We discuss everything and anything here, there's great solidarity in the Men's Shed
Tralee Men's Shed is a hive of activity in the heart of town. Stephen Fernane chats with some of its members about the day-to-day running of the shed, and the social environment it creates for men as a place to come together over some great projects.
A tiny ramp of sawdust and the scream of a wood barer tell you this is a productive place. Beyond the sound, a group of men make broken pallets and timber latts new again in the shape of bird boxes, benches and dog boxes. You name it, they can do it.
It's a place of industry but without the fussy sense of authority and formality one associates with a workplace. It's anything but regimental. Instead, think of a place where rivers of tea, debates that would leave the Dáil trailing in its wake, and the smell of freshly cut wood rule the roost. It's a shed by name, but a home away from home in reality.
First to greet me is John Goddard. John is originally from England and he has been attending the shed for over a year. He helps out in the office and oversees the PR side of things. Thanks to endless discussions in the shed, John said he has now learned more about Irish history than he ever would have at a university.
"We discuss everything and anything here," he says. "At the end of the day there is nothing worse for a man who has maybe lost his job and is sitting at home feeling isolated. This is a great place to come. People here talk if they want to talk. We can't drag it out of them as everyone's different. But everyone has their own story to tell our share."
John next introduces me to Frank Faherty, Chairman of Tralee Men's Shed. Frank has been a member for the past three years after his daughter persuaded him to join following his wife's passing. He hasn't looked back since and he jokes about the day he first started and couldn't 'drive a nail straight'. Currently, around 30 men attend Tralee Men's Shed, which is open five days a week. In essence, it is a community based charity organisation. However, its reach extends far beyond this. The shed emits a constructive and outgoing atmosphere and it's easy to see why men consider it a place of emotional comfort. I'm given a tour of the premises and introduced to the members, some of whom are sitting by the door chatting and enjoying the morning sunshine. Others prefer to keep working and just give a friendly nod. I also meet Liam Gunn, who in 2017 spoke about how the shed helped him cope with the death of his wife.
"Some come in the morning, while more prefer to be here in the afternoons," said Frank. "We even have some members that just prefer to come and go every few weeks. Everyone is made feel welcome here and no one is excluded. We also stamp out any sign of bullying. We don't tolerate it. Thankfully, it's not a problem here," he explains.
From widowers and retirees to men at a crossroads in life, it's a place where all ages get involved in the day to day running of the shed; the more men that join, the greater the fusion of skills. Carpentry, wood carving and decorative painting are the main skills on show - each individual brings his own life skill. Leisure activities like darts, pool and current affairs are equally valued pursuits; hence the large Tayto box size of Barry's Tea that sits on the countertop. I ask Frank to describe exactly what the benefits are for men who make the shed their port of call every day.
"It's vital for the well-being of anyone that comes in here. If you want to talk or work, this is the place to come to. Nobody is going to tell you what to do around here. You can go at your own pace. There are no bosses here. We all come in with our own issues. There's always a hop ball here. You have to go with the flow and it's all about blending in. Like most of the men, I too was reluctant to join at first. But now it's a place I love coming to. It's a place where men can come in to mix and talk about their problems, if they want to. How many men live on their own now? They should come in here. We discuss everything and there's always interaction. It's a happy place and men should know they're always welcome."
John nods in agreement: "We try to help in any way we can. If you're feeling a little depressed or isolated this is the perfect place to be. We chat about everything and if you don't want to chat that's fine too."
There's around 13 Men's sheds dotted throughout Kerry that are both active and interactive. The Tralee shed's location at Carrigeendaniel (next to the Kingdom Mart, who kindly provided the shed at a reduced rate) is also ideal for parking. Kindling is the core source of income here, and now that winter is in full throttle, the heat is well and truly on to keep producing it. Kerry Co-Op donate pallets that help keep this mini industry afloat. It's also thanks to local businesses like Boyles Topline, Louis Byrne's Spar, Joe O'Connor's, Garvey's and Kelliher's Hardware, who provide the space for the men to sell their wares. They're always looking for more local businesses to help out.
The men mainly specialise in making bird and bat boxes, dog and cat houses, benches and picnic tables, Christmas Cribs - you name it, the guys can make it. They've even completed a surf stand for someone who didn't want to part with his surf board given all the memories associated with it.
"We can do anything once people come to us with a design or an idea. More could be done on the money side of things. We have to survive on making money from what we sell, so if we don't have the support of the local people we could not run it. Kerry County Council are good to us. But the customers that support us are a lifeline. We are a charity but we need support too," said John.
The men are also doing their bit for conservation by supplying bat boxes and bee huts. Farmers now get grants to help preserve bat populations, while the perilous decline in bee numbers, worldwide, is a cause of major concern. One wonders why the local authority don't buy such items in bulk and place them strategically in parks and walkways to help advance our ecosystem.
As Chairman, Frank explains with much enthusiasm that 2019 will be all about broadening the awareness of Tralee Men's Shed in the community. They plan to work harder at spreading its message. An example of this is already underway with members of St John of God in Tralee visiting the shed every Wednesday to enjoy a chat about soccer, play pool and darts. Frank and John say they need more men to join.
"We want to do more for local charities; to do something positive for someone else. We want to open up and become more of a reactive group. No man should be sat at home and bored feeling their life is a waste. Often it's the wives and family members who can play a major role in persuading the men in their life to join.
"Everyone's treated the same here. It's not just pitched at men who are in a transitory phase in life. Some men might be working and are married, or whatever, but can still feel a sense of isolation. There is great solidarity here," said Frank.