Men’s Sheds: An Antidote to Loneliness and Isolation
John Evoy could have done with a support like Men’s Shed when he was a young man. Having struggled with issues common to so many young men himself, when he visited his first Men’s Shed in Australia, he realised it’s what had been missing in his home country all along.
“When I was younger, I experienced some of the issues that some of the guys in the sheds are going through and I have a lot of empathy with them. I was born and raised on a farm in Co Wexford, and I ended up living alone with my grandmother through certain circumstances in late teens and 20s. At the time, I also stopped farming. We sold the cows, which was a huge deal, especially because of the intergenerational links with the farm and the importance of the land in Ireland. I felt so isolated.”
During that time in Ireland, there was little help available, or if there was, young men, particularly in rural areas, wouldn’t have been aware of it. Unhappy and lonely, John resorted to alcohol – a particularly difficult time in his life. It was in his late 20s that he realised he wanted to make a change, and so he quit drinking, and set out on his new journey in life.
Over the next few years, he went back to education and studied counselling and equality studies, in addition to volunteering for various organisations, helping young guys find their way. At the time, most of the community development was a female-dominated area, a “man-free zone” as John describes it, and he became aware of the complete lack of supports for men. Having been introduced to the concept of Men’s Shed (learn more) by a colleague, and having been introduced to Prof. Barry Golding, who is heavily involved in the movement, John took a trip to Australia to the Australian Men’s Shed Association Convention, and it was there he had his eureka moment. “On that trip, we visited various Men’s Sheds in Australia and I just thought, ‘Wow, these are amazing and they need to be happening in Ireland.’ They were so simple, so effective, so much fun. It was like an awakening for me, an eye opener .”
John loved the atmosphere and the energy of the sheds, and one particular shed in Creswick, Victoria, has stayed with him. “It was a rickety old shed, just a few bits of timber stuck together up on this little hill overlooking the town. Myself and Barry Golding arrived at about 9.20am; the shed wasn’t due to be open until 9.30am, but there were a group of guys outside waiting for it to open, eager to get in early.” When the dozen or so men starting working, there was fun and jokes – one was fixing his fishing rod so he could go off fishing with his son for the weekend, another was making little timber gadgets to sell. Another, in his 90s, arrived on a mobility vehicle. He parked beside the stove and just threw a few sticks on it every now and again – he was just there for the company. “It was just so efficient.
The guys loved it; they were so proud of it.” What also struck John about this particular shed was the ownership and pride they had in it, despite its run down state. “They managed the rules, the ethos and the values themselves, except a ‘no-drinking’ rule. That was going to be a very important aspect if we were to do something similar in Ireland, especially with the pub culture here and the fact that men don’t have anywhere to go to socialise except the pub.”
“They were so simple, so effective, so much fun. It was like an awakening for me.”
Having spent most of his career working in the voluntary and community development sector, where he spent much of his time chasing funding, he was amazing that he had come across such a simple, self- sustainable model. “It was just a brilliant mix of simplicity and good ideas.” Download this Free Toolkit on how to start a Men’s Shed in your community.
It was around this time that the economic crisis struck Ireland, with tens of thousands of people unemployed. A large majority of them were men in the construction industry, of which 80 per cent lost their jobs during the crash. “People were under pressure, and there was a bigger need than ever for the shed. It was the perfect fit.” Coming back to Ireland, John realised that if he wanted to reproduce this sustainable model in Ireland, he would need to set up an organisation that would support the organisation of sheds right across the country. “So that’s what I did. It took us a few years, but the first shed was established in August 2009, there were 7 sheds by October 2010, 30 sheds, by Sept 2011. Then it flew up to 100 sheds to the following year to 200 sheds the year after that and is still continuing to grow in Ireland.”
“They go to the shed because they’ve got a bit of time on their hands and they’ve got experience, knowledge, creativity and good ideas. You put all that good stuff into the mix and other good stuff comes out of it.”
Open to all men, of all ages, the only thing they have in common is that they all have some time on their hands and a desire to do something productive with it. “When Men’s Sheds are mentioned in the media, it’s usually talked about with regards to positive mental health or counteracting isolation, but that might give you the impression that most of the guys have those issues and they don’t. Some people do – everyone experiences things like that at some stage in their lives – but some people don’t go to Sheds because of that. They go to the Shed because they’ve got a bit of time on their hands and they’ve got experience, knowledge, creativity and good ideas. You put all that good stuff into the mix and other good stuff comes out of it.”
It gives people a reason to get up in the morning and I can relate to that.
While John says there’s a high awareness that Men’s Sheds are good for your well-being, that it’s’ a healthy and positive space, most men feel they’re there to be a support to others. “You could have 20 guys there and they feel like they’re all the ones giving support – and there’s definitely a truth in it. We feel good when we’re there to support other people. There’s an enhanced sense of well-being and purpose if you’re there and you’re helping.”
So what else do the men who take part in Men’s Sheds gain from taking part? “It gives people a reason to get up in the morning and I can relate to that. Even if you have a week or two off, quite quickly you start not getting up as early in the morning and a lot of the good has gone out of the day so that’s a big part of it. One of the stories I often repeat is that there was a shed being set up in rural Ireland, in a small town and the guy who was setting it up took a phone call from a guy enquiring about the Sheds one evening. He could tell that the guy at the other end of the phone was a bit shaky and lacking in confidence. He asked him to come along to the next meeting and said he could bring a friend. After a moment’s hesitation the other guy said; ‘I don’t have any’. So quite quickly, he replied, ‘Well, you do now’. And that captures what the shed’s about very quickly for me.”
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