The Irish Names Quilt: Seeing an old exhibition in a new light

When the HIV/AIDS pandemic took hold in the 1980s, stigma and secrecy surrounded the virus. Families and friends had to find a quieter way to mourn and remember their loved ones. In Ireland – and many other countries – quilting was the answer.

Remembering Joe Carthy

In the late 1980s, Joe Carthy was in his 20s. The gay man from Dublin’s North Inner City enjoyed dressing up and wore a sparkling diamante stud in his ear. He was great with kids and regularly babysat for one of his closest friends: Mary Shannon.

After testing positive for HIV, he quickly left for England. But, when he fell really ill, he returned home to Dublin. After two years of living with the virus, he informed his parents. And just three months later, in January 1990, he died of an AIDS-related illness at the age of just 29.

Mary Shannon was 41 when Joe Carthy died. Shortly afterward, she decided to mark her friend’s memory.

When Carthy was sick, a friend returned home from San Francisco to see him. He brought a book about the American AIDS Memorial Quilt with him. The project, which started in 1987, commemorated the people who lost their lives as a result of the virus.

By 1989, 20 other countries had their own renditions of the quilt. And, in 1990, Ireland followed suit thanks to Mary Shannon.

Mary Shannon (left) and the Irish quilt patch in Joe Carthy’s memory (right)

The making of the Irish Names Quilt

Along with family and friends, Mary Shannon created the Irish quilt’s first patch in Carthy’s memory.

The panel, which is currently on display at the CHQ Building in Dublin, features letters, photos and his full name. Shannon contributed a fanciful fan, while her son shared a teddy bear. There’s also a martini glass, a rainbow and a £20 note. (Joe’s Friday night ritual consisted of asking for the lend of a few quid!)

The panel conveys Carthy’s colourful character, as well as the fond memories of his family and friends. Each letter of his name was created by a different loved one and, unlike many of the other panels, it features his full name.

Carthy’s parents spoke openly about his death and even appeared on The Late Late Show with the quilt. That’s why Gay Byrne’s signature graces his panel.

When the word went out about Shannon’s work, people began to make their own patches. With the help of the Dublin AIDS Alliance, workshops were held every Tuesday at its base on Parnell Square.

These get-togethers often continued late into the night. Here, families could craft their contributions and grieve openly. Everyone had been affected by HIV, so they could talk about their experiences without fear of judgment.

The women would sit around chatting and sewing patches. Students from NCAD helped too. The children would go door-to-door collecting donations of material. And family members would come in with their tributes. Trinkets, clothes, photos, poems and other personal mementos.

Like Mary, many continued to attend the Tuesday night workshops after their patches were finished. The group continued to quilt up until the late 90s when new medication allowed people with the virus to live much longer.

Each piece tells a story

Every quilt is 12’x12’ and features eight unique panels. By the end of 1990, there were two quilts. Today, there are 20.

Some panels make striking statements, such as “Shatter the silence” or “We must never forget”. But most tell personal stories.

Brian is remembered with symbols of model trains and weightlifting – two of his favourite passions in life. There’s also an Aer Lingus plane representing the fact that he lived in England, the Red-eye that he worked on and a depiction of the tent that he would pitch in his aunt’s front garden when he returned home to Ireland for a visit.

Michael designed his own panel and friends crafted it for him after his death. It features the forest and the mountains where he used to walk, as well as dolphins which represent freedom.

Nicky’s features his beloved goldfish, as well as his well-worn Aran jumper. While Grace’s has her bum bag sewn in. It still holds her lighter along with a pack of Carrolls cigarettes. She never left the house without either of them.

Judith Finlay, the quilt’s current custodian, loves all the panels. But she has a soft spot for the patch remembering Thom McGinty – aka ‘The Diceman’.

“He was a street performer in Dublin in the 80s and 90s and used to do flamboyant performances in the streets,” she says.

When he tested positive for HIV, McGinty was open about his status. For Finlay, he is the first person she can recall being publicly gay and HIV positive. “I remember him being brave at the time,” she says.

The diversity seen on the quilt is striking. As well as members of the LGBTQ+ community, its panels remember the babies who passed away, as well as the unnamed people who died in Limerick and Galway.

There’s also patches representing people from Merchant’s Quay, the HIV unit at Cherry Orchard Hospital and the haemophiliacs infected through blood transfusions.

One of the quilts even features Enrique from Mexico. After his death in 1989, his partner Rory Campbell patched together his panel. It truly has a bit of everything, including a photo, a poem, a Mel Gibson headshot and symbols of both Ireland and Mexico. The couple met in London and, when Enrique fell ill, Campbell returned to Mexico with him.

Four years later, Rory Campbell himself died of AIDS-related causes at his home in London. His family in Dublin crafted a colourful panel for him, which is sewn into place next to Enrique’s.

At times, Mary Shannon was even asked to create panels without being provided any personal information. Many of them remain anonymous, which tells a story in itself.

The exhibition: Then and now

The Irish Names Quilt first toured in January 1991 alongside others from the UK and the US. The exhibition hit Dublin, Cork, Galway, Derry, Limerick and Belfast.

Each year, it would also feature in a memorial ceremony. Mary Shannon would use it as an educational tool too. She brought it with her to school talks where she dicussed HIV and safe sex. (“It’s amazing that she did this when nobody else was talking about it at the time,” comments Finlay.)

But as demand for these lessons fell and the creation of new patches stalled, the quilts went into storage. However, Shannon carefully looked after each one up until her death last year. She knew every patch, every story and had helped to make many of them.

“Mary was so precious about them and took care of them as if they were her children,” says Finlay, who has taken over supervision of the quilt.

Today, they are no longer hidden away in boxes. Last year, to celebrate the quilt’s 30th anniversary, it was displayed in Film Base as part of Dublin Pride.

Most of the quilts are on display at the CHQ Building in Dublin’s Docklands as part of Winter Pride Dublin. At some point, Finlay would like to reenact the quilt’s original tour of Ireland and there are plans for a virtual exhibition too.

“It’s going off in different strands,” she says. “We will keep them on display as long as we can… but the main thing is to preserve them.”

Finlay is keeping a close eye on the condition of the quilt. If there are any signs of deterioration, it can be added to an official museum collection where it will be stored and displayed following stringent guidelines. But, for now, she wants to keep it in the community.

“It’s poignant to look at during Covid,” she says. “Levels of empathy are much higher now that we’ve gone through this.”

She hopes the quilt, which comforted and commemorated people that society wouldn’t, will now be able to touch the broader public.

This story was originally published in June 2021.