Belfast Men’s Shed IMSA Conference keynote 2016

Belfast Irish Men’s Sheds Association (IMSA) Celebration,

22 Oct 2016

Sheds Without Borders, Barry Golding, Keynote address

Thank sincerely to Mairaid Labery for the generous introduction, and to IMSA for the opportunity to present on this important topic. The partnership with the Farmers Journal across Ireland I think is a great and positive.

I firstly acknowledge the work YOU, the shedders and the work you have all done. The works of Barry Sheridan and his small but powerful team have also done a great job getting us all here.

I also acknowledge and particularly thank:

Minister of State for Mental Health and Older People (ROI), Helen McAntee for her wise words, understanding and support for this event and the Movement in Ireland.

Belfast City Council for use of City Hall Shed. Lord Mayor of Belfast, Alderman Brian Kingston will join us this afternoon.

Ted Donnelly, the widely respected father of Men’s Sheds and instrumental with David Helmers, also amongst us today, getting the national movement on a firm footing in Australia.

John Evoy, who kicked the Movement a long way along the road in Ireland and more recently internationally for IMSO, the International Men’s Sheds Organisation,, and who in 2015 became the ‘Ted Donnelly Award’ recipient for his outstanding contribution to the Men’s Shed Movement.

I acknowledge we have people from eight nations represented here today, from right across Ireland, all parts of the U.K., including Wales and Scotland, Denmark, Canada, Kenya and Australia. It’s only New Zealand who could not get here.

I acknowledge that my late father and grandfathers would have had a richer and fuller later if Mens Sheds have been around then.

I also acknowledge everyone generously hosting us here on this great green Island of Ireland including the shedders who were unable to be here. They are the most important part of this. The warm hospitality in the past week from George Kelly, the shedders I met in Kerry, Dundalk and Cooley, Eva Beirne, Barry Sheridan and staff has been humbling.

It is great to catch up here with shedders I meet on previous visits from Antrim and Belfast. The Craic is an important part of what this is about.

There are now more mens sheds per head of population than anywhere else in the world. You have saved Irish lives, transformed families, wives and communities.

When I came to the front door this morning I met two guys, John and Steve who spoke to me with a very strange and off putting accent. And then I realised they were from Australia and I probably sounded like them. They were some of the men who have generously come all the way around the world from Flowerdale Men’s Shed in Australia to sing for us later today.

When any of us feel frustrated about our sheds or burnt out at a national or even shed, organisation or community level, it is important for each of us to remind ourselves what it is that led us to participate in a shed in the first place, and for what reasons, and with what benefits, for the shed, our families and the community.

It is also well to remember that this important movement, based on really simple but powerful grassroots principles still has some way to run.

It is the only Movement I know of that Australia has given to Ireland and the world.

The Kindergarten movement went worldwide from Germany. The Mechanics Institutes, Workingmens Clubs and WEA came to Australia from the UK. The U3A movement went global from a small start in 1972.

The Irish gave Australia convicts, potatoes and pubs, and more recently skilled workers. It is time for us to give back and also move it on.

I wish to make particular note of our theme, Sheds without Borders.

It is particularly pleasing to have this conference in Northern Ireland as proof of what is possible across borders.

It gives shedders across Ireland an opportunity to become aware of what is possible beyond the sheds as well as beyond national borders.

Many international borders have shrunk through sheds.

In 1998, only 18 Years ,ago Tongala in Victoria and Lane Cove in Sydney, Australia were the only two mens sheds open in the world. At that stage Ted Donnelly, her today amongst us was 65. You do the maths.

The first time shedders held a forum like this, in a much smaller venue, to discuss Men’s Sheds was only 11 years ago in Orbost, Victoria in 2005.

By 2007 we had our first truly national Australian conference: where else for a Men’s Movement but in Manly, Sydney?

It was at the Manly Conference that I said ‘Men don’t talk face to face, they talk shoulder to shoulder’ that has now become the slogan for most national associations.

In less than a decade since the Movement has spread across all state borders in Australia.

It was just seven years ago that the first Sheds opened in Ireland and the U.K. Now there are 650 in total across both countries.

When I finished my Men’s Movement book there were 1,325 Mens Sheds. There are now at least 400 more, perhaps 1,800 fully open by my best estimate, but it’s a movable feast.

On average each day in 2016, one new Men’s Shed officially opens somewhere in the world.

These numbers are conservative and based mainly on sheds registered as open with national associations. In all countries some men’s Sheds choose not to affiliate. In Australia many great sheds are now embedded within aged care centres for the use of residents and do not register with AMSA.

If you had told me fifteen years ago that a movement of caring shed based men with an ever age age in their 50s or 60s would become a potent, social and community movement, now spreading globally I would have said, using the Australian colloquial term, ‘bullshit’.

I was so moved by how it happened and the evidence about why it works that I wrote a book published last year called ‘The Men’s Shed Movement: The Company of Men’ IMSA has a few copies for sale for anyone interested and you can buy it online in hard copy or as an iBook. Around 40 pages in the book includes the Irish Men’s Shed history and case studies.

Behind the raw numbers of Sheds, my book identifies and teases out an incredible Shed diversity. If this were McDonalds you’d expect all Sheds to be the same. Thankfully they are not.

While there are some important basics that I’ll come to later, sheds in many senses reflect the backgrounds and interests and dreams of the men who participate and the communities that support them.

I’d like to briefly acknowledge the important role of women here, firstly and importantly as partners of many shedders who come with their support and encouragement. Second, the many women actively involved as community workers and volunteers.

Without women, this would not have happened. The wife of Dick McGowan who invented the first Men’s Shed stood behind and supported Dicks dream before his untimely death from a heart attack and diabetes at age 59. 22 years later Ruth still participates in the same shed turning pencils in the corner, the only woman working in the Shed. Ruth recently made and plays an Irish harp.

What activities are conducted in and beyond Shed workshops is only bounded by their imaginations and a small number of practicalities.

What the men and women in this room are doing for men, women and communities across Ireland in men’s sheds is inspirational.

The Sheds across borders theme is also illustrated by those many Irish delegates present, from almost every Irish country from north to south. Last week I visited Sheds in Scotland, this week in Kerry in Ireland and Dundalk, tomorrow around Belfast and region, next week in Denmark. Wherever I go there is diversity around a common theme.

This conference is tangible evidence of the ability of shedders and the shed concept to cut across and unite across national, cultural, administrative and linguistic borders.

Welcome to Mie and Svend from Denmark. Their sheds were the first to escape to a mainly non-English speaking country.

It would be dishonest and unhelpful of me to suggest that there are no borders in Men’s Sheds.

All community organisations, particularly grassroots ones including community Men’s Sheds, have and continue to have robust debate in each of the seven countries with active national movements: about what counts as a Men’s Shed, who is to be encouraged to participate, how it should be organised and funded, how a grassroots Movement might be most effectively organised by state or county, country or internationally.

The detail aside, we should try and show leadership as relative elders in our communities and amicably sort our differences beyond the Shed by listening and talking, as men do within the Shed.

Whilst leadership is to be encouraged, the organisationally ‘flat’ nature of the Shed makes it important that all views are canvassed and considered.

In this way a Men’s Shed also cuts across class and occupational backgrounds. The only skill a men needs, as Riverbank Frank, an Aboriginal elder put in it the Dubbo Shed in rural Australia, is to be able to sit down, have a cuppa, listen, and get a man to tell their story.

The shed is also decentred. It operates well in the smallest and remotest places in rural areas and in local urban neighbourhoods.

For me there have to be several fundamentals based on the evidence

There were a few ‘The Sheds’ in South Australia. that preceded men’s sheds by 5 years. Maxine Kitto said 20 years ago in 1996 in Goolwa, SA that The Shed worked because the men were empowered.

In my words, shedders are not clients, customers, patients or students. They come because of what they know and can do, not what they can’t do.

I came across two inspirational men in an aged care home in Oatlands, Tasmania who had been rejected by the aged care management in their attempt to create a community garden because of the risk management issues. The men went ahead and did it anyway. As the man limited to using a wheelchair after a stroke said to me, I may only have the use of one arm, but it’s a good arm”.

The Mens Shed, as Dick McGowan succinctly put it in 1997 is a place for men, somewhere to go, something to do and someone to talk to.

1. The most important part of the Movement are you, the shedders: it’s your Shed and your local community that supports it.

2. Taking account of practicality and safety, all men should feel at home and be welcome to participate. This crosses boundaries of religion, language, sexual orientation, nationally and disability.

3. While women continue to play critically important roles, it works best for most men if the Shed space is mainly or mostly men.

If you want to put it in the simplest but most powerful terms, backed up by research from a wide range of disciplinary backgrounds, ‘isolation is deadly’.

What sheds do is connect men from diverse backgrounds in even the smallest communities that are unreachable by conventional modes of provision. They provide two essential things that are also the concern of governments, particularly for men in later life who for any reason are ‘beyond paid work’.

1. They help them to stay independent and well as long as possible.
2. They provide opportunities for exchange of knowledge and skills intergenerationally.

Sheds also cut across academic disciplinary and occupational borders. The world and people do not exist in silos.

While a Shed can’t be all things, it can be many things at once. Men’s Sheds alert us to the reality that people and their needs are diverse and multifaceted.

The world of government cuts and funds things in boxes.

This fact sometimes makes it frustrating for professionals, governments service providers used to working and funding discrete ‘programs’ and ‘services’. For the same reasons, researchers find it hard to work out the appropriate disciplinary approach to Sheds.

Sheds also cut across age. While most shedders are older by virtue of the amount of free time they sometimes have beyond paid work.

I finish by acknowledging how far we have come.

One of the most powerful documents to elaborate on Dick’s McGowan’s philosophy about the Men’s Shed, opened in his honour as the Dick McGowan Men’s Shed in July 1998 surfaced via Ruth McGowan after the text of my Men’s Shed Movement book had been finalised.

In words typed by Dick dated 27 May 1999 and signed off as ‘The Company of Men’, Dick McGowan used capitalisation for emphasis when he noted that the list of things that might take place in the Shed

… is endless. WE SHOULD NOT THINK OF THE SHED AS ONLY A WORK-SHOP. It is an activity centre, a meeting place, a place for discussion and argument, a place for companionship – in short a part of HOME.



With Dick’s profound words I say a sincere thanks again and look forward to an exciting and important day here in Belfast.

Author: barrygoanna

Honorary Professor, Federation University Australia: researcher in men's learning through community contexts, author of 'Men learning through life' 2014) book (NIACE, UK), 'The Men's Shed Movement: The Company of Men' (2015) & 'Shoulder to Shoulder: Broadening the Men's Shed Movement' (2021) books, both published Common Ground Publishing, US.

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