This creative 'young men's shed' helps men express emotions they're told not to feel

A project called Creative Space, run by Axis Ballymun, has helped young men find their voice and creative side.
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‘It’s a shame, because there are so many young people all over this city who are disintegrating into nothing, when they can be evolving into their wildest dreams. I mean that.’ – Farrell O Lideadha, Creative Space participant

BEING A YOUNG person can be difficult – battling with emotions, parental control, trying to find out who you are, and figuring out your focus in life.

Add that to living in an area that has its own social issues, and times can be tough. For young men in Ballymun, there can be many assumptions made about what sort of people they are.

But a recent project in the area’s Axis: Ballymun arts and community centre, called Creative Space, has helped not only to show the huge potential that local young men offer, but given them a chance to explore their creative side in a new and empowering way.

Eoin Thompson

Eoin Thompson (17) is a hip hop artist from Finglas who took part in Creative Space, which he heard about from a friend. He didn’t know what to expect when he headed into his first meeting last year.

“If you were sitting in that room that day you’d know why it was so hard to convey what was going on. It sends shivers up my spine,” he told TheJournal.ie.

Thompson recalled going in, “palms sweaty”, and discovering older people talking without ‘boundaries or blocks’. 

To see a group of young men just being normal and speaking about what’s going on in their minds… it’s shocking.

He and his fellow Creative Space participants – aged from 17 – 23 – were mentored by Terry McMahon (director of the film Patrick’s Day), John Connors (Love/Hate actor), Maverick Sabre (UK-based rap artist), Lethal Dialect and Damien Dempsey.

The process started off with trying to get the young men out of their comfort zone. They did workshops with the mentors, exploring different means of creativity.

Dealing with mental health issues was a byproduct of attending Creative Space, said Thompson.

“We went there not with the intention of getting stuff off our chest – I went with the intention of being around people like [the mentors],” he said. But as they got to know each other, the chat got deeper.

On top of that, the creative ideas started flowing. “I would walk in fuzzy-minded, I would try to write a song and I couldn’t write. [After it finished] I would walk past people rapping. It’s amazing, it’s so powerful to walk out of something like that.”

The mentorship helped him move from taking his cues from his musical heroes to developing his own style.

When I went to the Axis it was like going to meditation… It’s honestly, it’s just crazy but it just blows you out of the water, your mind isn’t about that anymore.
You’re focused on what you want to do, what you want to get out of what you are preparing to create.

‘I would be locked up for selling drugs’

Thompson was bullied in school, but says this experience, tough as it was, helped change the direction of his life.

“If that hadn’t happened, I would be locked up for selling drugs, I would be robbing cars, I would be doing anything those guys outside my front door are doing,” he said. Being pushed away from that made him see things differently.

“When you see that you grow up so fast in your own mind. When you see the impact of what those people do and when you hear them in school the next day talking about what they’ve done and what they’ve done to people, how much they don’t care… You start to realise. You start to get into the mind of people… Everybody is all ‘act the hard man’ and be the coolest person. They put on a front that they enjoy what they’re doing.”

He thinks of Creative Space as something which would benefit not just young men, but people across the country.

I think if everybody knew of places like this and people were more open to express themselves, Ireland as whole would be changed completely because of how people would interact with people on a daily basis.

But Thompson said that it can be difficult for teenagers to find out about places like Creative Space. He said if he hadn’t found out, “I would be doing the same things I was doing three years ago, and probably going down the wrong path. Not knowing there was people with the same mindset and same goals as me and wanting to do something that would set us apart.”

When he started going to Axis, Thompson wasn’t confident, even though he was brought up to speak out. Axis helped build his confidence to the point where he “could stand in a room in front of thousands of people and speak my mind”.

It also helped him deal with and express the nagging thoughts that sometimes bother him. “It breaks the zone where you are sitting in isolation. When you’re sitting in your room before you go to sleep. [And] everyone wonders why you can’t go to sleep at night.”

The process has changed him: He listens more. ”Going to Creative Space I’ve noticed myself, talking to people, I’ve more emphasis on what I say,” he said.  There’s “more meaning” to his words. He “really want[s] to send a message” with what he says.

“Places like the Axis – they should be everywhere, they should be mandatory,” said Thompson.

I tried to talk about it, people in my class they laugh at me. [But] I know they have them thoughts. Because where we live, Finglas, Ballymun, any area that is impoverished, that has crime and punishment… Everyone has that thought that they can’t say something because they will be judged by someone else.

“Most had the hoodies on and heads down and not knowing each other”

Emma Connors, one of the organisers of Creative Space and whose background is in social work, explained that the HSE-funded project had 25 participants in its first year, with an extra 10 in the second year.

The project ended last November with a creative conference organised by the young men themselves.

But the work wasn’t done – Axis commissioned Anna Ebeling to take portraits of the men, and these portraits have been exhibited in the wider Ballymun community as part of what’s being called the Men’s Collection.

Axis has been doing work like this since 2007, but wanted to focus on a men-only project to see what would come out of it. “Many of [the participants] wouldn’t have considered themselves creative,” said Connors. “It offered something they hadn’t been offered before.”

She recalled the first day:

Most had the hoodies on and heads down and not knowing each other. A couple of them didn’t even know what they were there for.
Some of them are happy, some aren’t; some have fab families, some don’t. They have become way more in tune with themselves. They have been learning how to talk and have opinions and write it down on paper.

Connors describe it as like “a young men’s shed”, where the local men (as well as men from Finglas and Drogheda) have met creative mentors who have been “very honest about their own mental health”.

Taking part are men in college, young men who have left school before their leaving cert, those who have mental health difficulties, those who have had to leave friends behind to live their own life.

There is, said Connors, “real honesty about that and real awakening”.

There are a lot of assumptions about these young men but I think they’ve taken themselves by surprise at how articulate they are.

This type of work is at the core of Axis’s remit. It turns 15 this year. “Our whole purpose is to be of purpose to Ballymun and the people who work here,” said Connors.

The Creative Space work is being carried on through the Men’s Collection, and Connors is working on getting Anne Ebeling’s portraits exhibited on buildings across Dublin city centre this summer.

“I’d like to see them on buildings where young men are underestimated and stereotyped,” said Connors.

Some of the participants in Creative Space are now taking part in a new pilot programme where they musically mentor people with intellectual disabilities.

“They’ve been through a process, it’s about them paying it forward and what kind of relationship can they have with Axis.”

‘It has fundamentally changed me’

In feedback when the project finished, one participant said:

We want people to know men have feelings that we are told not to feel growing up. Here on this project is where I finally learned to feel. Being at Axis has fundamentally changed me.

Another said that thanks to Creative Space:

I feel alive.

The Men’s Collection, featuring photographs by Anne Ebeling, is at Axis Ballymun until 27 April.

Read: “The talent is here”: Meet the people putting Ballymun’s arts scene on the map>

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