Only two of the seven Laois Men’s Shed groups have managed to keep their doors partially open during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Men’s Sheds offer exactly what is missed most at this strange time, a bit of company, craic and chat for men who may be retired or out of work with time to spare, or living alone needing social interaction.
With many members being older, and stringent measures advised by their association to avoid Covid-19, most clubs are closed.
Portlaoise Men’s Shed is the largest in Laois with about 40 members but it is closed says Ray Harte, except for a couple of men who manage their flourishing vegetable garden.
“A lot of members are wondering if it will be a winter without the sheds. Unfortunately men’s sheds are all about social engagement so this flies in the face of everything we try to do.
“We will hold back until the schools get back. A lot of lads would like to get back but some have underlying health conditions or be cocooning, we have to be very mindful of their health. Better safe than sorry.
“We have lads that would be very affected by Covid, like everyone they are scared for their health.
“We are more or less prepared for a return, we did a deep clean, got the sanitisers, put down the markings on the floor. But that will drive costs up in groups.
“We are not too bad here in the equestrian centre but there is a big hurdle in rural areas with smaller sheds. We keep in touch on whatsapp and some lads visit each other. They can call in to the garden here too for a bag of spuds,” he said.
The branches in Portarlington and Mountmellick are offering a partly open door, while following all the Covid-19 guidelines set by the Irish Men’s Shed organisation.
Mervyn Rochford is chairman of Port’s group.
“We can meet because we don’t have a huge membership, there’s not more than six or seven across three rooms. It’s more just a social club right now. We sit and chat and set the world to rights,” he said.
Their ‘shed’ is the old fire station in Portarlington.
“We had closed at the start of the pandemic but then we decided to do a big clean and put in all the sanitisers and the masks and install hot water, so we can sit and talk. We’ve only done one job this year, Portarlington Concert Band needed clear partition screens for the kids practicing, so we made them while taking precautions.
“It’s very important to meet. Each and every member is important, we look forward to it. We have some members living in little boxes of flats, that might not see another person otherwise. We bring our own cups and everything is properly washed. We sit at the door in the fresh air when we can,” Mervyn said.
The group has lots of woodwork plans waiting for the end of the pandemic, including bringing flatpack birdboxes to a local nursing home for residents to make and paint up.
“Many men’s sheds may never open again because of their financial situation, we are very lucky here,” he said.
The Port men meet on a Monday and Thursday morning from 10.30 to 1pm, and a Wednesday evening from 6.30 to 9pm.
Michael Feely chairs the Mountmellick group.
“We are not back fully, we meet casually on Tuesday and Friday mornings for an hour or so, between 10.30 and 12.30. We have a chat and a tea or coffee. Everything is set up and socially distanced, so we can only fit in roughly 10 people.
“It’s very important to keep the contact, we try to email all the members, so anyone that wants to come in can. They can go and come back if there’s too many people.
“It has been very tough on members, they are deprived of our normal Monday night meeting and chat, and our workshops making flower boxes and helping out locally where we can. Nothing can take place. It’s a pity but unfortunately that’s the way we are fixed.
“I think it will be after Christmas before we can open fully again. A lot of our members are older and they are afraid to come out and mix with people. We would love to be back it’s just too dangerous,” Michael said.
The other sheds remaining closed are in Borris-in-Ossory, Rathdowney, Mountrath and the Laois Travellers Men’s Shed.
Michael Ward is in the Borris-in-Ossory group who were meeting five days a week.
“We have about 28 members with a core of about six who come everyday. Our club is mostly for the social element, they want to laugh, have a joke, tell a yarn, drink coffee, that’s not there now. We could open for six but we want to protect all our members, some of them are the most vulnerable in the community to Covid. It's doubtful we will be able to open this year, if the schools go pear shaped. But we will be back eventually, no doubt,” he said.
Over in Rathdowney, Patrick Ryan has a similar tale.
“Most of our members are over 70, from about a five mile radius, a good mix, some retired farmers, widows, single men. We are closed since March 12.
“The requirements for reopening would be too penal. While we have the space, we would have to have smaller numbers, bring our own cups, hot water, sanitiser. Part of our shed is the spontaneity, people just arrive in, some early, some late. It’s relaxed. The circumstances we are in now, all that spontaneity is gone.
“I’m secretary and not one member has asked me when can we reopen, there is no urgency.
“The lockdown really took the enthusiasm and joy out of meeting the lads, fellas you know for 40 years, you can’t shake their hand or give them a slap on the back. I don’t think people even realise what two metres is, you would barely fit two people in a room. At normal times we could have 40 in a room, now we could only get six or seven.
“People are going stir crazy now. They managed to keep hospitals clear but the mental hospital will be full.
“Worst case scenario we will be back next year, bar some breakthrough. We’ll keep the good side out,” Patrick said.
Brian Byrne is the Laois Traveller Action Group’s men’s community development worker. Their Shed behind Portlaoise parish house is too small to keep socially distanced.
“At the time we closed we had a woodwork tutor Jack Byrne working with the men on flowerboxes for the Holy Family school and the lads were coming on great with it, that all stopped.
“We have about 15 to 20 members, I phone them every week. The one question they all ask is when can it reopen.
“It gave them an opportunity to chat and have a cup of tea, that was taken away and there is nothing to replace it,” Brian said.