Will the biggest sustainable Men’s Shed in the world be in Portlaoise


When people talk about Men’s Sheds, there are generally two things that come to mind first: “Woodwork” and “mental health”. How about the following words: Biodiversity, healthy food, sustainability, gardening, bio digester, micro farm; how about “community work group for environmental issues”?

Ray Harte thinks differently about the Men’s Shed. These are the words that pop up when you talk to him about his Shed. The Shedders in the Portlaoise Men’s Shed call him ‘the boss’, but hearing the word he swipes it away like a nasty fly. That’s not the way he sees it. He is one of the founding team of the Portlaoise Shed and he now facilitates its work. But the idea to place sustainability at the heart of the Shed is driven by him.

We watched the trend in environmental issues, Bio-Diversity, organic food, composting, water and energy conservation, heritage and looked for ways to make use of that in the Shed. In order to build up knowledge around these topics but actually mainly to find a way of financing our Shed.

Ray attended a Green Course in Kilkenny’s Kingsriver in the early days of the Shed, that was the first flame of inspiration for the path he followed to date. Today he has organised a workshop by Thomas Culhane from Solar CITIES in NewYork to show the ‘lads’ in Portlaoise how to build their own “food-waste-to-fuel-and-fertilizer based biodigesters”.

Some of our members have attended master composting courses as ways of addressing food and bio waste. This worked into our upcycling idea as our plastic barrels become the bio digestor, food and bio waste are the food of the bio digestor, the end product is a bio gas which can be used for heating and a nutrient rich liquid which can be used as a fertiliser in our community garden. The overall project is like a jigsaw with all the pieces fitting together.

And there are a lot of more projects the Shed started around environmental issues. You can follow the traces of former and ongoing projects through the Shed.

They are building bug boxes, bat boxes and will erect 20 bird boxes in the nearby people’s park in the coming weeks. They helped buildng beehives for a local beekeeping group and in the wide outside area they have a community garden with polytunnels and raised beds where a few of the men have built a composter.

We’ve got electric engineers, plumbers, carpenters, prison officers, policemen, men with all kinds of backgrounds here. Everyone takes on the projects that they are most passionate about or that they have the best knowledge about. It develops almost by itself. The Shed lives on the respect everyone has for each other and for the different abiltities everyone has. That’s the ethos of our Shed.

And they’ve got the room to serve all kinds of interests and talents. Ray and his team were lucky to get the premises for the Shed in the Portlaoise Equestrian Centre for free. The donor: Kilkenny Welding Supplies. That eliminates one of the biggest challenges most Sheds have to deal with in the beginning, a premises and paying for it.

The Shed is like a manufacturing arm for all kinds of local community groups now. We identify projects to work on with a partner, like the local Irish Wildlife trust in the case of the biodiversity project. They supply us with the raw material, we provide the man power and get things done. In the end we either get a small donation on top or are paid a nominal sum on completion. That’s how we can finance and grow the Shed.


And it’s how they can follow their main principles.

Collaboration for us is the key to all of this. I never understood why people start with the same idea and then don’t talk to each other to figure out how to work together by sharing and trading resources.

Some of the groups and organisations they have worked with are Mountmellick Environmental Group, Abbeyelix Bog Project, Laois Tidy Towns, Irish Wildlife Trust Laois /Offaly, Laois County Council, Dunamase Beekeepers, The Office of Public Works, Laois Heritage Forum, Laois Environmental Action Forum to name but a few.

It was the recession that taught Ray to think differently as he says. He was unemployed for a number of years, reskilling and further education was the key. Now he has got a job with Kilkenny Welding Supply’s. His entrepreneurial spirit and multi-talent made him the prefect candidate. Just meeting him for a few hours, you know he is one of these people who seem to be everywhere at the same time and who everybody in the community knows.


Ray is a never-ending source of ideas. He wants to bring disability groups to the Shed to avail of the benefits of gardening and micro farming. He wants to pass on the knowledge they have built up in the Shed to school classes and function as an education centre, he wants to build a bridge over to the next field to gain more space, maybe facilitate the setting up of a women’s shed, he wants to start a heritage project for the County and has already taken the first step with the Facebook page Rock of Dunamase where he publishes photos of the counties tourist and heritage sites running with historical articles.

For the 100 year celebration of the Easer Rising, he is planning to run a reenactment in conjunction with Ireland’s largest and most famous reenactment group Lords Edwards Own to bring county Laois’s history, heritage and tourism to a national and international stage for the centenary celebrations in 2016. It was in County Laois where the first shots of the 1916 rising occurred.

You can tell it’s not just words, they will really do all of that in the Shed. The last thing Ray shows us is the art room.

This is our space for creativity and relexation. We did a sketching workshop here. But we will also have to look at painting, sculpture and metal work next.

“We have to” do it, that’s how Ray sees it.

I’m driven by something but I don’t know what it is. As an idea develops its like a jigsaw you can see a big picture and you then have to make the pieces or projects fit. When you start daydreaming on a project like this, the sky is the limit. You have to think differently. I’m at a certain age now where you also think about what you want to leave behind in this world, a legacy perhaps.

I like looking at a problem, turning it on its head and finding a solution. The greatest kick of all is sitting back a few months later and saying: We’ve achieved this! We’ve done this!” and with all of this we also achieve our main objective the prevention of social isolation and its associated problems.

And one day Ray wants to sit back and say:

“We’ve built the biggest Shed in the World.”

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