Elvin Earley is beaming, his eyelashes spread like palms open wide around the good news he is sharing. It’s a damp day in early December in rural northwest Ireland and the 41-year-old father and husband is telling of how a stint at the local Men’s Shed helped him recover the confidence he lost after becoming unemployed.
“It was a big boost to go from losing my job and being very depressed to learning carpentry, which I never knew before,” he says. “The lads here showed me how to put down wooden floors at home, which came out brilliant. Now when the missus says, ‘Elvin, we need to get someone to put up a shelf,’ I can say, ‘No we don’t. I can do that!’”
My friend Doris, who was hosting me on a working vacation on her farm, brought me to the Men’s Shed in the town of Boyle after hearing me talk about tool libraries, makerspaces and hackerspaces. With lifestyles increasingly organized around consumption, these places provide access to special equipment and a chance to become proficient in crafts that range from the practical to the artisanal. In English-speaking countries around the world, thousands of Men’s Sheds combine a similar mission with concern for the mental health and overall wellbeing of males who feel socially isolated or restless. In 2013, just before the Boyle shed opened, The Guardian newspaper described the groups as “lifesavers.” I’m interested in them because I think motivated people could bring their benefits to Hudson Valley communities.
“It’s a mix of people who are used to working and are now sitting at home with nothing to do, on social welfare or retired,” Elvin says of the group’s members. “The biggest part of depression and suicide is that people are on their own, with no one to talk to. But there’s nothing to be embarrassed about here. You can walk through that door, sit down for a cup of tea and a chat, learn something new and go home happy.”
“It’s a safe place for us, really,” he adds. “There’s no pressure.”
Tony Byrne, chairperson of the Boyle shed, showed us some of the goods the group produces for the community. “Something was said long ago by someone in a Men’s Shed,” he says in his office. “Men don’t talk face to face, but they do talk shoulder to shoulder.” Tony’s voice is soft and his multiple sclerosis means that almost every physical thing he does involves a slow effort. He shows us wooden flower boxes, pens and wine bottle holders; shelters for birds, bats and bees; picnic tables that cleverly fold into multiple configurations and “buddy benches” where children and adults can sit to signal to others that they’d like someone to talk to.
As a non-profit, the few dozen people who use the Men’s Shed meet the necessary expenses—for heat, electricity and “a drop of milk”—with donations and very modest charges on some of the goods they create. Nearly everything is donated by locals: couches and chairs; drills, a wood lathe and the makeup of a small recording studio; hardwood and nails; and a row of computers where elderly people learn to use Skype and other programs to stay in touch with far-off relatives.
The group’s youngest member is Sam Benfield, a 15-year-old boy whose single mother homeschools him miles out of town. “He was so quiet when he came here,” says Elvin. “He never really mixed with anyone. Now he’s outgoing and involved with everything and can help his mom around the house. She’s so proud of him. It gives him a bit of confidence.”
Are women allowed in the Men’s Shed? “Oh, absolutely,” Elvin says. “It’s not like we’re closed just because it’s called the Men’s Shed. It’s welcome to women, men, people of any race, culture or age; it doesn’t matter where you come from. And that’s the way Men’s Sheds should be all the time, wherever you go. Everyone’s welcome.”
A version of this piece appeared in the Hudson Valley News.