founding-editor of Hello Gorgeous [a Dutch magazine about positive living with HIV], a National AIDS Memorial, like that in Amsterdam, below, has, “in addition to its national character, an international character, [a means of showing] solidarity with people [affected by HIV and AIDS] from other countries and parts of the world”. As David France rightly says, while AIDS “began as a gay disease in the West […] even in its earliest days [it] took women and heterosexual men, and their children”.

Although Niall Mulligan acknowledges that it can sometimes be difficult to disentangle HIV and AIDS from men who have sex with men in public consciousness, a National AIDS Memorial must be all-encompassing, “reflecting in an obvious and meaningful way all people who contracted HIV and all those who died from AIDS-related illness”. In this country, for example, haemophiliacs who became HIV positive from contaminated blood products during the 1980s cannot be written out.

Philip Baldwin, pictured below, meanwhile, a London-based activist who was confirmed at Southwark Cathedral which has its own AIDS Memorial, considers women “the silent face of HIV, accounting for roughly a third of HIV positive people in the UK and Ireland”. Although he acknowledges that “we are the community most aware of HIV and AIDS, [it] impacts a wide range of people. [A memorial] is equally important for other groups affected [at home] as well as internationally”.

The demography of HIV and AIDS has changed utterly over time and does not discriminate on the grounds of gender, sexuality, class, ethnicity or geography or any other similarly arbitrary marker. However, certain groups are still disproportionately exposed to HIV – injecting drug users, transgender women, people of colour, and those in the criminal justice system. These groups must be afforded targeted prevention and intervention as part of a larger programme of inclusive health messaging.

The meaning that a National AIDS Memorial would bear and the comfort it would offer seems infinite. This at a time, as Philip Baldwin, says, “when many people now living with HIV have never known anyone who has died of AIDS”. In an era of new and increasingly accessible and effective messaging, treatment and prevention, it would commemorate those so cruelly taken before such advances emerged whilst empowering people in their status, provoking further conversations around shame and stigma in an Undetectable=Untransmittable age.

A totem symbolising the strength of community, as well as something to physically rally around, it would unify at a time frequently defined by fracture. It would remind those in power of their predecessors’ “criminal acts of neglect”, as put by David France, which prolonged such loss.

Speaking recently to the Sunday Independent, activist Robbie Lawlor, above, with typical eloquence said, “everyone who is diagnosed with HIV automatically becomes part of this AIDS legacy; what happened in the past, what could have been, what is currently happening, the future of HIV, society’s perception of us and the virus as a whole”.

Arguably, a National AIDS Memorial for Ireland would embody all of these concerns, a medium through which they can find continued expression and exploration at the level of individual, community, society and the wider world.

This article first appeared on masc. on 29 November 2017