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Hidden Ireland

These handbags held the precious belongings of asylum patients

A new exhibition by artist Alan Counihan tells their story.


It wouldn’t leave my mind – I said ‘whatever happened to those belongings?’

PHOTOGRAPHS. ROSARY BEADS. Letters. Tickets. Silver spoons.

Did the people who tucked these into their handbags before they entered the Richmond Asylum in Grangegorman know that they would never see their precious items again?

That’s one of the questions brought up in Personal Effects: a History of Possession, an exhibition of personal items discovered in the attic of a disused hospital building that will be on display at axis: Ballymun 5th-15th August.


The exhibition showcases the personal effects of past patients from The Richmond Asylum – later known as St Brendan’s Hospital – in Grangegorman.

It’s put together by artist Alan Counihan, who alongside members of the Grangegorman Community Museum and under the guidance of the National Archives, sorted through the paper records that were retrieved.

Behind the Walls 

asylum woman

A great cultural richness is to be found within this material that might tell us much about ourselves and about our society.

Alan Counihan first heard of the personal items when he saw the final Mary Raftery documentary, Behind the Walls.

He was fascinated by the idea of the hospital archives, which go back almost 200 years and contain a “huge pile of mostly women’s handbags and possessions”.

These belongings had been found scattered around the room, but as Counihan discovered, they had initially been carefully kept in boxes.

“Over the years, people broke into boxes, went through them and rifled them. And that’s how they came to be out on the floor,” said Counihan.

As an artist, he felt that the bags would be an interesting subejct from an artistic but also a social point of view. He contacted the National Archives who then put him in contact with the retired chaplain and head of nursing at Richmond, who had kept the items for safekeeping.

Counihan received permission from the HSE to sort through the items, and soon a vision of how they could become a work of art came to him.

I saw the image really early on of the handbags in a dark room turned upside down, lit from inside with contents spilling out. And I just said ‘I have to make this’.

A looped soundtrack plays the recorded voices of actors reading from correspondence found within the containers, from case notes and from hospital management records.

Life in a bag

Personal Effects ©Counihan 2014 copy

The items belonged to patients who died within the hospital for the most part, and so the work brings up questions of abandonment, confinement, and the treatment of people with mental health issues.

The items are not presented in a way that betrays the patients’ identities. “The right to privacy doesn’t die with the person,” asserted Counihan. “That privacy had to be protected.”

He acknowledges there was a sense of voyeurism to some of his work, in discovering people’s lives; like a letter from a man to his girlfriend who was in a mother-and-baby home.

“Something happens in a life that for however long a period or short a period, they lose their moorings,” he said of the patients. “And they end up in institutional care.”

He also noted that asylums sustained towns like Ballinasloe and Clonmel, being a source of revenue. This would have led to a reticence to close them down.

Counihan found the HSE to have been “very trusting” with him over the project, although it was difficult to get funding for – he was turned down by the Arts Council twice.

However, thanks to a Fundit campaign, he was able to get it over the line.

Emotional exhibition

Grangegorman 2014

In the late 1950s, Ireland had the highest per capita rate of institutionalised or hospitalised people with mental health issues in the world.

Counihan describes the exhibition as “poignant and sad”, and says it has gotten an interesting response from people.

“Everybody knew what was going on inside those mental hospitals,” he said.

You can’t blame the Church. The State government and local families knew what was going on. There were many people who did need care. There were many people because it was so easy to get rid of the “inconvenient”.

“In these systems of institutional management, the human being suffers,” said Counihan. “They have to suffer as the system is more concerned with its own running than the people it cares for.”

“In some of them there were life histories,” said Counihan.

“Photos of children, perhaps of themselves on a beach, boys playing on haystacks. There were seashells, lipsticks, mirrors, vanity compacts, books of Virgil.”

small girls2

Interestingly, every single handbag had at least one set of rosary beads, and every single handbag had a set of keys. The keys, I presume, would have been to the hall door. You hear stories of people going back and locks being changed. Many of those doors were never opened again.

Part of the institutional process is “depersonalising” the person, as Counihan put it; belongings like handbags were taken away.

There are still hundreds more handbags in Grangegorman that need to be sorted.

“I really think somebody has to take responsibility for that,” said Counihan, suggesting that sociology students in the new DIT Grangegorman campus could become involved.

He plans to bring the exhibition around Ireland, and is currently making a radio documentary about them.

He wants to help spark discussion and debate. “If it doesn’t have that effect, it’s been wasted,” he said.

“It’s like they say - if we don’t learn lessons of past we’re condemned to repeat them.”

Read: ‘Continued effort needed’ to tackle stigma towards mental health issues>

Read: Reports that mental health service plans are 30 years old are “not new”>

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