With the government asking members of the public how they would like to see the pandemic commemorated, Michael Bergin asks where UCD’s commemorative efforts should be directed.
For many of us, returning to UCD this semester has brought up a host of memories of those fateful weeks preceding the 13th of March 2020. The days before masks, social distancing, and constant hand sanitising have taken on a certain unreal character. Nowadays, it is hard to believe the carefree attitudes we were once able to afford, and yet at the same time, there aren’t many who wouldn’t gladly return to them.
And yet, just as UCD reminds us of the happier times before everything changed, it is also a symbol of Ireland’s fight against the pandemic. Studies from UCD received emergency government funding in order to fight the spread of Covid-19, extensive laboratory research on the disease was carried out, a testing centre was set up on campus, and later, a vaccination centre too. The pandemic disrupted society in a way not felt since the second world war, except this time, it was not soldiers on the frontline, but scientists.
It's fair to say that UCD contributed an enormous amount towards Ireland’s fight against Covid-19. All those scientists, students and frontline workers who were a part of UCD’s efforts represent the very best of the University. And so, now that the pandemic no longer seems to be the omnipresent threat it once was, and as a general return to campus brings back memories of happier days, questions about commemoration are beginning to be asked.
The pandemic disrupted society in a way not felt since the second world war, except this time, it was not soldiers on the frontline, but scientists.
How should UCD commemorate the pandemic? Should the pandemic be commemorated at all in the short run? Do we honour those whose studious devotion helped Ireland out of lockdown? What about those who lost their lives over the course of the pandemic? How are they to be remembered? At present, there seems to be more questions than answers.
Then there is the issue of how the commemoration should be undertaken. What form of memory is most appropriate to an event that simultaneously showed academics at their finest, and families at their most distraught? Bereavement is a profound emotion, and placing a sombre memorial at the heart of a vibrant college campus may not guarantee the reflection and respect that such an emotion deserves.
Perhaps, as is commonplace after any great event, a monument of some sort should be erected, to remember the events of the past year. Then, one must think about UCD’s present record with statuary. Considering the science building’s egg monument, the student centre’s abstract squiggle monument, and most strikingly, Sutherland’s tribute to full frontal public nudity, a statue of some sort may not be in the finest taste.
A meditative afternoon with Andrew Deeks may require quite extensive, and persuasive, advertising.
Moving on from a monument, and the range of forms a commemoration can take is virtually limitless. A ceremony of some kind may be amongst the most tasteful options, and yet again, this is not a guarantee of success. Any such ceremony, taking place as it does in an increasingly secular Ireland, would be a contentious affair for religious and civic leaders, both of whom would try to claim ownership over such an event. The likely compromise of a college leader leading a commemorative ceremony may fail equally miserably. A meditative afternoon with Andrew Deeks may require quite extensive, and persuasive, advertising.
The issue of timing would also be raised. For an event such as the pandemic, which has no obvious start date, and certainly no obvious end date, finding a date to have a remembrance ceremony presents an immediate challenge. The beginning of the college year probably would have provided the best opportunity for such an event, and as this time has already passed, it seems unlikely that there will be an appetite for a ceremony one year from now.
In any event, it is likely that a ceremony of remembrance would not have drawn excessive attendance from students, and so would probably not be best suited for a college campus.
Looking at other methods of commemoration then, one is invariably drawn to the arts, a community which in UCD possesses an abundance of talent. All other world-shaping events in history have been marked by the production of some of humanity’s greatest masterpieces, and there is no reason why the present generation could not live up to the task of following in that vein.
A painting may be commissioned by the University, which could surmise the feelings of a generation, in a way that no ceremony or statue could. Yes, there is the unknown element when it comes to commissioning a painting, which could potentially cost the University, if the end product is not suitable. Yet, this is an exceptionally unlikely scenario, and as such, can be discounted.
Each individual can tell a different story when it comes to the pandemic, and each one is equally valid
The selection of the artist is the main point of concern when it comes to such an undertaking, yet in this case, I believe a voice representative of the heroism of the pandemic should be found. As such, artists who may have served on the frontlines in hospitals and care homes could be sought out, in order to truly capture the experience we have all been through collectively.
Of course, commemoration is an inherently personal act, and this is why so many questions are dredged up to the surface when public commemoration is considered. Each individual can tell a different story when it comes to the pandemic, and each one is equally valid. Searching for a medium, and a method, of representing the heroism, grief and trauma of an entire university is an unenviable task, and this is why we see surveys, like the government’s most recent one, asking each respondent how they personally feel a commemoration should be approached.
Perhaps, by discussing the form a future commemoration should take, and by listening to each other’s views and respecting each other’s experiences, we can give any commemoration the key ingredient it needs to achieve maximum potency; time.