It's good to talk, man to man: The groups that support men who are living in loneliness
Irish men have traditionally been reluctant to express their feelings, particularly where isolation and loneliness are concerned. But things are slowly changing, as Kim Bielenberg found out when he dropped in to a men's support group
On a rainy Tuesday night, a group of men are giving up the comforts of home and live Champions' League football on the telly to unburden themselves of their emotions.
Every week, the men from around Dublin city venture into a room just off Parnell Street, and sit in a ring, which is supposed to indicate that there is nobody in charge. This is a "soft hierarchy".
When I am welcomed into this circle at Hill Street Men's Group, the participants include a postman, a school caretaker, a community worker and a counsellor. Most of the men here are separated or divorced.
The postman Liam McDermott tells me he was encouraged to come along by his ex-wife.
"She thought it would help me. At first when I came here I thought to myself, 'What am I doing here?' But I find you can talk about things that you wouldn't talk about at work or in the pub."
The response from colleagues at work when he says he is in a men's group can be quite curious. He says: "One of them asked whether we were all gay."
The popular image of a men's group is of bearded neo-neanderthals running around a campfire thumping their chests and hollering as they try to re-discover their inner warrior.
But there is none of this macho carry-on in the resource centre on Hill Street in a room decorated with family photos, where chaps chat amiably over tea and biscuits.
The manly ritual is kept to a minimum. At the start of a session that lasts for an hour and a quarter, the group reads out its mission statement to "support men... who are living with feelings of loneliness and isolation by sharing and growing together".
Another stereotype about men's groups is that they are a forum for endless moaning about the wrongs of women - and the perceived injustices inflicted in marital break-ups.
Family and relationships problems are certainly aired in the group, but there seem to be few expressions of bitter recrimination when I am there. Most of the separated fathers say they have good relationships with their former partners.
Christy Fleming, coordinator of a project helping people with Alzheimer's disease says: "It's a place to come along and share and be listened to, which you wouldn't be able do in other situations.
"Sometimes there is healing in someone just listening to you - and giving you the space to say what you want to say. That can be enough and it's not about fixing anybody."
Although the talk among the assembled men may be informal, and light-hearted at times, the session has a set structure. After the mission statement is read, the time is divided up equally between the participants.
Each man talks for his allocated period of time about what is pre-occupying them, and afterwards he can ask for feedback, or choose to have no feedback at all.
One of the men in the group is worried about a prostate operation and having sleepless nights about it. He says that just talking about it to the group takes away the fear and isolation.
Another member of the group tells me how he had a problem with one of his sons, and does not know what to do about it.
He talked about it at a previous session, and said the feedback from the rest of the group helped him to find a solution.
Many of the participants joined the group, which was originally known as Men Alone in No man's Land, after their marriages broke up.
As one put it to me, "Men can find themselves being thrown out of their home and they are left with a lot of isolation and loneliness. When I was in that situation I joined a men's group."
There is common agreement in the group that women are much better at sharing their emotions, and supporting each other in times of difficulty.
Terry McMullen, a member of the group who works as a counsellor, says: "When you grow up as a man you are not conditioned to show how you are feeling. It's more about being macho. That's our culture, heritage and where we come from.
"The cycle needs to be broken by men being educated to say what they feel."
Liam, the postman, agrees and suggests that when he was growing up, if a boy showed any feelings he would be told: "You little gobshite, you'll be okay."
Terry says: "I find that when men are emotionally involved with something, they can find it hard to think their way through it. They can get confused.
"They need something outside of themselves in order to see their way through it. That is why talking in the group helps."
Terry believes that it is not just the conditioning of men that is the problem. He says women can also expect men to behave in a certain way and not express their emotions too much.
"Women want the perfect man, but when they find him, they say they don't want him that way and that he needs to go back to being himself."
Only two of the men who meet up on a Tuesday knew each other before the group formed, and they do not see each other outside these Tuesday sessions.
Paul, the school caretaker, says: "We don't meet outside the group but if I was in a spot of bother I could ring one of the lads and go through the problem with them. You have someone to lean on when you are feeling down.
"I live on my own and coming to the group gets me out of the house, and it is not just about talking about the bad stuff. I could be here talking about having a great day in the park with the grandkids."
Dr Harry Barry, the GP and author who specialises in mental health, says meeting up in a men's group can be hugely constructive.
"It's a healthy way of approaching men's problems - it's the whole idea that men can say something in a group, feel safe and not feel judged.
"You will often find that when men are in trouble they tend to go in on themselves while women pick up the phone and talk to each other.
"In the past there was an ethos that if something happened to men it was up to them to absorb their emotion and get on with it, while it was okay for women to show distress or difficulty.
"Men almost have to be educated in what their actual emotions are."
Dr Barry says the idea of men sharing their inner feelings in a group follows some of the basic principles of psychotherapy.
"We get something out of our emotional mind in words and suddenly it is not as big a problem as we thought.
"When our emotional mind keeps our problems locked in it enlarges them, and makes them much worse than they actually are."
Dr Barry says that by meeting up and sharing their inner thoughts, men are able to rationalise their emotions. As Paul, the school caretaker, told me as we sat in a circle: "A problem shared is a problem halved.
- Hill Street Men's Group meets every Tuesday evening at 7pm. For more information on men's groups in Ireland see mensgroups.ie