Getting Ireland’s men to talk

LIMERICK, IRELAND In response to disproportionate levels of unemployment between men and women, and the related health concerns, a grassroots movement aimed at including men in discussion groups has begun to sprout across Ireland.

By Wyatt H. McCall

Workshops meet discussion groups at Men's Sheds in Ireland. Photo: Men's Sheds Association.

Also listen to the podcast of the article here.

The groups have reshaped how traditional discussion groups operate.  Rather than the usual circular talks Men’s Sheds tend to resemble work places, with tools, equipment, and supplies that the men can use to create projects together.

The reasoning behind such an environment is best summed up in the Men’s Shed’s motto, “Men don’t talk face to face; they talk shoulder to shoulder.”  And in a country where men typically do not seek out social services like discussion groups, it appears to be working.

Mental Health and Unemployment
A 2011 report from the Institute of Public Health in Ireland, a government funded research group, found that 93 percent of the frontline organizations that are in contact with unemployed men linked health concerns with unemployment and the recession. The report also surveyed 50 men who identified the stress and anxiety of unemployment, the isolation one feels, and the reluctance to approach services or seek help as having the greatest impact on their health.

Source: Institute of Public Health in Ireland.

“The research has identified the relationship between being unemployed and suffering ill health, particularly mental health for men,” said Associate Director Owen Metcalfe in the report.  “Men’s health issues in times of economic recession are made more difficult by their tendency to take few health preventative measures, and be less likely to seek support.”

The report also found a significant increase in the amount of suicides, in both Northern Ireland and the Republic, over a two year period.  In the Republic the suicide rate for men rose nearly 13 percent, going from 379 in 2009 to 427 in 2010.  Already men are three times more likely to committ suicide than women in Ireland.

Much of this has to do with what employment actually means for an individual.  It’s seldom just a money problem with men who become unemployed.  There can also a loss of self that comes when an individual loses their job.  For many men, where they worked also became the center of their social lives.  So the loss of work wasn’t just about the loss of income, but also much of their identity.

“I think it’s very much about the connectiveness to societal, to social demand of work that is really very important in providing you with a sense of identity, a sense of self,” Owen Metcalfe said over the telephone.  “And depending on the job, incorporating self esteem and giving you a sense of place in the world.”

But that same report indicated the Men’s Sheds as a successful response to these factors. A key of which was its ability to get older and younger men having dialogues.  Never before has the idea of a men’s group been able to gain such popularity in Ireland.  What is it about these men’s clubs that have attracted men where previous attempts failed?

“It’s really a recent phenomenon in Ireland,” said Owen Metcalfe over the phone.  “And I’ve never been to one, but I’ve talked to people who have been instrumental in getting the established.  And it seems to be a combination of things: the practicality, the atmosphere, the prevelence, and the sense of support they offer.”

Dan O’Conner, the Develpement Manager of Kerry Mental Health Association agreed with the benefits of attending a Men’s Shed.  He recently wrote “men’s sheds provide an ideal environment for promoting and fostering of positive mental health leading to an improvement in one’s overall health and wellbeing.  The shed provides an opportunity for men to socially interact and integrate with other men, encourage conversation and share problems, learn and develop new skills, enhance self esteem and be occupied.  These are the key factors which contribute to positive mental health leading to a greater level of overall health and wellbeing.”

Getting men to talk

“When people ask what is a men’s shed, well it’s a bit like the west of Ireland,” said Juan Carlos Azzapardi, Manager of Limerick City CDP and member of the Men’s Sheds Network.  “Its not so much a place, as a state of mind.  Really that sums up men´s sheds in a big way because what we started off with was how do you engage men in community education, adult education, those kind of things.  Because traditionally men don’t go to community centers, men don´t go to family resource centers, and to the places where the community and adult education was taking place.”

The Men's Sheds often give cooking instruction to their members. Photo: Wyatt McCall


“So standing side by side, doing things, there’s a greater chance of interaction,” says Juan Carlos Azzapardi.  “And we said lets do something around that.  And the Men’s Sheds which was started in Australia is what we adopted.”

“I’ve been running a men’s group for about four years now,” said Jim Prior, Coordinator of the Southill Family Resource Centre and organizer for the Southill Men’s Shed.  “We would’ve had a very small membership at that time.  It was very hard getting men into groups.  It just wasn’t something they found themselves going forward into, until we changed the name from men’s group to men’s shed.  Men particularly here in Ireland have to be doing activities.  They have to be doing something.  It could be gardening or whatever.  It doesn’t have to be extraordinary.”

“We meet every thursday, which will be our social part of it,” said Thomas Mulready, a committee member for the Southill Men’s Shed.  “But the activity part of it is currently broken into two groups. On a Monday we do a cooking program, on Thursday night the lads do a carpentry program, and then on Friday morning we do a boat project.  The lads really love that one.”

The Southill Men's Shed is currently building a boat at the Ak Ilen Wooden Boat School. Photo: Wyatt McCall.

Somewhere to go
The sheds offer a simpler solution to unemployment and isolation.  Projects aside, the shed is also just a place to go.  For many men, being employment is what usually gets them out of the house and offers them a place to go.  So when they lose their job, many men find themselves just staying home, or wandering around with nowhere to go.

“Several people have said to me that they have noticed men walking round their town, long after they have lost their jobs or their business, wearing their working gear for the day,” said John Evoy speaking with the Irish Times.

“I think they’re a great idea,” said Gerard Kelly of the Southill Men’s Shed.  “When you’re unemployed, they get you out of the house and out meeting other people around your same age.  Even if you have nothing planned, it’s just about getting up on a Thursday morning.  It’s just about being in the room, having a laugh.  It’s the social aspect.  You go somewhere.”

“You’re  out meeting people too, which is most important,” said Willam Lenihan, also of Southill.  “It gets you out of the home and

Hugh O'Rowe of the Tallaght Men's Shed steps over the rubbage they have to clean from their new location. Photo: Wyatt McCall

away from the boredom.  It gets you active again.”

“This kinda things gets me out of the house and helps me meet people,” said Michael Rayes.  “If you isolate yourself your going to run around like a zombie.  So you have to get out and meet people. and the men’s shed is very good for that.”

“When people are working and the economy is going well, nobody would be interested in the Men’s Sheds,” said Hugh O’Rowe of the Tallaght Shed near Dublin.  “But when the recession comes in, people need things to do and they need help and assistance.  And the sheds give people something to do, which I think is important.”

Members of the Tallaght Men's Shed standing in front of their hopefully new head quarters. Photo: Wyatt McCall

“They are groups of men that are coming together to do something,” said Juan Carlos Azzapardi. “Whether that’s boat building, glass making, furniture restoration, whether its cook.  It’s just about gathering and doing.  Some people go golfing, they go fishing and learn how to fly tie.”

Teachers and learning new skills
The Men’s Sheds have also become informational hubs, where the men can find out about what’s going on in their own communities on a week to week basis.  But it’s also become a place where men from different backgrounds and different generations can teach each other skills that they wouldn’t have had before.  For example, men who know about carpentry may teach those from the IT sector some of those skills.

“There’s a lot of avenues that lead out of it too,” said Brian Hickey of Southill.  “If you join the men’s sheds and there´s something happening

Members of the Men's Sheds showcasing some of their wood and metal work. Photo: Wyatt McCall

you’ll find out about it there.  So you get to do other things, apart from the men´s sheds you know.  You’re not isolated from anything, you get to know what’s happening around town as well. ”

“And then you hear if there’s any course going, you can pick up all the information.” said Sean O’Brien also of Southill.  “If you want to do something with computers or whatever, you can pick up all sorts of education there.”

“It helps you know whats going on around town.  It keeps you informed,” said Michael Rayes.

“In Australia, the men’s shed is a hub to the community,” said Thomas Mulready.  “That’s something that I’d like to do here in Southill, make it a hub where the men can just pop in.  One of the advantages of the men coming here is that they also hear about other courses being offered. For instance, there’s one of the lads who just found out there´s a course on how to use Skype and things like that.”

Not an employment agency
One critique against the sheds is that the time spent at the sheds would be better utilized looking for a new job.  And the Men’s Sheds don’t really offer any employment service.  They’re simply a place to go when you’ve got time on your hands. They offer friendly company and stuff to do.  In fact, one of the reasons the men’s sheds have gained such popularity is their contrast to other social services.  In the Institute of Public Health report, many men reported being treated poorly and disrespectfully at the welfare office.  The main focus of the sheds is, after all, health and well being.  This is the service they offer.

“This is something that´s received a bit of attention,” said Owen Metcalfe.  “One of the men who was reporting on this said something about not being treated with dignity when they come into contact with the services.  Now you know that it’s not universal, but it seemed to crop up quite a lot in terms of men saying that the reception they got in the welfare office was very disrespectful.”

“As we say, we’re not counselors,” said Thomas Mulready.  “But if they want to talk to us about anything they can.  Obviously we can’t help them financially, but we can give them a bit of advice.  I can only give them advice, I can´t tell them what to do.  In terms of getting a job, we don’t do that.  But we do, if they get a job interview, give them support and wish them luck.  We do try to encourage that as one of our big things, getting a job.  A job takes priority at the end of the day.”

Members of the Southill Men's Shed out in their Garden. Photo: Wyatt McCall

Only in Ireland, Australia and the UK
So far the Men’s Sheds seem to have been an answer to many health related problems associated with unemployed men.  By giving unemployed and retired men somewhere to go and people to meet, it’s also created an atmosphere where Irish men are for the first time showing up in numbers to health services.

But this approach has only been taken in Ireland, the UK, and where it originated, Australia.  Yet many countries have seen dips in men’s health, spikes in their suicides, and domestic problems.  There has yet to be any studies done to see if the mental health has improved among men in a shed versus those outside, but the men themselves are reporting a positive change. And in a country where the men will sing long before they talk, the sheds have been successful at that.

About Wyatt McCall