Farm Ireland

Wednesday 21 March 2018

‘Agricultural college, followed by running the family farm - I hated every minute of it and turned to alcohol’

'Living in Rural Ireland' series: Men’s Sheds founder John McEvoy on his life as a ‘recovering farmer'

John McEvoy Picture: Sean Kehoe
John McEvoy Picture: Sean Kehoe

Jillian Godsil

Four years ago John Evoy won an Impact Award from the Social Entrepreneurs Ireland association for creating a space where men with time on their hands could hang out.

It sounds simple enough but the Impact award is not given lightly and in this case it was awarded for both the necessity of the service and the speed at which it was rolled out in Ireland. Today there are 400 plus Men’s Sheds across the country courtesy of Evoy’s brainwave.

"I saw the example in Australia where the Men’s Sheds originated and it had grown organically," explains Evoy. "I could see it was a great idea but also that for it to be of maximum benefit, it needed to grow quickly."

In fact, it grew so quickly that by Christmas 2014 Evoy himself was burnout and needed to take time out. He acknowledges the irony that the CEO of the Irish Men’s Sheds Association had to take time out, but the explosion of sheds had taken its toll on his health and this time around he recognised the symptoms.

Evoy explains that the Men’s Sheds has a very simple principle. ‘It is for men with time on their hands to hang out,’ he says.

"It is not to promote positive mental health or physical well-being or to provide a social outlet for lonely men – and yet it does all those things organically."

Evoy knows first-hand the reasons why he might have needed a Men’s Shed before they existed in Ireland. He was born to the land and was expected to farm. A short stint in an agricultural college was followed by running the family dairy farm and he hated every minute of it.

"The land I loved but the farming I really did not enjoy," he said. He turned to alcohol and drugs to minimise the loneliness. It only left him worse off, depressed and in a bad way.

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He struggled on for most of his twenties trying to reconcile his career and his life but it was only making him miserable.

"Sometimes an only son has no choice but to farm," he says. "It might be a privilege for many but for me it was pure hardship.

"Finally, aged 27, I stopped and decided I had to change career. It was a tough conversation to have with my father (my mother died when I was very young leaving my sister and I to be brought up by my father) but he and my grandmother wanted the best for me. They supported me.

"I call myself a recovering farmer now," jokes Evoy. "It’s fifteen years since I last farmed…"

Evoy then ventured into social work. He knew he wanted to help people. Even as he got his own life back on track, he began volunteering in social groups and finally gained paid employment in this area.

"I worked on a number of different initiatives – a youth café and a drop in centre," says Evoy. "I began to witness how people interacted in a community and we trained other community leaders to create the same space. And then I spotted the Men’s Sheds in Australia."

Evoy instantly could see the benefits. "Men talk shoulder to shoulder," he says.

"Give them a purpose or a project and they can bond and talk. It is very powerful. The Men’s Sheds are purposely non-directional; each shed has autonomy to do their own thing. Some build boats, some fix tractors, some get involved in community projects like the tidy towns. The beauty is that everything is organic – and the most important tool in every shed is the kettle."

In some ways, Evoy can trace back the concept of a shed to his own local forge run by his grandfather.

"Back in the day, men gathered there to talk, watch my grandfather work and bond. There was no TV so the social life was outside not indoors."

Evoy recognises that why every shed is different and unique, rural sheds tend to run along different lines to urban ones.

"For starters, men in the country tend to be busy during the day, regardless of whether they have paid employment or not. Farmers are busy by nature during daylight hours and so the rural sheds tend to be busier at nightime.

"Urban sheds reflect the fact urban dwellers are used to a 9 to 5 working environment and so when they have time on their hands, through retirement or unemployment, then it is natural for them to want to congregate during the day," he says.

Evoy also notes that the sheds reflect people displacement. "If someone has moved into a new area and may not have established friends, then the Men’s Sheds can be a very welcome place. For example, the Men’s Shed in Gorey is full of Dubs," he says. "So, membership can be very diverse."

Evoy is actually only a member of one Men’s Shed – in Malmo in Sweden. "They ran a crowdfunding project and my contribution was rewarded with life time membership. I visited last year and immediately felt at home."

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