Don’t show me the money: the ‘gift economy’ is growing in Ireland

The concept of gifting time and bartering goods and services is catching on fast

Freshly divorced and living thousands of miles from her native Mexico City, Maria Copley understandably found herself feeling the dull sting of isolation while living in Laytown, Co Meath.

“When I had my husband and family I didn’t feel like I needed too many friends,” she reflects. “Then, you find that even changing a light bulb is a different matter.”

Eventually, she got wind of WeShare Dublin: a collective of people who meet regularly to exchange goods and services, with no money involved in the process.

“I went for a lunch in the Mansion house and I remember thinking it was such a great idea, for people to help each other,” Copley says. “I can cook, speak Spanish, or do reiki on others. I’ve taken Portuguese classes. One day a girl asked me to take a video of her presentation for a crowd-funding scheme. Another guy, a creative writer, wanted people to see his script, so I gave him some tips. People want to paint your house, make a website for you or fix your computer. Why not avail of it?”


It’s a win-win scenario for Copley, and other WeShare users: a social outlet with the added benefit of the opportunity to avail of free goods and services. The group members meet in Dublin’s Long Stone pub every month, and bring items they’d like to offer others – plants, books, phones – and, with any luck, pick up a gratis item to boot. The collective is run on the “gift economics” principle: helping others without the explicit promise of anything in return, but in the belief that selfless giving will encourage the recipient to gift selflessly in turn.

It's easy to see why bartering and timebanking rose to prominence amid the recession. When the time came for belt- tightening, Irish people started looking for new ways to get what they needed. Now that we are ostensibly on an economic upswing, people are keen to avoid a return to the social atomisation that marked the Celtic Tiger era.

“I like the idea of having something for free,” says Copley. “It’s so expensive to live here [in Ireland] so you’ll think of any way to save. If I need help, I know it’s out there. And I don’t feel so lost in the crowd.”

WeShare was born out of the Freeconomy Community, run by activist Mark Boyle. Boyle, author of Moneyless Man, famously lived without money for three years. He restored and lived in an abandoned caravan, and cycled everywhere. By using a combination of bartering, swapping or gifting his time, and foraging for food – both in hedgerows and supermarket bins – the former economist demonstrated that one could thrive, while at the same time reconnecting with local communities.

Boyle left the Freeconomy Community in 2012 to concentrate on other projects, paving the way for a small group of others to form WeShare.

"I think it's wonderful," says its co-founder, Marino-based Bernie Brannick. "It's really about giving for the love of it, or just paying it forward, or when we need something we can ask for it."

Brannick too has benefitted from plenty- of-people power: “I’ve found a graphic designer, someone to repair my bike, a homeopathic remedy, yoga sessions, plants, fabric for clothes,” she says.

The collective’s motivation is partly altruistic, partly a desire to increase sustainability and kick rabid materialistic consumption where it hurts.

“We do it for the good of the planet and the community,” says Brannick. “At the meetings you’ll find a great vibe, and a real connection between people. “We’re trying to reduce our reliance on money and cut down on consumption. Not every house on the street needs power tools, for instance.

“It’s taking a long time to change people’s approach – we’re so conditioned to think that if we need something we must go and buy it right away. Changing that mindset is difficult enough.”

Profile-wise, WeShare’s members run the proverbial gamut: “Within our group there are plenty of well-educated, professional people,” explains Brannick. “I don’t mind the word ‘hippy’ myself, but we care about the environment and would probably be more ‘green’ than ‘hippy’.”

One collective that is probably less "hippy" and more "hipster" is Trade School Dublin. The group offers classes in subjects as diverse as knitting, Russian, essential oils, painting and writing, and the opportunity to upskill is free of charge. Rather, Trade School works on a "barter for knowledge" system: take a class, in other words, and pay it forward by volunteering at the school or running a different class. This "co-op'" approach engenders an air of bonhomie and community.

Originating in New York, Trade School now operates in 50 countries worldwide. The Dublin chapter was co-founded by Canadian Phil Isard, who has kept its modus operandi simple: anyone can teach and anyone can learn. It calls to mind the Men's Shed Association, a charity founded in 2011 that offers men the chance to convene and share their skills and knowledge with one another.

Trade School is currently on hiatus as its co-ordinators focus on other projects, but it has been an unmitigated success in recent times. “Often, the programmes we run are the kind of things you can’t access in a traditional class environment,” Isard says. “We encourage people to nominate their own skills if they want to join in. It must be said that we’re not trying to be a professional school,” he adds. “For most of the teachers, the subject is a personal passion, and they get to communicate that to a class.”

A small number of Irish workplaces are also starting to rely on people power. At Smithfield's wellbeing hub, The Elbowroom, owner Lisa Wilkinson believes that bartering is the lifeblood of small-scale businesses, and she has already bartered with electricians, photographers and builders as she expands her enterprise.

Wilkinson also offers two types of trade; some people work sporadically in exchange for free yoga, meditation or Pilates classes, often by minding babies during classes or making soup for participants. Alternatively, The Elbowroom offers a suite of yoga teacher-training courses in exchange for nine months of part-time work in admin, customer service, marketing or social media. Three people have gotten full-time jobs from the system to date.

Every so often, Wilkinson is inundated with barter applications, often from people who are finding it difficult to find employment.

“Being unemployed can be quite lonely, and this is a great way for people to get involved in our community and keep up their mojo,” she says. “It’s a win-win situation for all of us. We get someone who is looking for work and wants to broaden their knowledge, and they get to ‘work’ within our organisation in exchange for training. We’ve had to drop our classes prices, so this system is instrumental in keeping us afloat.”

In Cork, meanwhile, the Clonakilty Favour Exchange uses the "timebanking" model.

Originally conceived as a way of storing services for when people were ill or old, it began in Japan in the 1970s and really took off in the 1990s in the US and Canada. It has enjoyed a global resurgence of late.

Time-banking works on the premise that for every hour participants “deposit” in the bank – through offering services and support to others, from baby sitting to painting a house, helping with taxes to digging a garden – they are entitled to “withdraw” the same number of hours back from other members to help them.

Clonakilty Favour Exchange was born when husband and wife Bev and Miriam Cotton attended a talk by Natasha Harty about a long-running local exchange trading system in Midleton. Beginning with 35 members (and co-founded with another couple, Olive and Ger Walsh), the collective has now swelled to 300.

Other timebanks have emerged in Ireland in the years since, most notably in Cork.

“Our intention was for people to extend goodwill and favours . . . it’s a way for people to extend into the broader community,” explains Miriam.

So far, so positive, but starting up a timebank hasn’t been without its logistical complications.

“It’s been a huge labour of love,” admits Miriam. “We did a lot of research on people who have been doing this for 40 or 50 years, and we were able to formulate an idea of what would work and wouldn’t work.”

As to what their research on the time-banks of yore taught them: “One thing that transpired was the importance of the personal contact between the people who co-ordinated the exchange,” Miriam says. “The time-bank is seen to belong to its membership and socialising is important, so we need to create events so that everyone can meet. We all have a reluctance to pick up the phone and ask a stranger for a favour, so this way, you know you’ve joined this group and your time is equal to theirs. People need a bit of support with that process.”

Among the social events that Miriam and her co-founders have arranged are a “speed exchange” evening; much like a speed-dating events.

All of them are designed to grease the community’s social wheels. And it has worked: the services that people have offered thus far are varied, from Italian cookery and music lessons to the killing of farmyard chickens.

“We were determined that everyone’s time would be equal,” explains Miriam. “There was so such thing as one person’s skill being ‘more’ valuable than another. It sounds a little corny, but it’s actually a really powerful concept.”

Be that as it may, the concept of availing of cash-free goods and services doesn’t sit well with many Irish people. There’s arguably something about the Irish mentality that baulks at the perceived “cheekiness” of asking for something for no money. Perhaps it’s a hangover of times past, but in Ireland, we like to pay our way.

“I don’t think that’s entirely exclusive to Irish people, but it is a problem,” concedes Miriam.

“We’ve had to tell our members, you’re not taking or giving . . . you’re just exchanging. Some people have a real sense of shyness to overcome in that regard, but it’s easily gotten over. They soon start to realise that it’s great fun.”

The system, running as it does on people power, isn’t without its glitches: “One thing that happens is that people ask for favours and don’t respond [to requests for favours], but that’s an issue for every timebank in the world,” explains Miriam. “We make it very clear people need to respond. If someone avails of too many favours [without offering a service or favour in return] they’re quickly discovered within the system, but thankfully no one has abused the privilege too much. It’s too personal, and its very nature seems to filter that kind of person out.”

It's an exciting time for the Cottons and their cohorts: a Skibbereen favour exchange is being created and is due to roll out later in the year. All the while, interest in the scheme is rising. It wouldn't be inconceivable, says Miriam, for time-banking, already a fixture in several UK locations, to feature prominently in every Irish town.

“This is part of a much bigger movement that goes beyond the recession,” she says.“It’s known for being a binder of communities, and people are rethinking the way they interact with one another. It’s going to explode in Ireland; it’s not a matter of if, but when.”

The next WeShare Dublin meeting takes place in the last week of August. Date to be confirmed. See for information and to attend; see also Clonakilty Favour Exchange,; Trade School,; and The Elbowroom,