The new male bonding

Sat, Mar 3, 2012, 00:00

THE MOTTO OF the Irish Men’s Sheds Association is: “Men don’t talk face to face; they talk shoulder to shoulder.” The idea is that men are task-oriented and that they enjoy “doing stuff together”, as menssheds.ieputs it. It is true that, travelling around, visiting Men’s Sheds, you’ve never seen so much stuff being made.

The Men’s Sheds idea was introduced from Australia in 2009 by the head of the organisation in Ireland, John Evoy, the only son of a farmer from Co Wexford. In Australia the sheds – which is to say clubs rather than the structures themselves – were originally designed by Evoy’s mentor, Prof Barry Golding of the University of Ballarat, for elderly men living in rural areas, to provide them with company.

In an Ireland that is flatlining economically, the sheds have a more universal appeal. We have the footsoldiers of what we thought was a thriving economy, and the army has been demobilised. “There are roughly 40 sheds in Ireland, north and south,” says Evoy. “I get two or three inquiries about opening a shed every day.”

About half of the sheds, which are free to use, have their own building; the others might have a woodwork room provided, say, by the local VEC. The sheds range from Armagh to Killarney, and a lot of points between.

Only 20 per cent of the daily inquiries come from men, Evoy reckons. About 50 per cent come from community workers, and up to another third come from women: “Mothers, sisters, daughters,” says Evoy. Women who are worried about their men becoming isolated and demoralised as a result of unemployment, retirement, perhaps bereavement or just as a result of daily life.

Evoy spends a lot of time travelling the country, encouraging those who want to open a shed. “Most of the time, people already have everything they need to open a shed. It takes very little to empower them. The more I think about it, the less I do,” says Evoy.

“More sheds are popping up in small towns than in cities,” he says. “It’s mostly the small towns making the requests. Several people have said to me that they have noticed men walking round their town, long after they have lost their jobs or their business, wearing their working gear for the day.”

Each shed is unique, and the men within it decide what its focus will be. “There’s usually a central project,” says Evoy. “There can be up to 20 guys in a shed, with darts and tea. One man might be putting a band on a hurl for their kid. We always say that the most important tool in the shed is the kettle.”

In a country where a lot of men have time on their hands, and two-thirds of our unemployed people are male, the sheds are a meeting point now that the pub, Sunday Mass and the creamery have gone or, like golf and sports matches, become too expensive.

“A lot of what goes on in sheds is dealing with change, whether it’s retirement or loss of your job or the end of a relationship,” says Evoy.

The shed is a brilliant concept, according to Padraig O’Morain, counsellor and ‘Irish Times’ columnist. “It meets all our basic needs in a very healthy way. Everyone needs to feel a sense of achievement or power. A connection with other people, a sense of independence and a sense of enjoyment.” The fact that sheds are thriving in small towns does not surprise him. “There’s more of a network in small towns,” says O’Morain. “In the cities it’s harder to get these things going.” Even our weather works against us, he says. In France you see men playing boules for hours, and old women sitting in the square after their morning visit to the bakery.

“Men don’t have an easy way or an easy manner of expressing themselves,” says the psychologist and ‘Irish Times’ columnist Tony Bates. “Men need to feel that they have an integral place in their community beyond their job, beyond their tag. We need older men: we need cross-generational dialogue; it is much missed.” This is all the more regrettable because “we’re listening to the incessant drumbeat of bad news. We’re being fed a steady diet of uncertainty.”

“We’re all in a state of shock,” says Bates. So this is about men in shock as well as men in sheds? “Oh yes.”

‘I wouldn’t miss it. It gets you out of the house’

AS YOU WALK towards the old Ancient Order of Hibernians hall in Kilclooney, all you can hear is the men talking. Inside, all you can see is boats: big-bellied clinker punts. Seven are being built here, at Rosbeg Portnoo Community Boat-building Workshop. It looks like a Viking factory. It feels like the Arctic, because this is a freezing Friday night in southwest Donegal, near the town of Ardara and the fishing port of Killybegs, where a lot of locals used to work.

The walls of the old hall were painted five days ago, but the place is so damp that the paint hasn’t dried. A team of two men works on each boat. They started last November and since Christmas have been working on Tuesday and Friday nights and all day Saturday. “I wouldn’t miss it,” says Michael Nicholson. “It gets you out of the house. There’s a bit of craic.”

The boatbuilding scheme was started by locals and has forged ahead with €1,200 provided by Donegal Vocational Educational Committee. This has been spent on lights and fire extinguishers for the hall. The men provide all the materials for the boatbuilding. The project is affiliated to the Irish Men’s Sheds Association, and it must be the organisation’s most beautiful endeavour. Boatbuilding is a male romance.

George Adair, who is 40, and John Melley, who is 55, can’t believe they have come this far. “When we started we hadn’t a clue. You gradually see it come up the sides . . . It’s a mighty thing,” says Adair. “It cheers you up. You’re looking forward to it. You wouldn’t miss it,” says Melley.

In an area where the national economic disaster has exacerbated traditional emigration, in which the fishing industry has died and the two or three jobs each man once had – a bit of fishing, a bit of farming, a bit of building, perhaps some tourism work in the summer, because Donegal people had portfolio careers long before the term was coined – there are men with time on their hands.

“Thirty years ago there were five boatbuilders round here,” says Patrick Johnstone, who will be 77 this month. He once built bridges in Boston, and says, “I was in structural steel all my life.” But he also remembers that “the last boatbuilding class here was in 1979.” Those classes were run by the late John Con McLoone, whose son Patrick is down by the front door, making a boat that is slightly larger than the others.

“She’s 21ft. She’s going to have an inboard engine, a centreboard, a mast and a sail,” Patrick says. He is using copper nails and working in ash and oak, which is satisfying. “I saw the tree before it was cut down.”

“We always built boats here in the winter,” says Patrick McLoone. “A team of three men went together and drew lots the first winter to see who would own the first boat. At the end of three winters everyone had a boat: fishermen, farmers, a lot of teachers that time. It was a major part of my father’s income. Unfortunately, the fibreglass boats came in then, in the 1980s. My father died in 1998.”

Patrick McLoone got a boat out of those old classes himself. “The Madonna. I fished salmon in her. That’s all stopped now. Sad fact of life. And then after my father spent his whole life building boats, I went off and started making PVC windows. I was in Walkinstown [in Dublin]. It was great during the boom. With the demise of the Celtic Tiger I have more time.”

At the back of the hall is Shane McLoone, who is 22 and no relation to Patrick but is the grandson of another boatbuilder, John McLoone. He is building a boat with his cousin Patrick Harkin, who is 28.

Under today’s system one man puts up the money for materials – about €1,000 – and owns the finished boat. Harkin, who is working in the family building contractors – “We’ve been lucky enough,” he says – will own it. Shane, who is on a Fás employment scheme in the community centre next door, will not.

It was Shane who painted the walls here. His Fás course ends in May; he doesn’t know what he’ll do then. The boys he was at school with in neighbouring Rosbeg have left. “Most of them are in Australia, a few in Canada. We’re putting on the last of the boards now,” says Shane, nodding at the boat.

This project is the brainchild of young Patrick Harkin’s father, Patsy Harkin. He is the chairman of Dolmen Ecotourism Centre, next door to the old hall where the shed is housed and the boats are being built. On the night I visited, Downstrands Family Resource Centre, which is based at the Dolmen centre, was holding a disco for 12- to 14-year-olds.

The family resource centre does a lot else besides, from supporting mental-health groups to running grinds for children in exam years, looking after elderly people, helping young mothers and running judo lessons. The family resource centre is very busy, with only one paid worker, its co-ordinator, Kate Morgan, who secured the €1,200 grant from Donegal VEC.

Honora Gyo is chairwoman of the family resource centre. “Isolation would be our biggest enemy,” says Gyo, whose husband is German. She says the whole area is a funding and infrastructure blackspot, “because we’ve no TD”.

Gyo wonders whether anyone in Dublin knows how hard they’re trying: the Ardara area is not on the tourist trail. She says the centre is so busy they will have to extend it.

Patsy Harkin, who is in his 50s, is also the son of a boatbuilder. At the end of the last boatbuilding course given by his father, Patsy kept all his notes. They now constitute the bible of the current project. “My dad kept the old moulds, and they just about made it,” he says. The moulds are the patterns or the templates for the parts of the boat.

“You have to remember about Patsy’s father and John McLoone,” says Patrick Johnstone, “they did everything by hand. All their tools were hand tools. They had a saw and a plane. They could put an edge on a plane that would shave you.”

“I’m an out-of-work carpenter,” says Paul Brennan, who is 48 and building his boat with Sean McMonagle. Asked where he had served his time, he says: “On the plane on the way over.” His family owned Brennans bar in Ardara, which has since been sold. “There’s less socialisation going on in the town,” says Brennan. He and McMonagle jumped at the chance to be involved in boatbuilding. “You’ve got a bit of motivation,” says McMonagle. “You can see the progress on the boat. It’s a meeting point. The others share your interest. Bit of banter. Share your trials and tribulations.”

Several men here, such as Michael Nicholson, are old enough to remember the local custom of raking. People, usually men, visited neighbours late at night for a gossip. (The term raking came, Nicholson thinks, from the raking of the hearth at the end of the night.) Raking’s gone now, just as regular card-playing is almost gone. “Hard to get a game,” says one man. And the generations mix less, they say. The old don’t mix with the young the way they used to.

But communal endeavour is also for people who have new ways of working. Daniel Johnstone, Patrick’s son, left the Portnoo area at the age of four, when his mother died. He has returned from London with his wife and little daughter and is working as a freelance designer from their new Donegal home. The building of the boat has been a pleasure.

“That’s the thing I miss about working in a structured business: the camaraderie,” he says. “It’s hard to regulate yourself. Having an agenda is nice.” The family resource centre “has been ace”. Johnstone’s daughter has started at the creche there and made lots of friends. “I was looking at her and thinking that she’ll be with them all through her school life. That wouldn’t happen in London.”

Patsy Harkin says the boats will be ready by Easter, or a few weeks after. The men in the shed hope to have boatbuilding again next year, and there is also a plan to start renovating old tractors.

In the family resource centre the next day, Morgan and Gyo are contemplating another success. Last year, they started a sailing club in Portnoo for young people. A boathouse was donated, and this year they are entering 10 boys and five girls for their instructor exams. Now they have the boatbuilding.