This article is part of a series focusing on hope, courage and resilience in the time of Covid-19
What’s the content of your average Irish men’s WhatsApp group? Some low-brow memes probably, football results maybe, a little NSFW material and page after page of typos, emojis and banter.
The Dublin Boys Club have a WhatsApp group. It’s also full of typos and emojis, but on any given day, the conversation is usually about how to deal with a broken heart, self-help podcast recommendations, and page after page of offers to meet for a coffee or a Zoom hangout if anyone’s found themselves in a hole that week.
I was having lunch with a friend recently when my phone pinged and a text appeared on my screen. “That’s definitely a message from a woman,” she said, casually stealing a glance. “It’s not, it’s actually from the Boys Club,” I said. “Really?” she replied, only half believing me. “In the history of online communication, no Irish man has ever written a message that long before.”
Practise real talk
The Dublin Boys Club has existed for less than a year. It's an offshoot of a boys' club that I started in Germany called the Berlin Boys Club. When I moved back to Ireland, I reached out to an old friend, the artist Maser, and asked him if he liked the idea, and together we launched the club in his studio space.
The Dublin Boys Club, like the Berlin Boys Club, is a place where something very radical happens: men, strangers initially, come together with one purpose: to practise real talk.
Real talk means dropping our masks. It meets answering the question: “how’s it going?”, not with “grand”, “nothing” or “sure, you know yourself”, but with a genuine, heartfelt analysis of our feelings.
We originally met every month. We'd either come to the studio space and have a men's circle or head out into the hills, or go for a swim in the sea. Regardless of where we are – in Maser's studio, Glendalough Valley or the WhatsApp group – the rules are the same: no banter, no booze, keep it real and personal.
Some people say that must be heavy. And yes, sometimes it is. Sometimes the conversations can feel like we're wading through mud, but the relief in knowing that you can talk to other men about your depression, your loneliness, your disenchantment with the life you've worked so hard to build for yourself, is worth the work. American psychologist and author Marsha Linehan says the only way out of hell is through misery. Healing is a little bit painful. The pain comes from facing up to things we've been ignoring our entire lives. And that's what we do at the Dublin Boys Club, we heal in a group, and then we go jump in the sea.
During lockdown we met virtually and offered each other advice on how to deal with the fear and uncertainty of losing businesses, losing jobs, and losing our minds a little too. When restrictions lifted, we began to meet again – outdoors – in real life. (This is limited to groups of 15 while Dublin is in Level 3 of restrictions.)
The average meeting lasts a couple of hours and the key ingredient is vulnerability. It’s the difference between this club and every other football, darts, walking club. We start off a meeting with a group meditation and then we talk in a circle. Sometimes it’s about our relationship with our dads, or our friendships, or what it means to be a man.
It takes huge balls to open up to a room of 20 other men, but the respect that naturally flows from these acts of courage is huge. Nobody interrupts, nobody laughs, and when it was allowed, there was more hugging than at a funeral.
I often get asked, is it like a men’s shed? And yes, I suppose it is, but instead of doing small repair jobs, we’re fixing ourselves. We’re taking a hammer and a saw to everything we’ve been taught as men: we can’t show weakness, you can’t open up to your mates, you can’t be indecisive, you can’t say you’re feeling low because you’ll be a buzzkill, and from the salvage, we’re constructing a more authentic, sustainable masculinity.
There’s no magic to it. All men want to belong, it’s just for the most part, mainstream male culture has presented only one route to belonging: acting strong, taking the piss out of your pals, hiding your true feelings behind a thick, greasy veil of banter. A boys’ club like this, where we talk openly and get out into nature as often as possible, is just another route to that same belonging, but instead of isolating men, and forcing them to self-censor their feelings, it makes them feel supported and loved. I’ve previously only ever got that feeling from women. Most of us straight guys depend on our girlfriends or female pals to do the emotional grunt work, because we’ve never had close male friends to help us. The Boys Club is our way of dealing with our feelings, our issues and our problems in-house.
Members are a pretty solid cross-section of Irish and international lads. We’ve got guys in their early 20s and some in their late 50s. There are dads, bachelors, blow-ins, tech workers, taxi drivers, old ravers, new ravers, guys with more emotional fluency than Oprah and some who have never answered the question “how are you?” with anything other than “fine”. All of us are looking for friendships that can exist outside of pubs, away from the glare of Super Sunday across ten HD screens.
Young and even not-so-young men in Ireland are incredibly vulnerable to isolation, and then addiction and then suicide. By practising vulnerability together, the club creates a community of brothers who act as a safety net for any member who might stumble along the way.
Frederick Douglass, the African-American activist and author, said that "it's easier to build strong children, than to repair broken men". He was right of course. It is hard to repair broken men, but it's also not impossible.
The Dublin Boys Club is free of charge, and new members are welcome at thedublinboysclub.com. If you'd like to establish your own chapter, contact via the website.