An exhibition of postcards allows Irish women to anonymously post a confession, writes Helen O’Callaghan
Her secret was up on the wall for all to see.
Hidden in plain view, but nobody knew it was hers. Aoife Clements’s personal confession is just one of several shared anonymously by Irish women living in London.
They feature in an exhibition running at the London Irish Centre until the end of February.
“My eyes gravitated to it a lot,” confides Aoife from Co Down, a student of law and anthropology in London, who was among a “good turn-out of mostly women” at the Cailíní Secret exhibition launch on St Brigid’s Day.
“It was quite cool to think ‘oh, there’s my secret, but nobody knows’. It was nice to see it there with everyone else’s.”
Aoife did a lot of the leg work that saw this exhibition come to fruition.
The project aims to change how people think and behave around mental health, after the NHS Camden Clinical Commissioning Group found relatively few Irish women access mental health services in Camden.
Kumar Grant, who managed the project for Camden’s Mental Health Wellbeing Hub, says many cailíní suffer in silence and don’t seek help for common mental health problems.
“Without support, women become more unwell, often accessing support only when they reach crisis,” says Grant.
Delivered by Irish women for Irish women, the project was inspired by Frank Warren’s 2005 initiative ‘PostSecret’, in which he received thousands of secrets, sent on the back of a postcard anonymously from people all over the US.
“I thought it was really cool,” says assistant project manager Aoife, who, with a small band of volunteers, went to Irish-attended venues in London and conversed with Irish women.
“We were trying to figure out why women weren’t using the available mental health services. We gathered they weren’t comfortable talking about stuff, especially to people they knew, so we went with the idea of telling the secrets anonymously.
"They’d get release from telling, but still people wouldn’t know.”
The Cailíní volunteers delivered 2,000 blank postcards to Irish women across London, asking them to send their secrets.
“We went out and about with the postcards to Irish hotspots: The London Irish Centre, West Hampstead Women’s Centre, to churches, including going to Mass, to Irish pubs. We also left them in toilet cubicles.”
In addition, the Cailíní team set up booths — small tables with creative artwork and ‘ballot boxes’ — at Irish-attended events, where women could privately write their secret on the postcard and put it in the box.
“Obviously, we didn’t know whose secret was whose, but we were seeing these young girls who seemed happy and carefree.
"You’d never think they had secrets like these, some quite intense,” says Clements.
The postcards were also available online — on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram — but a proportion of secrets arrived by post.
“We had our first relatively soon. Then it was a bit of a trickle, they were coming in one or two at a time,” says Grant.
Aoife has suffered from anxiety and got help from her doctor around handling worrying thoughts. She knew from the outset she would post her secret, too.
“I always knew I would. It was a case of when.”
Keen to preserve her anonymity, she “waited until we’d received quite a few”.
For Aoife, it’s a tentative telling of something until now kept closely guarded.
“I had a sense of relief.
"Seeing it up there and creating my postcard has helped me think about my secret and become less worried about it. In a way I feel more comfortable with it.”
One hopes the same relief will be felt by women who shared secrets often poignant and heartbreaking:
AT the receiving end of such intimate confidences, Grant says: “We felt very humbled; we were being entrusted with such personal revelations.”
He recalls being particularly touched by one from a woman who “found out she had a half-sister, travelled all the way to the US to meet her and then wasn’t let in [to her sibling’s home]”.
Grant hopes the Cailíní project will be cathartic for women who told their secrets. “We hope there’ll be a lightening of the burden. We want women to know it’s an act of great courage to seek support if they’re feeling distressed.”
Camden GP Dr Jonathan Levy sees Irish women’s strong sense of endurance as a potential weakness.
“One of their strengths is to get on with things without making a fuss. This can be a weakness, because it prevents them seeking help.”
Those behind the project want the collective aspect of exhibition and book — which features 76 postcards — to strongly convey: “You’re not alone, here’s a whole book of people just like you.”
“Secrets can mentally and emotionally drain people and put a strain on their friends and family,” says Levy. “By relieving the holder of the secret, it can lift people and help them move on.”
Cailíní Secret is at the London Irish Centre until the end of February. Visit cailinisecret.com.
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