Shed life in Newtownmountkennedy
David Medcalf found himself in good company when he was invited for a cup of tea at Newtownmountkenndy and Newcastle men's shed. He discovered that friendship is the name of the game
It is not necessary to travel as far as the refined sophistication of St Stephen's Green to find a gentlemen's club, as there is probably one just around the corner from you.
One of the most select - with a lengthy waiting list - is to be found on the outskirts of Newtownmountkennedy at Killadreenan. Be advised that this is not a club in which members lounge around in leather-bound armchairs and pass the port around the table after dinner.
The Newtown and Newcastle Men's Shed has a strict no-alcohol policy and the sitting room floor is covered in modest lino. There are no flunkeys to stoke the log-burning stove which radiates cheerful warmth and hospitality on even the greyest of wintry afternoons. They do it themselves, just as they boil the kettle themselves and work the toaster themselves.
Those who come to enjoy the camaraderie of their fellow men here have varying views on what makes the 'shed' so appealing. For some, it is an opportunity to make things, to dust off old skills and be quietly creative.
For others, the chance to grow things in the mini-allotments is very attractive. Some are honest enough to admit that they appreciate getting out from under the feet of their wives.
There are a few, too, for whom the shed is a refuge from loneliness and the onset of depression.
The shed here in Chapel River, Killadreenan, is a positive alternative to the pub.
All agree that the craic and the banter exchanged in the best of good humour are at the heart of the venture. At the moment, they are busy planning a major fundraiser, putting up posters and selling tickets for a concert at the nearby Parkview Hotel. Their special guests for the night on February 23 will be the Garda Band and it promises to be a most entertaining occasion.
The teamwork which goes into the planning the event over steaming mugs of tea is typical of the Men's Shed approach. John Kelly may enjoy the title of chairman but he is no more than first among equals and this is a team game.
The shed, by the way, is not an actual shed at all but a former garden centre beside the old main road. The owner, James Carroll, was keen to see good use made of the premises, prompting the formation of a men's committee a couple of years ago. What is now the shed workshop had been used to accommodate over-wintering sheep and the building required considerable cleaning up.
At least the job gave the volunteers who showed up the chance to show willing and demonstrate that they had the required do-it-yourselves mentality. And the hands-on effort was backed by generous donations of goods and equipment. So now, where the ewes used to sit in straw, a full woodworking set-up has been created with a clean concrete floor and half-made projects on display beside the benches. The output includes planters which are exported to a Dublin school for dyslexic children and 'buddy benches' for local schools.
Next door to the workshop is the sitting room with kitchen and toilet where the conversation is always lively and the kettle is always on. They used to have a pool table but found it was getting in the way of the socialising, so it was banished along with the darts board, which they never got around to putting up on the wall at all. A computer sits in a corner but there is no internet connection at the moment and no one is greatly concerned.
The Newtownmountkennedy and Newcastle shed has the great advantage over many others that it is has full run of the place where it has its headquarters. Leased long term, the members have the stove lit most days, enjoying a sense of ownership which allows them a home from home.
'This is the best thing since the sliced pan,' says one member. 'Anyone can come in here to read the paper and have a chat. The shed just gets them out of their shells - it's a life saver.'
One of the signs up on the wall proclaims 'Grumpy Old Men', but there is no evidence of grumpiness in the atmosphere.
However, it is certainly the case that most of those who come here are not in the first flush of youth - if only because the younger ones have found employment. Many members have retired from full-time jobs and Pat Carey is the oldest on the books at the age of 82.
They are not beyond social media, with a Facebook page designed by Ed Gregory giving them a lively presence on the world wide web. One of the featured photographs on Facebook is of the sleigh which was made to bring a jolly Santa Claus on tour around the district in December. The bright red sleigh remains in the yard outside, carefully stored under a tarpaulin pending its return to the North Pole.
As the weather improves, the men look forward to spending more time out of doors. The raised growing beds may be in a state of winter forlornness at the moment but the bean shoots are beginning to put on a spurt, so the brown earth will soon attract intense activity. The admirably spiritual desire to plant and nurture and grow will be laced with mischievous rivalry as the gardeners compete to produce the biggest onion or the finest tomatoes.
At the rear of the garden is a hen house full of fine egg-layers, watched over by poultry specialist Willie Fitzpatrick and the latest recruit, a young tabby cat called Kithen.
At the side of the extensive yard an impressive barbecue has been constructed, which will be well used during the summer months and tucked in behind that is a storage unit. It contains an impeccably restored pony trap, upholstered and painted up in good time to take part in the St Patrick's Day Parade.
The setup of the shed represents incredibly good value for the tenner a year subscription - a bargain if ever there was one.
'We have 50 members and we are limited to that by our insurance,' reveals chairman John, who has to turn many men away. He laughs: 'It's a youth club for old men.' The stove is lit six days a week from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., with full Irish breakfast served for €3 a head on Wednesday mornings (Colm Gammell presiding at the hob) and a music session one evening each week. At the moment, the slagging is mighty in the wake of the recent expedition to Lynham's in Laragh.
Good turn-outs are reported too for gatherings such as the Christmas dinner or talks given by experts on topics such as male health. The chef from the Parkview drops in from time to time to pass on a few tips about nutrition. It's one of many sheds that have popped up all around Co. Wicklow, giving a valuable social outlet to hundreds. They have been seen in Wicklow Town, Roundwood, Greystones, Tinahely, Avoca, Blessington, Arklow and Baltinglass.
The first sheds emerged in Australia in 1990 and two decades later the phenomenon landed in Ireland.
It arrived just in time to channel some the talent and energy left idle by the ravages of the collapse of the Celtic Tiger into positive action. The Australian model has been adapted with gusto on this island, with hundreds of sheds now in existence with a national organisation bringing them together.
The Newtown shed is represented on the national executive by Ger Sinnott, who reports that shedding in Ireland has now outgrown the original Down Under. This has been achieved south of the border with a minimum of Government funding, while those in Northern Ireland benefit from the British National Lottery. Ger is convinced that Newtownmountkennedy is one of the best: 'This shed is premier league,' he states with utter conviction.
Ger Sinnott would love to see a national Men's Shed conference coming to Newtown to raise the profile of his own local group. He is a very determined individual, so do not rule this out. In the meantime, the members have the Garda Band to look forward to later this month.
And they will be firing up the barbecue for a repeat of the very successful open day they staged last summer.
Perhaps by then they will have added the pizza oven, which is just one of the many suggested projects the shed men have the skill and the will and the energy to make real.