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Aisling Centre


Sister Edel Bannon reflects on 30 Years of Aisling Centre 

‘Beyond my wildest imaginings”

Celebrating the 30th anniversary of the beginnings of the Aisling Centre feels like a very fitting way to enter this new decade.

The word Aisling means dream. The Centre was the dream of one woman, Mary Daly. From her work in the wider Enniskillen community, she became aware of people’s need for a listening ear. She also saw the need for a neutral space, a safe place, where people would be free to talk. It was she who walked the streets looking for a suitable place to buy before settling on 26 Darling Street which was then a regular 3-story dwelling house. Minimal renovations were carried out.

Helena Hunt and I came on board when all the heavy lifting was done. We moved in as a group of 3 in Sept 1990, and began to live, as it were, above the shop. Just to give a picture of the physical outlay of the building. Our three bedrooms were on the third floor. The second floor was a kitchen, sitting room, office and counselling room. On the ground floor were the reception room, counselling room, and a much smaller coffee shop which was supplied from the kitchen we used ourselves upstairs. At the back of the coffee shop was a group room with a hatch linking both rooms so it was really an extension of the coffee shop. This was a very popular room, people spent hours in there chatting, supporting one another and because it was before the smoking ban, all done through a haze of smoke.

We had a wonderfully warm welcome extended to us by all our neighbours on Darling Street. They called in, wished us well, and many gave donations towards the work that was about to begin. This was a great act of faith on their part because we were vague enough ourselves about what exactly that work would be. There was no strategic plan, no financial plan, just a strong desire to help whatever the need that walked in the door.

We had a few core beliefs. We wanted the Centre to be a welcoming place for everyone, no matter what tradition or background. The decor was warm, the atmosphere homely, not clinical. Counselling was a relatively new concept in Fermanagh in 1990, mental health was a difficult subject and carried a lot of stigma.  When I joined the Aisling Centre, I had just returned from two years study in California. At that time in California, you would not be talking to anyone in general conversation for five minutes before they would say: “when I was talking to my therapist yesterday I said….. he said” and the whole story would pour out. We were a long way from that type of conversation in Boho, Enniskillen or anywhere in Fermanagh at that time.

So we were living there, the decor was finished, still we were reluctant to take the next step: to open the doors. A business woman who had helped us buy equipment for the coffee shop gave this advice which I have never forgotten, “You will never be completely ready, there will always be something else to be done, so just pick a date and open.” So with great trepidation we opened the doors on November 11th 1990 and waited to see would anyone come.

They came. Trade was brisk in the coffee shop that first day. I think the takings were £68. Gradually over the coming weeks the trickle of people for counselling began and they have been coming ever since. Need walked in the door and also people who were able to answer that need, we worked with colleagues in the then Sperrin Lakeland Trust, mental health and addiction teams, Nexus, Relate and others, all rowed in. The person’s need was the most important thing and they were signposted to the most appropriate agency in the building, a model of working which still exists to this day.

Another very key factor in the early development of Aisling Centre was the establishment of a management committee. These men and women drawn from across the community and with a variety of skill sets were vital in giving strong leadership to the Centre in those early precarious days.

So you can appreciate the great joy I feel 30 years later. The Aisling Door remains open. The physical layout of the building has changed beyond recognition. But the ethos of the Centre remains the same, a warm welcoming atmosphere; an open door for those who need a listening ear and professional support. The management committee continue to provide vision, oversight and wisdom. The present brilliant manager and team continue to give a professional service second to none and provide essential services for hundreds who visit the Centre every year.

All of this would have been beyond my wildest imaginings in 1990.