Commemorative events and the COVID-19 pandemic
Being able to use public space is something we routinely take for granted. However, in recent months governments have actively sought to control and restrict access to, and use of, public space. People have been required to limit their social interactions and to practice ‘social distancing’, to restrict their movements away from home, and to use public space in ways that are much more prescribed / restricted than usual. In consequence, interactions with public space have been reduced to a minimum, with people venturing out mainly for exercise or to carry out essential tasks. One consequence of this is that the value of public space has suddenly become much more apparent to us, precisely because we are not able to use it as we normally and unthinkingly do.
Perhaps most obviously, we are appreciating that an important value of public space is that it offers us opportunities to ‘make social ties and create civic norms that bind not only friends and families but also loosely connected strangers’ (Barker, Crawford, Booth and Churchill, 2019, p.495). Humans have a strong need to gather together in different contexts and for different reasons. Whether it’s for a routine evening stroll or visit to the playground, or indeed a more occasional trip into the city to attend a national day celebration or participate in a protest march, the public spaces of our towns and cities allow people to come together, share social practices, convey solidarity and express collective identities. All of these social gatherings have been abruptly curtailed in recent months, albeit the more recent protests around the UK have meant that this form of gathering has continued, though against government guidance. Governments have even been prompted to restrict people’s ability to come together in times of personal grief, and on occasions when nationally significant moments of grief, loss and monumental upheaval are usually remembered. One of the most distressing aspects of the current pandemic has been the strict curtailment of the rituals associated with bereavement and funeral services, as well as a downscaling, postponement and cancellation of many commemorative events.
Societies everywhere organise commemorative events in the public domain to remember significant happenings in the past and to reflect on their contemporary relevance. As it happens, Ireland is currently marking a ‘Decade of Centenaries’ with a programme of events marking important milestones in the formation of the Irish state. For Frost and Laing (2013: 1), commemorative events are those that ‘are staged so that society may remember and reflect upon past occurrences and their relationship to today’. In remembering, we honour people who have gone before us and acknowledge actions and activities that have helped shape contemporary society. When the memories involve difficult past experiences like warfare, colonisation, suffering and death, then the process of remembering can be difficult, and the act of remembering can play a cathartic role in helping societies to reconcile past issues. The process of remembering is often heavily contested, involving sometimes controversial decisions about who and what gets remembered, and by extension who and what is overlooked or forgotten.
Dublin City Council’s commemorative exhibition ‘Goodbye Dublin: The War of Independence in the City’, held in Pearse St public library, Autumn 2019.
While complex, the process of recalling memories is fundamentally important in how we construct identities for ourselves both individually and collectively. Commemorative events have a strong role to play in helping people remember occasions that are of collective significance, and represent an example of what Foucault (1968) called heterotopia or ‘other spaces’, where people can set aside routine normality and come together in solidarity to recall, remake and pass on memories to future generations. Data gathered in Autumn 2019 by the Dublin based FESTSPACE researchers at Dublin City Library’s ‘Goodbye Dublin: The War of Independence in the City’ commemorative exhibition illustrate this in a number of interesting ways. Visitors to the exhibition frequently noted how looking to the past encourages them to reflect on contemporary life. Often, they were prompted to express gratitude that they had not experienced armed conflict in their own life times. The exhibition refreshed their knowledge of history and reminded them why certain key buildings and streets are named as they are, i.e. to honour people who fought for Irish independence. Visitors appreciated the fact that the exhibition, with its video, photographs / visual material, artefacts, soundtrack and information panels, served to distil a lot of interesting and reliable information in a very accessible way. Many visitors subscribed to the view that ‘these types of exhibitions really help you frame where you are in the world and how we can maybe avoid something like this happening in future’. Images and stories relating to individuals caught up in the War of Independence encouraged visitors to reflect on the complexities of the human stories being told. In general, the exhibition had the effect of developing visitors’ understanding of the city. For some non-Dubliner residents, it brought them ‘closer to the city’. Some people had personal connections to the War, and the exhibition reinforced their understanding that the evolution of their family identity was intimately bound up with that of the city. Sometimes this encouraged a sense of pride. At other times it stirred up a range of mixed emotions. Unanimously, however, the experience of being transported back to the past through engaging with the exhibition was deemed to be important and meaningful.
These brief insights gleaned from the data gathered at the War of Independence exhibition attest to the importance of commemorative events. In recent months, countries around the world have had little option but to postpone, cancel or make alternative arrangements for numerous important commemorative events staged by governments, communities and individuals. In Australia and New Zealand, for example, Anzac Day (April 25th) commemorations remembering Australians and New Zealanders who died in international combat could not be marked by the usual dawn services and marches. In Rwanda, the annual April 7th night vigils and ‘walk to remember’ commemorations staged in memory of the 1994 genocide could not take place as usual. Internationally, VE Day Commemorative events on May 8th had to be re-imagined in unconventional and creative ways, often to very poignant effect, as noted in a recent FESTSPACE blog post. Meanwhile Italy’s national day on June 2nd saw the cancellation of the military parade and the open afternoon at the President’s gardens in Palazzo Quirinale. Instead, the President symbolically marked the day by visiting Codogno, the Northern Italian town where the country’s first corona virus patient was diagnosed. In so doing, he very poignantly honoured the huge loss of life the nation has experienced because of COVID-19, incorporating it into the country’s national day of self-reflection.
In Ireland, the annual commemoration of the 1916 Easter Rising was radically downscaled. In Dublin the crowds that usually assemble on O’Connell Street to watch the solemn state ceremony were absent. In their stead, a lone soldier performed the symbolic reading of the Proclamation of Independence to a single camera man documenting the proceedings for posterity. As is often the case with commemorative events and indeed other state events of national import like royal weddings and state funerals, the ceremony was broadcast by the state broadcaster at 12 noon that day on a number of platforms. However, this year, in the absence of any collective physical gathering, the importance of the public broadcast was greatly enhanced, being the only means through which the public could experience the ceremony.
Hundreds of commemorative events had been planned throughout Ireland this year as part of the Decade of Centenaries programme. While local authorities were significantly involved in a supporting role, a great many of the events planned were bottom-up initiatives, driven by people motivated to acknowledge and honour the significant role that their place and/or their forebears had played in 1920. The curtailment and cancellation of many of these events has meant a significant loss not only to collective remembering and reflection, but also to community enhancement, knowledge sharing and capacity building. Interviews recently undertaken with local authority Heritage Officers revealed the investment of creativity, time and collective energy that local people collectively make in planning these events. They also revealed the depth of disappointment and upset felt when plans have had to be curtailed or cancelled. In testimony to the spirit and determination of the community groups involved, many events have been creatively re-worked and delivered e.g. by live stream, as podcasts, recorded lectures, or in publications. However, these are only partial substitutes. As the Heritage Officers explained, the very essence of commemorative events depends on people physically coming together, often in the specific place that resonates with historical significance. The experience of local people publicly standing together, in situ, remembering and honouring the significance of their locality, is very powerful and cannot be replaced virtually. While the place being honoured might be unremarkable in the normal course of life, in the commemorative context it assumes exceptional significance, one which is a source of collective pride for local people.
While the valiant efforts made by the broader event sector to speedily and creatively re-invent itself in virtual space in response to the disruptive effects of COVID-19 have been lauded, it is important to also recognise that many events have not been able to materialise in the forms intended. Many have not been able to achieve their objectives and this represents a loss that is difficult to calculate. For the myriad groups involved in planning commemorative events around the world this is most certainly the case. The curtailment of social gatherings in public space has disrupted social memory-making, which as Ingold (2017) writes, is at the heart of learning for communities. It has furthered disrupted the processes of community building, collective identity formation and place attachment ongoing in settlements everywhere.
Yet as the last few months have shown, in times of adversity a profound human response is to unite in solidarity and commemoration. Numerous commemorative events this year have incorporated ways of both remembering those lost to COVID-19 and of expressing gratitude and camaraderie with people working on the frontline. The Italian national day commemorations mentioned earlier is one example of such an event. Another is RTE’s ‘Ireland Remembers’ ceremony broadcast on Easter Monday to commemorate the 1916 Rising. This featured a wreath laying ceremony involving five people representing some of the services and organisations actively involved in supporting people during the COVID-19 pandemic. Less formally, everywhere, groups of people have come together and publicly signalled their desire to collectively honour frontline workers and remember those lost to the pandemic. In highly symbolic acts, people effectively made public space together by ceremoniously lighting up buildings, illuminating windows with candles, coming out onto the streets to applaud frontline workers, and decorating their windows with messages. This fundamental human desire to create public space so as to openly demonstrate togetherness in support and remembrance of others, has been a heartening feature of this most difficult period. It augurs well for a return to commemorative and indeed to all kinds of events in the future. As researchers on this FESTSPACE project, we see much scope for further exploring the critical need that humans have to gather collectively and publicly to commemorate. Going forward, we will continue our efforts to understand how the availability and nature of public space shapes different kinds of collective efforts to remember and reflect on the past.