Qualitative Research into Men & Men’s Sheds by Lubov Karpinchik, B.A. DDC

 Lubov Karpinchik, B.A., Dissertation Doctor’s Clinic



Introduction: The Fate of Men

Over the past few years, national headlines often communicated the tragic human cost of the economic recession. More often than not, journalists would outline the very fragile mental state of many of the men in Irish society due to increased financial pressures, loss of work, family homes and ability to manage their own emotional state. Men of any ages, it seems, became the focus of the recession’s by-product – the real victims of the rapid economic downturn that wiped away identities of many men and women whose jobs were non-existent by the time I began my last undergrad college placement in 2011. Sadly, the headlines captured the tragedy beyond repair. Severe depression and suicide became a familiar account of how things have become. No part of country was left unaffected. What’s more, rural communities seemed to have the most difficult road to recovery due to lesser structural resilience to global economic downturn. Unemployed men became a familiar statistical number in small rural towns and villages.

Despite all the reports, there were places and structures that grew out of sheer desire of the individuals not to become the placid statistical number. Those were the men who did not make national headlines, nonetheless, their stories and determination are notably inspiring and empowering. This is the story of many great men who in the midst of their own losses found strength in themselves to fight depression and life’s adverse circumstances. Their courage is subtle and yet, worthy of not only noting but also acknowledging. Who knows how many lives were saved by a simple project started by a few good men in the community? No headlines or statistics will adequately present such an account. What is clear, is that the establishment of the Men’s Shed in the area became a place for many to build on confidence, share stories and experience that otherwise would have most been certainly lost.

To many men in the Killaloe & Ballina area the establishment of the men’s shed started in the local Family Resource Centre. It is here where my journey has also begun.

On a nice spring day I was welcomed to the Family Resource centre in the Killaloe & Ballina area, a picturesque and notably famous amongst the tourist village has an aura of well-to-do place – restaurants, yachts, and boutique shops adorn its streets.  Prosperity, it seems, is the ever-present feature of the area. My choice to come on my last placement here was not accidental. Having worked in the disabilities sector for a number of years by now, I knew too well that a “nice” distraction from the ever-present budget constraints, staff cuts and personal financial worries would do me good. Some youth work, I thought, would be great opportunity for me to get a break from the social care realities. The Family Resource Centre was running a few courses at the time. Some of those were FETAC registered up to level 4. I was told that the courses are in great demand since the recession and that one of my responsibilities will be to get information about the courses available into community and manage the attendants’ numbers. “Follow me, I’ll show you” – said the manager. And we proceeded to the back yard of the Centre where the Stone Carving course took place.

Knowing the progression of the Irish Award system, I was surprised to see a group of people of all ages standing in the back yard, chatting and introducing themselves to me one by one. My original expectations to see young sixteen year olds were not to be materialised. Men, who held chisels in their hands and working on their sculptures, were mostly in their thirties upwards.

As my placement progressed, so did the courses that were offered by the Centre.

Typically run over a few weeks of “contact” hours, the courses on offer were enough for the group members to bond, but not long enough to offer consistency in on-going progression or development. As an organiser, I started to notice that almost the same members of the original Stone Carving group signed up for the Horticulture course that was on offer in the Centre. Then, there was Car Maintenance course. And then, the Stone Carving again. Almost all of the men that I have met on my first day of placement came back. In between the courses, men were calling in to me asking if there was anything they could do to help. The sculptures that they did were donated to the Centre to be “placed on the streets of their Town”. It soon became clear, that the men were not looking to get a Certificate or up-skill themselves. They were looking to do something meaningful in their spare time and contribute to the community.

My observations were supported by the personal stories that the members of the group (by now it was a group) told me at times. Standing at the back yard with a cup of tea, some would say that recession gave them a lot of time. Too much spare time and very little hope to be employed again. Almost everyone left school early and worked in the construction sector labouring or in the near by factory that closed in the early 2008 leaving most of them in the area unemployed. Travelling twenty kilometres to Limerick for many was not an option any more as they could not afford car up keeping or rent. There was a sense of feeling unvalued due to dramatic changes in their employment status. Nonetheless, all of the men suggested that they would like to stay away from the Pub and to be able to do something meaningful for the community.

By the time the Community Café got established, it became clear that the group that we all got to know as the “Men’s Course Group” was less interested to get a cup of tea or coffee in the Centre. They were actively looking at the ways to gain meaning through community participation and active contribution to what they know as their hometown. They were willing to learn from each other, to help each other and, most importantly, to give back. The Men’s Shed idea was an active discussion in the group.

No doubt, my interest in the group development was an inspiring path to seek permission of the group members to follow their progress. As my placement was coming to an end, I was grateful to many group members who were willing to tell me about their stories and welcomed me back. By now the “Men’s Course Group” was on it’s way of establishing contacts with the two county councils (Killaloe and Ballina lies on the border of County Tipperary and County Limerick) and seeking support from the Men’s Shed organisation to discuss opportunities to establish their own Shed in the area.

The opportunity to get involved beyond the programmes offered in the Family Resource Centre and to become an independent group of people who wish to contribute to the community on their own terms, gathered strong advocates from the group members who were driven by this idea. At the end of 2012, almost a year since I was first introduced to the men on the Stone Carving course, a meeting was held in the Community Café about the Men’s Shed establishment. By spring 2013 I was privileged to conduct interviews with the organisers and members of the Men’s Shed – by now a very new but prominent feature of the community.

Inevitably, through the process of semi-structured interviews conducted with six members of the Men’s Shed, I looked at:

1) The gender discourse and understanding of masculinities

2) The links between masculine performance and emotional expression,

3) Employment status and masculine self-concept

4) Identity, community and men’s groups.

As part of my research, four generic areas into establishing the Men’s Shed were uncovered. Many men acknowledged the impact of long-term unemployment on their confidence levels. Having to survive on the benefits and, in many cases, having to support young family and children left little or no opportunities for the men to match the prosperous surroundings of their hometown. Many felt resentment directed at themselves, as they felt helpless to be able to contribute to the community. Many interviewees suggested that they by now came into terms with financial struggles but had difficulty to understand why they cold not contribute through community participation in the meaningful way. The answer lay in the insurance and liability issues. Men began to realise that, outside the courses provided in the Centre, they were not able to contribute meaningfully due to legal and structural issues. The group began to create their own community for the Community. They were united by the sense of purpose that was defined – they had time on their hands and they wanted to make this time meaningful. Of course, for many men by virtue of socialisation, meaningful time equates to work. There was, however, another less obvious but very important meaning to establishing the Men’s Shed. The project has become a focus for many to form new social networks with people of all ages who otherwise would remain unknown to them. “…you’re learning something new and you are passing away three or four hours like. You are meeting your friends as well like.” (Interviewee II)

Self-identity and sense of purpose are often developed and associated with work and employment status for men (Ballinger et al, 2009). Furthermore, gender socialisation in postmodern society is attached to the relationship of workplace and wage earnings as a vital factor to masculinities construct. What’s more, self-perception – another aspect of an individual’s psychological well-being, is also noted to be linked with employment and earnings status, particularly so for men. Despite increasingly fast-pacing and changing economic and, therefore, employment patterns, many may note that traditional notions of masculine socialisation are also changing, however, at a slower pace and predominantly so in the rural areas of the country. Achievement and power, income and occupation are still considered to be key determinants for men to develop either positive or negative perception of self-worth. A complex interplay of intrinsic and extrinsic factors to gender roles and psychological predisposition of men and women to share and seek help were also identified in the study on establishing Men’s Shed in the Killaloe & Ballina region. The findings of the study (detailed in the infograph below) identified the range of key motivators for the local men for setting up the Men’s Shed.

The multitude of areas highlighted in the process of study became an insight into mutually interrelated and yet, significant for the individual and the community in general, areas of structural, informational and interpersonal supports that Men’s Shed could provide for the Community. Needless to say, for many interviewees the establishment of the Men’s Shed was the difference between a meaningful, empowering existence versus psychological and moral degradation in the absence of mental and physical stimulation.

Concluding Commentary

There are many international research  studies that have been conducted on the Men’s Shed movement. However, the uniqueness of the study described above was in its timing. The development of the project was captured in its infancy: from the time of individuals attending specific courses provided in the local Family Resource Centre to becoming a distinct group of men with a defined purpose and goal. It has to be noted, that the study participants reflected on the future positives that the Men’s Shed could bring to them. Whether these hopes and aspirations came to be reality is yet to be answered.Tell us your story…….

– Copyright Lubov Karpinchik (2015) From Forthcoming Book in the Dissertation Doctor’s Clinic Academic Series 2015.