The Men’s Sheds movement consists of a network of autonomous “sheds”, replicating the spaces where men traditionally have been doing different sorts of woodwork.
The difference is that, instead of being a private space at the back of someone’s garden, they serve a group of men.
The idea is that the shed members work and learn together. Each shed picks its own projects, but often they focus on carpentry, such as building or mending furniture.
The project has its roots in Australia, where the first sheds were opened in the 1990s.
The Irish Men’s Sheds Association’s Communications Officer Turlough Kelly explains that the model addresses health issues by alleviating loneliness and isolation.
These issues are connected with views regarding gender roles. Men are not encouraged to talk about their emotions or worries, or to take care of their health.
“The traditional conception of the strong male role model places high importance on self-reliance, strength, stoicism and individuality,” says Kelly.
Shoulder to shoulder
In Ireland, the Men’s Sheds project started to attract interest ten years ago.
The timing is not a coincidence. The sheds can have a significant role in a situation of unemployment, for example.
“Men’s Sheds took off in Ireland at the height of a catastrophic recession, when many men found themselves adrift and cut off from their traditional sources of companionship and solidarity,” Kelly explains.
The sheds offer an informal, safe, non-judgmental and low-key space for being together while working. In the sheds, conversations emerge naturally – not face-to-face but “shoulder to shoulder”, which is the motto of the Men’s Sheds movement. The non-profit sheds are committed to values such as equality, democracy and transparency.
The process also involves learning and passing on skills, in a form that Kelly calls social learning. The sheds bring together individuals from many kinds of backgrounds, creating a space for informal and collaborative learning: everyone can be both a teacher and a learner.
While the project in Ireland began in a moment of social crisis, the activities didn’t stop with the economic recovery. There are currently 400 sheds around the island, and the association was recently awarded the European Citizens’ Prize and a Social Entrepreneurs Ireland Impact Partnership.
Proven health benefits
The Men’s Sheds participants benefit from the activities in many ways. Being a shed member often leads to increased social and physical activity – according to Kelly, sometimes the first positive step is simply getting out of the house.
The members also gain access to general health information in the form of talks, activities and programmes organised together with partner organisations and Ireland’s health authorities.
According to an academic study from 2013, 90% of Men’s Shed members feel that attending a shed has improved their wellbeing. This is also reflected in the feedback the members give.
“Whenever I visit a shed, at least one member approaches me on his own initiative to say that the shed has changed or even saved his life. This level of candour is highly unusual for Irish men, particularly those in the 50+ age bracket, and demonstrates the value and impact of Men’s Sheds,” says Kelly.