Nationwide men’s shed network combats rural isolation and loneliness

For all men in the Allihies parish, the Shed doors are open wide, offering support and companionship, writes Carina Jeisy

Operating as non-profit community initiatives, the men’s shed movement aims to bring men all over Ireland together, in order to improve their mental health and overall wellness.

The shed now represents a place of companionship and support in a nationwide network.

When a group came together in 2014 to set about establishing a men’s shed in Allihies in West Cork, combating rural isolation and the associated loneliness was the main aim.

Allihies Mens Shed chairman David Dudley with the Fordson Major which the members are restoring.

Like many places in the West of Ireland, there is rural isolation in Allihies, including a relatively high proportion of men who live alone on small farms. The West Cork Development Partnership came on board, and helped this very spirited community’s Men’s Shed movement to spring into life.

Chairperson David Dudley states, “It’s a place to work on a project, learn a new skill, or simply spend time with other people.”

Their facility, officially opened in July, 2016, consists of a spacious workshop and social room, a kitchen, an office and toilets. Wheelchair-accessible, the property is finished to a high standard, with a car park, footpaths and tended allotments.

The shed is located on previously disused wasteland on the Back Road which runs parallel to the main street of Allihies Village. (This road was allegedly built by the Berehaven Mining Company during the Industrial Revolution to avoid their employees travelling through the village and catching cholera.)

St Brendan’s Trust, which owns the property on behalf of the Diocese of Kerry, recognised the social benefits of the project, and gave permission for the purpose-built shed.

Once cleared of bushes and trees, the site was partially divided into garden plots, with potential for community allotments having been identified.

Allihies Community Allotments was established as a separate entity, with priority given to community members without access to suitable ground for growing food.

The 11 plots were quickly snapped up, and the gardens subsequently flourished.

Allotment vegetables have become a hot topic over a pint at the local.

They won a Cork Environmental Forum best community garden award in December, 2016.

Funding has always been an issue for the Allihies Men’s Shed. Their most successful fundraising campaign to date was for scrap metal collection.

One of the members farms on Dursey Island, and informed the shed that scrap metal had never been collected on the island.

This led to many an expedition on the Dursey cable car.

The men gathered everything from horse ploughs to abandoned tractors and cars, piling it up at the island pier, where it awaited a specially chartered boat for collection.

The difficulty of the task was compounded by the fact that there was no lifting equipment available to the men, and anything too heavy to lift by hand had to be broken down, piece by piece, and rolled into transport boxes.

But 15 tonnes of scrap was gathered on the island, plus another 5-6 tonnes on the mainland, all sold to a metal recycling company. The endeavour served a dual purpose; it had a positive impact on the local environment, and it enabled members to purchase materials for the structure of the actual shed itself.

The ethos of the shed is to improve social interaction for men, and therefore their quality of life.

David Dudley states that their biggest challenge is to get more people into the shed. “There are men at home on their own, and we would love to get them out and involved in projects here, if it’s only to come for a chat.”

They are in touch with the nearby Ardgroom Men’s Shed, which is facing the same challenges.

Currently, the Allihies shed is only open during the day on a Friday, from midday, for what they call ‘scoraíocht’, where men pop in for tea and a chat. However, if anybody wants to use the facility any other day, they are welcome; keys are always made available to shed members. The hope is for more daytime use.

Aside from the Southern Star newspaper and the parish newsletter, Facebook is the main information medium used by the Allihies Men’s Shed. They know that not everyone is a Facebook user, and understanding the importance of community networking, they urge members to reach out to individuals on a personal level to let them know what’s going on.

The Allihies Men’s Shed would welcome help, ideas, support or expertise for their Fordson Major restoration, which turning out to be very expensive, due to the age of the tractor and the challenge in sourcing parts.

Another challenge faced is inevitable personality clashes, and the fact that meeting individuals you don’t see eye to eye with is not easily avoidable in a small community. Mark Southgate states, ‘Whatever personality differences exist outside of this place, the ethos is different once inside the shed. There is no toleration of aggression or anything. Raised voices will be asked to leave.’

He also hopes younger men get involved, and that they “get past the age stigma” that he feels is associated with the Men’s Shed movement.

Thursday night, woodwork night, and the donkey cart restoration, would certainly appeal to all age groups.

They recently won a national furniture upscale competition with a garden furniture piece, travelling to Athlone to claim their prize.

The antique tractor restoration takes place on Tuesdays.

Mark Southgate states, “We are not in competition with anything locally, but we can’t restrict our shed, it has to be open to the community.”

In this vein, Wednesday night at the shed had been reserved for the Allihies Singers, an activity of mixed gender that is hopefully to be resumed in the near future.

Similarly, a painting techniques course in finishing and restoration of furniture, starts on Monday January 22, open to everyone.

The Men’s Shed recently supplied and erected Christmas trees for the local churches, and provided the lights.

Struggling financially, they are always eager for ideas and new undertakings which can ensure the security of the project into the future.

You can follow their progress on the Allihies Men’s Shed Facebook page.

For all men in the Allihies parish, the Shed doors are open wide.

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