Finding sanctuary in Men's Sheds: 'It's very important for men to have a project and a purpose'
Men's Sheds are expanding beyond woodwork into diverse areas, to offer companionship, purpose and promote mental health
The humble garden shed has traditionally been seen as a place of refuge for men - a sanctuary where they could retreat for a few hours, tinker with some minor DIY jobs, pot a few plants or simply sit on a stool and contemplate the world.
But for the most part, the shed was a place of solitude and fed into the stereotype of men keeping their cards close to their chests and doing precious little to offload any festering worries.
All this has changed with the Men's Sheds Association. This group has taken the concept of the thoroughly male, but also very isolating, garden-shed refuge and opened it out to include groups of men who can come together in communal 'sheds' to work on a project, learn a new skill or simply spend time together.
There are currently almost 400 registered 'sheds' around the country and each week almost 10,000 men (from both north and south of the border) gather to enjoy a few hours of companionship and purpose.
This week marks Men's Health Week and in recent months, high-profile men from Prince Harry to Brad Pitt have opened up about their own mental health struggles. Turlough Kelly of the Irish Men's Sheds Association (IMSA) says being involved with a group and having a shared goal can help promote mental health.
"It's hugely important that men have the opportunity to connect with other men, to learn and share skills and to link in to their communities," he says.
"Many men throughout Ireland - not just those who are retired - are at risk of social isolation.
"Men's Sheds help combat this tendency towards isolation and also ensure that the life experience and skills of the members can benefit their peers, communities and broader society."
And while the conventional image of a man in a shed involves garden tools or bicycle tyres, there are so many other activities taking place - including basket weaving, beekeeping, learning how to hand-cut turf, playing music, developing IT skills and even choral singing.
Ray McEvoy is part of a Men's Shed in Mountmellick, Co Laois, where the 40 members have put together a choir. He says the activity evolved as the members started out just enjoying each other's company and before long a regular sing song was part of every meet.
"We started the 'shed' in 2014 as a group of six or seven people who thought it necessary to create a place for men to get together," he says.
"We didn't have anywhere to meet, but the local Church of Ireland said we could use a house they owned as long as we paid a nominal rent, and I think because it had a nice sitting room, we used to gather around by the fire and chat. Invariably at some point or other someone would start to sing - and so the choir was born.
"It's a great group because not only does it offer a place to get together and meet other men in the locality, but research has shown that singing is also very beneficial to mental health, particularly for older people and most of us are retired so it's a really good outlet for us."
Ray and his colleagues meet every Monday evening and as well as the choir (which has 25 members), there are other activities available.
"Not all the group wants to sing but there are other things going on as well," he says. "We make things like toys for the local Christmas fair and there is also a garden with a polytunnel where we grow vegetables.
"I often look out and see a man in a chair, drinking tea from a flask, looking at the results of his hard work or just enjoying the peace - and that to me symbolises the success of our 'shed.'"
Ray says he and his colleagues have benefited greatly from their group and hope to see it expand into further events and members in the future.
"As I always say to the guys, 'the sky's the limit' when it comes to what we can do. For those who just want to get out of the house for a few hours, that's totally fine too - it can be whatever people want it to be."
At the other end of the country, Tom Douglas is chairman of Killarney Men's Shed which is housed in a disused commercial warehouse that he and the other members, aged between 18 and 80, combined their efforts to turn into the perfect space for their club.
Founded five years ago, the Kerry group offers a wide variety of activities to its members - from a busy social outlet to the more traditional garden shed pursuits.
"Our shed is open from 9am to 4pm, five days a week and there is always something going on - from woodwork and metal work to painting classes, fixing bicycles, having a music session or playing a game of cards," he says. "There are about 70 of us in the group altogether and everyone gets something out of it.
"Some are retired, others are out of work and some simply want to come along to meet new people and pick up a few ideas.
"We also do gardening so there are a lot of skills being learnt and passed on.
"It's very important for men to have a purpose and a project and that's the great thing about this organisation - we have no rules or regulations, we are always open to ideas and as long as people are hale and hearty and can look after themselves, anyone is welcome to join."
Mervyn Walsh is also part of a Men's Shed group - his is in Johnstown Bridge in Kildare and among the 20 members, there is a bee keeper who has been indoctrinating the group on the intricacies of looking after this vital and endangered species.
"A lot of people are interested in bee keeping and we have had a few talks on what it involves," he says.
"The next step is getting some hives,
"And then those who are interested will work in the white suits as apprentices to our bee-keeper - it's a great opportunity to learn something new.
"At the moment the other main project we are working on is making a 'buddy bench' for the local primary school (a bench where children can sit to indicate they want someone to play with).
"This is a particularly nice undertaking as when we have finished, the children will decorate it themselves - so it is a merging of two generations and communities."
Community is what Men's Sheds are all about and the concept of organising a space for men to come together to chat, work, relax or simply mingle is making a big difference to communities all over the country. Turlough Kelly of IMSA says the feedback from members is very positive.
"We know, from comprehensive surveys, that over 90pc of our members feel that belonging to a shed has improved their well-being," he says.
"And we have just launched a health and well-being initiative entitled Sheds for Life, which will focus heavily on delivering mental and physical health resources and information to our shedders."
Co-ordinator for the programme, Edel Byrne explains: "The Sheds for Life initiative was designed to support our shedders in taking care of their physical and mental well-being," she says.
"The informal, supportive environment of the shed setting is conducive to the learning and sharing of information, including health information and programmes.
"Sheds for Life will act as a vehicle to expand the efforts in building the well-being of men in the community."
For more information, visit menssheds.ie