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Dublin: 10 °C Wednesday 25 May, 2016

‘Men don’t talk face to face. They talk shoulder to shoulder’

Maybe we don’t talk face to face, us men. But then, as the Men’s Sheds movement surely proves, it’s the talking which counts, writes Donal O’Keeffe.

Donal O'Keeffe

IRELAND HAS ONE of the highest rates of male suicide in the world. Every week, an average of ten of Irish people die by suicide. Eight of them are men.

Globally, we men tend to be utter rubbish when it comes to talking about our feelings. God love you, then, if you’re born an Irish man, where we still – despite all efforts to get us to cop ourselves on – cling to the idea of men being stoic rocks of masculinity.

I’ve been thinking about that a lot lately as I’ve discovered the phenomenon of Men’s Sheds.

I often pass the old ESB building on Fermoy’s main street. It’s located in the heart of the town and it’s been vacant for at least a decade. Once a vital part of a thriving Cork town, in recent times it’s become just another shabby, vacant building in a place which last saw happier days a long time ago.

In the last while, though, I’ve noted that the big, industrial gates are all-of-sudden open during working hours and – even if the paint on the walls is still blistered and peeling – there usually seems to be a bit of life in the yard these days.

Venturing in for a nose, I meet Dave Gahan and Pat Mahon and discover these premises have lately become the base for the local branch of the Men’s Shed movement. I confess that most of what I knew about Men’s Sheds comes from passive media osmosis and the late Terry Pratchett’s gentle, affectionate mockery in his later Discworld novels.

Sharing a common ethos 

The lads tell me that each Men’s Shed is autonomous and unique, but they all share a common ethos. They place a great emphasis on the importance of offering a routine to men who have lost a sense of purpose in their lives. Sometimes that can be due to retirement, sometimes due to unemployment.

Sometimes, I suspect, it’s just due to life’s rolling disappointments, the small humiliations that accumulate and accrete and wear down the sturdiest of souls.

In the Fermoy Men’s Shed, members come and go as they please, working on a variety of projects. At the moment they’re producing dog-boxes and bird-boxes, using timber recovered from used pallets. The products are sold (usually for a nominal, suggested donation) and the proceeds go toward the Shed’s running costs.

Pat Mahon tells me it’s his job to open the yard every morning. “Now, there are some mornings when I mightn’t always want to get out of the bed myself,” he says with a laugh,

“but I don’t have a choice because I know the lads are depending on me to be there. And that’s a good thing.”

Men’s Sheds began in Australia in the mid-1990s and in the two decades since then they’ve become a movement which has spread to New Zealand, to South Asia, to Greece, to Finland, to Britain and to Ireland.

Dealing with stress 

In essence, Men’s Sheds operate around the admission that – left alone – men are utterly useless at dealing with the sort of day-to-day stresses, which women seem to handle with an almost-intuitive common sense. Mostly that seems to boil down to talking. And it turns out that – when it comes to the important stuff – men aren’t all that great at talking. Which you probably knew.

A key and recurring phrase in the Men’s Shed movement is “Men don’t talk face to face. They talk shoulder to shoulder.”

According to Barry Sheridan of Irish Men’s Sheds Association, “It’s a simple idea. There’s a place down the road from you, you can drop in, have a cup of tea and a chat, do a bit in the workshop or just socialise for a few hours.

“That’s the thing about Irish men. We love company but we’re not great at making the first move. We find that once men realise the shed’s there, there’s no pressure, just drop by and see how you get on, they’ll find a place for themselves.

“We’ve had guys telling us that they were in a town for 30 years, and they never realised, until they came to the shed, that there were other men like them living all around”. There are now more than 300 Men’s Sheds operating in 150 towns across Ireland and they have over 10,000 members.

Carpentry, electrics, woodwork and basic human kindness 

They offer everything from workshops on carpentry, electrics, woodwork and basic human kindness. It really is – as Sheridan says – a very simple idea: a place to go where you can feel that you’re making a difference, however small, a place you are valued and a place you can begin to rebuild your own sense of your significance.

“Most of us have learnt from our culture, that we don’t really talk about our feelings and emotions,” says Barry Sheridan.

“Unlike women, men are reluctant to reach out to people, we’ve been taught to build up these internal walls.

“And often, if there’s loneliness or worry, men will drink more, they’ll neglect their well- being, they will be more prone to depression”.

John Evoy, the founder of the Irish Men’s Sheds Association, says the potential for the movement is huge. “We reckon the numbers could double. There are nearly 2,000 GAA clubs and 500 ICA groups so there’s room to continue to expand.

John Evoy received a People of the Year award recently for founding the Irish Men’s Sheds Association. The citation described Men’s Sheds as places “where men come together from all walks of life to work on meaningful projects at their own pace, in their own time, and where the main aim is to advance the health and well-being of the men participating”.

Getting men talking

Maybe we don’t talk face to face, usmen. But then, as the Men’s Sheds movement surely proves, it’s the talking which counts.

In the end, what are we anyway, except monkeys who got really, really good at chattering? Our specialty as a species, is talking. Opposable thumbs are pretty handy but they’re nothing without opposable ideas. We gossip, we argue, we get fired up about ideas, we fall in love with stories and we become as much about dreams as dreams become about us.

At some point in our evolution, talking fired up more than just the fires we sat around. Our stories fired up new pathways in our primitive brains and gave us the dreams which made us human.

Talking makes us human and keeps us alive. Keep talking. Don’t ever be afraid to reach out, be it venturing into your local branch of Men’s Shed or just having a chat with the person beside you in a queue.

You never know. You might just find that what helps you might just be that someone else needs you to help them.

Donal O’Keeffe is a writer, artist and columnist for TheJournal.ie. You can follow him on Twitter here

 For more information on Men’s Sheds visit the website here

  • Samaritans 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.org
  • Console 1800 247 247
  • Aware 1890 303 302
  • Pieta House 01 601 0000 or email mary@pieta.ie
  • Teen-Line Ireland 1800 833 634 (for ages 13 to 19)
  • Childline 1800 66 66 66 (for under 18s)

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