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A young man with dark curly hair and a beard stands at one end of a gymnasium on a green mat. Above his head, a word is stencilled on the wall: “honesty”.
The six people facing him each raise a hand in the air.
“Now, engage your glutes for trunk stability,” the man says, bending one knee into a lunge. Warrior two pose.
The rain pelting the roof this recent Thursday morning nearly drowns out his instructions, the only sound rising above it, a ball being kicked against a wall in another room.
“Now hop, step, or jump to the front of your mat,” he says, and there is the sound of shuffling and a few groans rising above the white noise.
“We’re not all as fit as you, Christopher, you’re only a young fella,” says a man in a green polo shirt.
Here at the Cabra Men’s Shed, things aren’t exactly back to normal, but organisers are trying to get there after nearly a year and a half of Covid restrictions.
These Thursday morning yoga classes are the first physical-activity meet-ups that have come back – but there’s some other stuff going on, too. Like the return of the less-physical, and welcome, Monday morning coffee meet-ups.
“Half the battle”
“If you get people around a table just chatting, that’s half the battle,” says Paul O’Farrell, the coordinator here.
The Men’s Shed meets at the Cabra office of An Síol, a community development project based on the grounds of the Naomh Fionnbarra GAA Club.
It doesn’t have its own home yet, but that’s something O’Farrell is working to change.
The yoga teacher, Christopher McDonnell, who grew up nearby, was in the skateboard club here when he was a kid. He did some work experience here in his teens. Now he’s back for his first gig as a qualified instructor.
Yoga class is a new thing, part of a mission to promote physical and mental well-being, O’Farrell says.
“A lot signed up to it and unfortunately they’ve dropped out as they go.”
O’Farrell is sitting behind the front desk of the gym building. Above him, a row of GAA jerseys hang on the wall.
Before the pandemic, there was a bustling schedule for older people in the community.
“We would have had sit-fit, walking groups, swimming groups, cycling groups. We would have done lots of social activities to promote physical health and well-being,” he says
The Men’s Shed group is very hands-on, O’Farrell says, and he’s trying to bring them back slowly.
At the moment, most meetings are happening in one of the white tents set up outside.
“It’s not ideal, but it’s the only way we can get them all together, and the reason I’m pushing ahead with small groups meeting in the gazebo is that social isolation is huge.”
The draw to the Men’s Shed is social, he says. During lockdown, not only did activities here stop, but other social outlets – churches and pubs – closed too. “A lot of [the members] would be widowers, so that compounds their isolation.”
O’Farrell says he’s noticed some things since the lockdowns, not so much with the Men’s Shed guys, but with other seniors in the community. “I can see individuals ageing, you know, physically ageing, over this time.”
Some guys have let their hair grow long, or have stopped shaving.
“When you think about it, if we don’t make an effort to be sociable and to be presentable, it’s a downward spiral,” O’Farrell says. “We have seen people decline.”
Welcome to Cabra
Back in the gym, some of the guys from class have migrated to the other side of the room, where a beam of reclaimed wood is propped up on metal sawhorses. “Loyalty” is painted on the wall above them.
Today the weather is too wild to meet in the tents outside.
There are four men staring down at something called a 12-volt cordless rotary tool from Aldi. They can’t get the damn thing to work.
Today they have carving to do – they’re cutting a phrase (“Faílte go Chabrach” or “Welcome to Cabra”) in ogham lettering into the reclaimed beam. It’s going out in front of the school.
They have all the letters marked out in pencil. Now they’re trying to get the Aldi implement to mark the wood. They’re peering at the instruction manual.
“Well, you won’t be able to cut it with this,” one of them says. It’s too flimsy.
They’d really prefer a saw.
Paddy Travers is talking about some of the projects they did before the pandemic. He has pictures of everything on his phone.
They built some stuff for the school next door. Two wooden thrones painted bright pink and green, and a pretty windmill with a red roof. Picnic tables with matching benches for the GAA club.
The GAA club has asked for some more benches, but they’re still waiting for the wood to arrive. And there are plans to make outdoor play tables, and an impressive-looking wooden theatre, for the playschool nearby.
Travers has been a regular here for 10 years, before there even was a Men’s Shed – it was a men’s group back then. He says the community here has been a big part of his life.
“It’s good for our mental health because it keeps us ticking over,” he says.
Travers lives on his own, and he was strict with himself during the lockdowns.
“When I get bored, I get up off the chair and go for a good walk for about four or five miles,” he says.
He walked with friends every day at a park down the road, and he went cycling.
John Kelly, a retired postman, agrees: “You have to push yourself,” he says.
Kelly has been coming to the Men’s Shed since he retired, and he made an effort to stay active during the stay-at-home orders, he says. He wouldn’t let himself turn on the telly during the day.
Derek Martin, another one of the woodworkers, who had a stroke in 2009, says the past year or so has been a “big change”.
“I’d still get up at the same time in the morning, but I had nothing to do,” he says. “I’d do some art at home.”
Now there’s the Men’s Shed coffee morning on Mondays, drawing on Tuesdays, yoga and woodwork on Thursdays.
“I think it’s the greatest thing going. I’m glad to be back,” Martin says.
During the lockdowns, An Síol focused on keeping seniors connected. There were food and book deliveries, newsletters, and regular phone calls.
O’Farrell put together care packages with jigsaw puzzles, chocolate, booklets on at-home exercise, and mental-health leaflets. They sent out thousands of postcards and booklets to promote positive mental health. They had a regular newsletter that included a bit about meditation, he says.
“When you’re isolated and you’re down and you’re on your own, it’s very hard to get the motivation to get off your ass and do something.” O’Farrell is trying to give them the motivation.
When restrictions ease further, O’Farrell has plans for getting larger groups of seniors together for tea dances and other events.
For now, he’s slowly rolling out smaller get-togethers. And he’s trying to get some funding to train more of the guys to be able to use technology to keep in touch, after the Men’s Shed had a boisterous stint on WhatsApp during lockdown.
The guys used it to share information about the pandemic. And also memes.
“Some of them were slightly risque, I suppose, but it was getting people engaged, getting people in,” O’Farrell says.