'Men like to support each other, but they do need to have the right circumstances and the right environment before they feel able to open up'
John Evoy is at the vanguard of a movement to empower men to be more open about their feelings and help support each other. He tells Joy Orpen about his own personal, and sometimes troubled, journey.
As a young lad, John Evoy (41) ran the family farm. Today, he is in the process of setting up an international organisation that is all about men supporting men. How John made that extraordinary leap from milking cows in Wexford, to encouraging communities in Africa (and elsewhere) to join his organisation, is quite a story.
It begins with the death of his mother in a car crash when he was just six months old. John, who only had one sister, was brought up by his dad and extended family. He says although he has no memory of feeling deprived because he didn't have a mother in his life, he is aware that his childhood was "a bit of a struggle" for everyone involved. "Things weren't really acknowledged, or spoken about," he says. "That's the way things were in rural Ireland back then."
Nonetheless, John was reasonably happy until he left school and began working on the farm. That's when he first began to experience a sense of isolation and hopelessness, and that led to some challenging behaviours. "There was too much drink and too many drugs involved," he volunteers. "Looking back, I realise I was over-medicating myself in an attempt to relieve the sense of isolation and disconnection I was feeling. On top of all that, I wasn't a good farmer, and I wasn't making a success of the business."
John says his relationship with his father was fairly typical of the times. "We would talk about the weather and sport. But I'm sure, although my journey through my 20s must have worried him quite a lot, he didn't talk about it," he says.
As the years rolled on, John's inability to cope became more obvious. He says neighbours would have been quite aware that the farm was not in good shape, while his friends knew he was getting out of control. "I tried to give up the drink and the drugs a few times without success," he says.
Then, he discovered that a friend of his was seeing a counsellor, so he decided to go too. "I knew I had to do something," John says. "I'd been having thoughts about suicide for some time. Since then, I've trained as a counsellor and now I have all the right words for suicidal ideation. Back then, I wouldn't have known those words. But I think deep down, I knew there was more to life."
Eventually, John decided to take decisive action. He gave up taking harmful substances (including alcohol) and immediately began to think more clearly. And that led to him having dreams and hopes, none of which included farming. So he sold the cattle, which was difficult for his family to accept, given they had been working the land for generations. But eventually they realised it was for the best. That decision led to him doing a degree in psychotherapy and a master's in equality studies.
Along the way, John worked with children living with autism, he worked in a youth cafe, and got involved in adult health and education programmes.
Then in 2005, he was invited to participate in a pilot programme in New Ross, designed to encourage men to become more integrated into society. A drop-in centre was opened which provided free breakfasts, computers and pool tables; activities that were likely to encourage men to communicate with each other. The initiative worked well. Around this time, John heard about the Men's Shed movement (called Men's Sheds outside of Australia), which originated in Australia in the 1990s. This was born of the realisation that men often found it difficult to socialise, or to voice their concerns about their health, work, relationships or sense of well-being.
At the time, John was increasingly involved in projects directed specifically at men; for example, a scheme to help male members of the Traveller community resolve health issues. Then in 2008, while running a Co Wexford VEC community-development training course for men, he met Professor Barry Golding, a past president, and current board member of the Adult Learning Australia Board. He is also a patron of the Australian Men's Shed Association.
The following year, John attended their conference in Australia, and was well and truly hooked by what he found at the Sheds he visited. "I thought they were amazing, and that they needed to be happening here too," he says.
At the time, the recession was in full swing and there were around 400,000 unemployed people in Ireland; two-thirds of them male. "Lots of them were feeling really, really lost," says John.
While the first Men's Shed had been set up in Tipperary town in 2009, John felt it was really crucial he attend to the business of founding a national organisation to support those starting to run Sheds all over the country.
There are now about 325 Men's Sheds across the island, with 10,000 men participating every week. They enjoy hands-on activities, including arts and crafts, woodwork and metalwork, and so on. "Our motto is: 'Men don't talk face to face, they talk shoulder to shoulder,'" says John. "If you ask guys to be upfront about their problems, there's huge resistance. But if there is a broken lawnmower on a bench, and you come back later, you'll find those men now know everything about each other.
"Men like to support each other, but they do need to have the right circumstances and the right environment before they feel able to open up. In a 2012 survey, 84pc of the guys said their lives had greatly improved because of the Sheds."
One of the tenets of the Men's Sheds' philosophy is that each satellite branch should be sustainable and self-supporting. Therefore, premises are modest and vary from a couple of containers "roped" together, to unused business units and purpose-built outhouses. Some produce goods such as bird feeders and garden benches that can be sold to raise funds for the Sheds.
Right now, John has been tasked by the Australian and Irish associations to set up an international umbrella body to extend the concept worldwide. "Our aim is to reach one million men," says John earnestly. "No matter what people are going through, it gets a little easier if they talk about it to someone."
Given all the good that the Men's Sheds movement in Ireland has done, it should come as no surprise at all, that last year, John won a People of the Year Award. He is now calling on members of the public to suggest nominations for the 2016 awards.
The People of the Year Awards, organised by Rehab and broadcast by RTE One, celebrate some of this country's most inspiring people. To nominate someone, tel: (01) 205-7397, or see peopleoftheyear.com, or see facebook.com/PeopleOfTheYearAwards. Closing date for entries is Monday, September 12