Men’s Shed project helping to prevent isolation
But such challenges have also served to awaken an enterprising spirit within that community.
Down the Well Road, past the Portlaoise Retail Park, up the stairs and into the window box of the town’s equestrian centre, a surprising social gathering is taking place. As they do every Tuesday, Ray Harte and his friends in the Portlaoise Men’s Shed are drinking tea and racking their brains as to what will be the next project the group will undertake.
“We started out doing a lot of small projects initially, but now what we’re doing is starting to look into areas like environment, energy, food, heritage, biodiversity and maybe even tourism,” says shed chairman Ray, as he takes a seat amid the din of hammers, saws, power drills and, most importantly, conversation caused by his co-workers.
“Our primary role is to prevent isolation due to unemployment or retirement, because on retirement a lot of guys lose the network of people that they’ve worked with… the kettle, teapot and coffee are our most important tools in the workshop.
“In Ireland men aren’t great at looking after their own mental health and wellbeing sometimes, and I suppose just by virtue of lads coming down here and chatting it’s worth 120 visits to the doctor,” says Ray, as he sets about repairing the fractured bike chain off a destitute-looking BMX.
To say the venue is a hive of activity would be a gross understatement. As we walk into the workshop proper, Ray points out everything from bike repairs to bat houses, vegetable seed packets to enormous papier-maché carrots and parsnips and – the group’s newest venture – water containers designed to safely catch and store rainwater for domestic use upon the introduction of water charges.
Aside from the sense of fulfilment derived from the fruits (and vegetables) of their own labour, Ray and his colleagues take great pride in their community-wide approach. Young people from the local area are regularly invited to partake in practical workshops where they learn the skills of craftsmanship.
Right next door, Joe Grant is preparing the pyrography room for its next use. The process of burning images and designs onto wooden boards, Joe takes it upon himself to impart his pyrography speciality on anyone who may take an interest.
“If a fella comes over and says ‘give us a go of that’, you get them involved. I get a kick out of it, and it keeps everyone happy,” says 67-year-old Joe, who retired from the ESBafter 41 years in the job.
“It’s a great place to come down and chat with the lads, and you don’t have anyone saying ‘do this’ or ‘do that’. Men don’t have any outlet except to go to a pub, whereas women have the ICA. Fellas come in, they might open up, perhaps bring in a bank letter and say ‘look what I’m after getting today’, so we find men can express themselves which is good for their mental health as well,” adds Joe.