In memory of Mary Shannon - Custodian of the Irish Names Quilt

We welcome the community to add their own messages and memories to a book of condolence in honour of a great woman.

A smiling older woman wearing glasses sits at a table, a vase of flowers beside her
Image: Brian Teeling

The GCN team are heartbroken to hear about the passing of the wonderful Mary Shannon.

Mary was the custodian of the Irish Names Quilt, which was created in honour and remembrance of those who died in Ireland from AIDS and HIV related illnesses.

Some of the team met Mary in November 2018 to interview her for the magazine and learn more about the quilt and its history. We went to a local community hall near her home where Mary, her husband Christy and their friends Trish and Patrick, took the sections of the quilt out of storage and laid them gently on the floor. They told us the stories behind each patch, recalling every person, and allowed us to take photos. It was an overwhelmingly emotional experience.

After the quilts were tenderly packed away, we were welcomed into Mary’s home for tea. We left her house not only amazed by the love and care with which Mary and Christy took care of the Irish Names Quilt, but also completely won over by Mary herself.

We have attached the original interview which was published in the magazine below with photos by Brian Teeling, but I would like to add a personal note.

During the course of speaking to Mary for the article, I visited her house a few times and we met again for a cup of tea and had great chats. I was always struck by how open, kind and welcoming Mary was, she asked me almost as many questions as I did her.

She told me about the history of the quilt, how all the women would sit sewing the patches, how the families and loved ones would come in and they would help them make their own tribute using bits of the person’s clothes, every one so personal. She told me how the kids in Dublin would knock around the houses asking if they had any spare material for the patches.

When GCN and HIV Ireland held an event for World AIDS Day – a conversation between Panti Bliss and Professor Mulcahy – money was raised so the quilts could be taken out of storage and hung up at the venue. Mary was so happy, she just wanted all those people to be remembered, every patch was a life and she knew every story.

When the event went on into the night, Mary had to head home. As I was giving her a hug goodnight, she told me she trusted me to take down the quilts and fold them away. It meant the world to me. The next morning, before packing them up, I walked around the quilts for ages reading each patch, pictures of people’s favourite singers stitched in, bits of baby blankets for the kids who had died, one even had a bumbag sewn onto it with the woman’s cigarettes and lighter still inside.

Packing them away, it felt like I was holding history. I will never forget it.

I’ll never forget Mary either, who did what she did out of love, not a second of judgement, always welcoming, always smiling, a real hugger, a genuinely beautiful soul.

Her poor family must be heartbroken, you couldn’t not be. Deepest condolences to Christy and all who loved her. There’s a lot of them.

Ireland has lost a great woman, and the community has lost a champion and a warrior. Rest well, lovely Mary, we won’t forget.

A patch from a quilt

Mary Shannon talks about the Irish Names Quilt.

“It was around the end of the 1980’s. Joe, my friend, tested positive for HIV. He educated me all about it. After he died, another chap was in America and he came home with a book about the American quilt, and we thought we would make one for Joe.

“A few of us got together, we put out the word about what we were doing and people started coming in to help, or to make panels for someone they had lost. We put out word that we wanted buttons and little nik-naks to sew on the panels. We used to get dresses and skirts as bits of material. Two of the lads were great characters, they used to put on the dresses. It brought laughter into the room, it wasn’t all doom and gloom. 

“Everybody who was in there had been affected in one way or another by HIV and AIDS, so everybody could talk to one another, there was nothing that couldn’t be said. It was a great help because people used to come in to us that couldn’t talk outside the office. A neighbour wouldn’t know what another neighbour died of.

A patch from a quilt

“People went to England because they couldn’t stay here, because of their status. It was awful on their families, people couldn’t grieve because they couldn’t talk about it. Working on the quilt, working on their panel, gave people an opportunity to grieve. 

“We have one panel that’s made of the map of Ireland with no borders and no boundaries because AIDS knows no borders and no boundaries. We have another one of a mother who had HIV, as well as her eldest daughter and her youngest son. Her panel, her husband came in and worked on it, we got the kids to do little drawings on the material. Another was made for all the babies who had died. It wasn’t just for gay people, there was no creed, no matter who wanted to make a panel – we helped them make it. 

“They had a service in America with quilts from all over the world. That’s something I will never forget as long as I live. Where the Washington Memorial was, they covered over 17 acres. There were 4000 volunteers and they could tell you exactly where your panel or quilt was.

“This group had come down to find a panel they had made for their friend. They had their friend’s dog and he got off the leash. Word went round quickly there was a dog loose because you can’t wash the quilts. When they found the dog, he was sitting on the quilt, on his master’s panel. They left him there.

“It was overwhelming at first because you would see all of these families with their son or daughter on their t-shirt. After the opening ceremony, the names were called out, hundreds of people calling the names. From all over the world, whatever countries had quilts, they were all there. They can’t do that again because the quilt is too big now, there’s nowhere big enough to put it. 

“It’s awful to see the quilt just stored in bags now. I would love everybody to get a chance to see it. There was such stigma because of ignorance. We need to get more information and education to the kids out there who are still in school.”

If you would like to add a message in celebration and remembrance of Mary Shannon or a message of condolence for her family and loved ones, you can do so here.

© 2020 GCN (Gay Community News). All rights reserved.

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