Cholera to Covid: Fake news and deadly diseases

Cholera to Covid: Fake news and deadly diseases
An image from Day of the Straws.

What has Covid-19 got in common with the hysteria that accompanied the 1832 cholera epidemic that originated in Charleville? 

That's what visual artist, Marie Brett, in collaboration with writer, Katie Holly, set out to explore for an online film, sound and visual art piece. Entitled Day of the Straws, it will be shown online as part of the Cork Midsummer Festival and has been created in association with the Sirius Arts Centre.

West Cork-based Brett has enlisted about 50 participants for the project which is very much in keeping with her collaborative approach to art. She has been talking to community historians, people of faith, spiritualists and various other interested people.

Looking at an otherworldly event, Day of the Straws, reported from Charleville in June 1832, Brett has noted the similarities between the 19th century pestilence and its conspiracy theories with Covid-19. 

In his St Patrick's Day address to the nation on the Covid-19 crisis, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar warned against sharing misinformation on social media.

Back in 1832, fake news was also doing the rounds and led to panicked behaviour around the country. It started with the reported appearance of the Virgin Mary in Charleville Church. 

Our Lady is said to have announced that the cure for cholera could be attained by distributing ash from beneath her feet to four houses. 

The four householders were to proceed to four more homes to spread the message. Within four days, the messengers had reached the borders of Ulster. While ashes, turf and stones were used in the east, straw was used further west.

 There was a theory that cholera had been invented by the rich to wipe out the poor. Quack cures abounded with fortunes made by some dodgy doctors selling potions.

In our supposedly scientifically sophisticated age, Donald Trump's suggestion that disinfectant be injected into the body to cure Covid-19 stands out as one of the more bizarre 'cures'.

Brett, whose work responds to social change and social issues, has been asking people, by phone, how they are coping with Covid-19. 

"I've been talking about people's mortality in the broad sense. I've been asking if people believe in fate and destiny or whether Covid-19 is an accidental thing. Some have spoken of having a sense of strength and hope while others feel unnerved and frightened."

Describing the piece of work as philosophical and an artistic response to the pandemic, Brett has been focusing to some extent on the belief that Covid-19 might have been pre-ordained.

"I've been asking if there was a prophesy of it. The response has been a real mixture."

Holly, who is from Charleville, "has developed a sort of narrative that links all the disparate aspects. She is like a spirit guide that leads you through the centuries and the stories. It is in diary form and is also based on twitter feeds and related to my phone conversations. 

It's very much a re-imagining of what's happening in people's lives. But there's room for the unknown too. The Day of the Straws has that whole thing of the apparition and the magical part of the story. So it's fiction and fact together."

The website is like a piece of art in itself, says Brett. "Once you enter it, the narrator guides you through a series of different encounters. 

"It's a bit like a digital tour, travelling through a series of portals like doors or rooms. There is a blended soundscape. 

People are writing pieces of music for it and I've done a lot of recordings of people's stories and testimonies. So there's a whole mixture of ambient sound of recorded music and it's like you're overhearing conversations. There's a sense of working out what is real and what is myth."

Brett says there are "quite a lot" of parallels with 1832. 

"I'm trying not to give too much away but there are similarities between what happened then and what is happening now. 

"The work will hopefully give people a chance to recognise those parallels. Sometimes, when we're living through something and coping day-to-day, there isn't time to reflect."

Will Covid-19 change society? 

"I'm looking at that in the work to an extent. We're on the cusp of potential to change things. I've been having a lot of conversations with people about slowing down, looking at our mortality and finding different ways to work which will have an impact on the environment. " 

It is, says Brett, all about embracing change and seizing the moment.

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