The mighty Abbeyfeale Shedders

The artistic and detailed hand made Irish cottages

Last Friday morning I visited the Farmers Market in Abbeyfeale. I am a huge fan of locally grown produce and can find the best of local organic fruit and vegetables at this weekly market. Helga has been a market stall holder for many years, and Abbeyfeale Community Garden produce is showcased by Marian Harnett. I purchased beautiful carrots, parsnips, pumpkins, delicious toma-toes and cucumbers, and as I headed back to my car to leave, I did a double-take when I spotted a fantastic stall with the most amazing wood products. There were bird houses, bug hotels, planters, benches, garden seats, little painted cottages, wishing wells and much more. I quickly recognised that this was the work of the Men’s Shed. Every product was made from humble wood pallets. I was blown away by the craftsmanship. I’d been invited earlier to visit the club during one of their weekly meetings, so I arranged to visit them on Monday night to get a better idea of what the Men’s Shed is all about.
Men’s sheds originated from the shed in a back-yard scenario, where a man would go and carry out tasks, such as restoring furniture or fixing lawn mowers. The first men’s shed (by that name) was opened in Tongala, Victoria, Australia on July 26th, 1998. The Men’s Shed movement began in 2011 in Ireland, and quickly became established nationally. The concept behind the movement is not difficult to understand. Traditionally, men were seen to be the stronger of the race, and rarely showed emotions, or shed tears. The ridiculous saying “Big boys don’t cry” springs to mind. Thankfully, thinking has changed over the years and it is widely understood that men need to have a platform for expressing their emotions.
Good health is based on many factors including feeling good about yourself, being productive and valuable to your community, conn-ecting to friends and maintaining an active body and an active mind. Becoming a member of a community Men’s Shed gives a man that safe and busy environment where he can find many of these things in an atmosphere of friendship. And, impor-tantly, there is no pressure. Men can just come and have a chat and a cuppa if that is all they’re looking for.
I was offered a cuppa the moment I walked in the door of the Men’s Shed, Abbeyfeale. Their premises are one of the buildings in the old vocational school. It’s warm and welcoming. On the floor lay several planks of wood. Tom Enright, the chairman and tea-maker, explained that this would be used to divide the room. They plan on making two rooms, essentially. The upper room is to become a workshop for building their wood products, and the other side is to be the social room. This will allow any member to sit and chat over a cup of tea when the need arises. There’s a pool table in the room for anyone who likes to play, and importantly there’s a “Buddy bench” in the corner of the room. “We still haven’t figured out what to do with it” Dee Dennison told me. The men engaged the services of a local craftsman, John D Morris to teach classes woodwork. The skills they developed were clearly seen in the beautiful pieces that were displayed at the local market. I asked them if they made sales. “It was like baking cakes for Christmas” said Paddy Sullivan laughingly “We took orders as well as made sales!” The mention of Christmas reminded Paddy that on their first year of existence, he himself cooked a Christmas dinner for all the lads in the club. That was a fair achievement I said. “No bother at all” said Paddy “and I’d do it again in the morning!” Of course, Santa himself pays an annual visit to the town and thanks to the Men’s Shed, he now has a beautifully ornate grotto in which to greet the children. The Shed, with over twenty strong members, also has contributed to the Community Garden and other organisations within the town. Those involved have taken responsibility for cleaning up the old Protestant graveyard, and local landmark, Purt Castle (Caisleán Phort Trí Namhad is a Geraldine castle). They regularly act as traffic managers for church events and in fact, they’ll lend a hand where ever it’s needed within the community. They have a winter programme that includes an exercise evening called “Men on the Move” in conjunction with Limerick Sports Partnership. They also have plans to become technically skilled in computers and other digital technology. There was even a mention of cookery classes. They are free to run whatever classes they wish. They take day trips to events like the Ploughing Championships and have even gone deep sea fishing.
“Everybody has something to offer,” Mike Dalton, the secretary said, “Even life experiences are valuable”. Seamus Collins added that, as in any club, the members are the life blood of the organisation, and they actively seek new members. “The important step is the first one, to come inside the door” he said. “There’s a welcome for everyone.” I asked the lads if they all knew each other before joining the Shed. They told me that one or two of them were acquainted, but it was the club that formed the firm friendships that now exist. They come from all walks of life and have various backgrounds. Some are retired, some semi- retired and the youngest, Conor Enright, is just twenty years old.
Peter Coker and Billy Lane explained the importance of an open-door policy, an all-inclusive attitude that saw no one turned away. John Romain, (who I discovered was a musician) told me that this was a good year for them, but things were going to get a lot better when the new workshop was up and running. “We can come and work here a few nights a week,” he said. I asked the men if they get any help financially. “We get a bit of funding for various project,” Tom told me. Ireland’s DIY store also donated carpentry equipment to the group, not just locally but to all the national clubs. Dee explained that the need for funding became more urgent this year as the cost of insurance for the club had spiralled. “Up to this year, we could get insurance from the Australian Umbrella group at a reasonable cost. Unfortunately, they are no longer allowed to insure us, we’re not sure why. The result is that the cost has gone from less than a €140 to €980” I was gobsmacked! As I researched the issue of insurance, I couldn’t get answers as to why this had happened, but it’s a sad blow for the organisation. This Wednesday, a delegation from the Men’s Shed will travel to Páirc Ui Chaoimh in Cork to the annual Men’s Shed Gathering. This will be the largest gathering of men’s sheds members in the world this year, bringing members from across the island together in this iconic sporting arena.
But not even the cost of the insurance could dampen the spirits of these men. Never outside of a public house had I encountered a happier bunch. The mood was jovial at all times, and the craic was mighty. In a time when mental health is an issue for many people, and loneliness in rural areas causes its own problems, it’s wonderful to know that men are now taking a stand to improve their health and wellbeing.
As I left the lads to get on with their meeting, I wished there was a Men’s Shed in every community in Ireland. I also thought that I might return for another cuppa some evening!