On the floor of a friendly factory

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IT IS A freezing Monday morning on the outskirts of Athy, in Co Kildare. About half a dozen men are already gathered in a unit of an industrial estate. The other units are quiet. This is the local “men’s shed”.

The Irish Men’s Sheds Association is a countrywide movement of around 40 “sheds” or clubs where men meet, often to work on DIY projects. Based on an Australian concept, its motto is: “Men don’t talk face to face; they talk shoulder to shoulder.” The idea is that men are task-oriented, and like to socialise over a project, no matter how small.

The men’s sheds idea is a new concept in Athy – this shed only opened in the middle of January. It has had successes such as its sausage morning, which was immensely popular, but it is still feeling its way. The half dozen men here this morning are enthusiastic. They are fixing bicycles, varnishing furniture and chatting. If you closed your eyes you’d think you were on the floor of a friendly factory; this is the sound of men working after the work is gone. No one talks about it coming back any time soon. Rob Chandler and Dinny Donohoe are in the kitchen, making a lot of tea and picking their way through the ruins of an old economy. “I worked for Minch Malt for 37 years,” says Rob Chandler. “Making malt for Guinnesses. A French company bought it from Greencore. I used to work with 20 guys; now it’s down to eight.”

Chandler plays guitar a bit in the local pubs and “tells a few yarns”. He is not idle. “Still, when you stop working, it’s like an avenue has closed off.” Dinny Donohoe was officially self-employed, with his own PVC company. Now he is semi-retired and his daughter Marie runs the business. “This is a marvellous outlet for me,” says Donohoe. “I’d like to see this place becoming self-sustaining.” A few days after The Irish Times visited the Athy shed, it sold its first repaired bicycles.

“I do see the wife with a tear in her eye when she’s waving me goodbye,” says Rob Chandler.

There’s a kettle here, and a dartboard – the two most vital pieces of equipment in the men’s sheds, according to its national organiser, John Evoy. The Athy organiser of this shed, Mick Osborne, outlines plans for a pool table, more tools, fixing up the shed, and making a float for the Athy St Patrick’s Day parade. Mick Osborne, at 58, has had 12 career changes, from mechanic to driving a fork-lift truck, to running his own bus company to being a community worker.

Between them, Dinny Donohoe (69) and Rob Chandler (57) can provide a fairly comprehensive history of employment in Athy. They can both remember, says Donohoe, “stuff arriving into town by train, by horse and dray”.

Athy was once regarded as an industrial town. “It was fierce industrial. It was a better town than Carlow, or Portlaoise, or Naas,” say Donohoe and Chandler, who take it in turns to talk, and then talk together, nodding at each other.

“There was Minch. There was Tegral – they done asbestos, and then they done slates. At Tegral’s peak they must have had 200 people working there. Now there’s far fewer. The hospital, which is scaling down now. There was the foundry, that’s 25 year or more gone, there’s houses built on that site now.

“There was the wallboard factory, Bowater’s, that employed hundreds – that went 40 year ago. There was the shirt factory, that was a women’s factory and it made jeans later on. It employed about 50 people. That whole factory is demolished.”

According to Donohoe and Chandler, Athy’s decline was well started before the boom and didn’t really lift during it. “The pea factory only closed in the last three to five years.”

We are joined in the kitchen by Kevin Vernal, who at 42 is the youngest man here today. “I was working in Tegral for seven years, as a general operative. Twenty-five of us took voluntary redundancy. That was four years ago. When you’re not working there’s a lot of things you can’t afford. For example, it was €17 to go and see Kildare play yesterday. I wouldn’t mind but it wasn’t a big match. And I’ve a small boy to bring. The GAA doesn’t do an unemployed or unwaged rate for tickets.”

Rugby is big here, and so is soccer, as well as GAA. There are plenty of sports clubs, although the men here say that playing golf would be far too expensive for them, and that some of the local sports clubs are barely surviving. They say the same about local catering businesses.

“It’s about being with people,” says Vernal, explaining why he comes to the shed. “They’re good lads. There’s only so much Jeremy Kyle you can watch.”

“Straight up,” says Gerry, a divorced Dubliner who moved to Athy only recently at the start of a relationship with a local girl, “if it wasn’t for the shed I wouldn’t know anybody. I didn’t get to know the neighbours.”

Gerry started his own business in Wexford but: “It got wiped out.” After arriving in Athy, “I got work in the Resource Centre with the Community Employment Scheme. Because of my age I might get three years out of it.”

Gerry is 44. He works 19.5 hours per week. He does all the computer work for the Athy shed, built its website and maintains its Facebook page. He doesn’t seem to rate his own talents very highly.

“I can’t wait for all the older chaps to come in with their skills,” he says. “Woodwork and so on.” The shed means that Gerry does not spend his days, he says, “P****ing around on the Internet. Being isolated. Not meeting lads, like. I’d be under her feet. ”

An economy has many endings. Udo Warkow is from the town of Zwickau, in east Germany. “I’m now eight years in Ireland.” He came over with a German company, to build timber-frame houses. “They were gone in 2006.”

Warkow went to work for another construction company. It closed in 2008. He used to work on building sites in Germany: “But now the [employment] agencies say I’m too old to work on building sites.” He is 53, divorced with five children. The Russians, he says, have finally left Zwickau, reducing its population by 20,000.

Peadar Davis hasn’t worked since March two years ago. He’s 41, married with two sons aged three and one and a half. “I can see it being another five year handy before it comes good again. Oh, without a shadow of a doubt.”

Davis used to drive track-machine diggers. Now he sometimes goes out with a friend who has a delivery van, just to get out of the house. “At 6.30 in the morning there’s nothing going on. There’s no traffic. At nine o’clock you could be in Dublin in 45 minutes handy, and you used to have to allow two hours for it . That’s how quiet it’s gone.”

‘When I first came to the shed it was like heaven’

PIERCE McLOUGHLIN is 53. At the moment, he’s replacing the cable on a Triumph bicycle.

“They’re gone years now,” he says. “Jesus, I love working on these, you know. I’ve loved working on them since I was a kid. When I first came to the shed it was like walking into heaven for me, with all the bikes.”

Like quite a few of the men in the Athy shed, including its organiser Mick Osborne, McLoughlin is a Dubliner who moved to Athy during the boom years. He sold his house in Finglas. “We’re four years down here. We moved down here with the three kids to get a bigger house. And then, of course, the three of them moved back to Dublin.”

Unemployment has hit the McLoughlin children too. “The youngest lad is 23, Ian, and he’s back living at home now. He’s looking to go to Canada. I’d rather he stayed close to home, but it’s a necessity to find work and not be lying idle in the house . . . ”

“Playing Playstation and the Internet,” chips in one of the other men.

“Exactly,” says McLoughlin. He returns to cataloguing his family. “I have a daughter, Amy. She’s recently had a baby girl. And my older son, Andrew, works in Schuh. He seems happy enough. He’s a girlfriend, the whole lot.” For 10 years McLoughlin was a community worker, first of all with young offenders, in Blanchardstown – “that tanked, its funding was cut” – and then with the Peter McVerry Trust. “I enjoyed the job,” he says.

But McLoughlin’s wife, Rita, became ill – “She has three herniated discs” – and he gave up his job to care for her. “Depending on what kind of day Rita is having I’d be up and down the stairs a lot.”

He heard about the opening of the Athy men’s shed from a neighbour, Derek Santrini – another Dub in the Athy shed. “I said, ‘That sounds brilliant’.” Pierce comes to the shed three days a week, and is glad that it has started opening on Saturdays.

ANN MARIE HOURIHANE --------------------------------------------------------------------------------

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