Far from indicating the slowing down of a man’s life, the men’s shed can be the start of something great. Nowhere is this illustrated more clearly than the story of Tommy Barry – a tale of adventure on the high seas and the revelation that life can be just as rewarding nestled in the safe harbour of Passage East, Co Waterford.
Perhaps the Waterford Estuary shed is most fitting for him, as Tommy has the sea in his blood. “My father thought everyone should work 12 hours a day,” says Tommy. “At 15, I was pulled out of Mrs Hodges’s art class and sent to London.”
His first job was a seven week trip to the West Indies, the beginning of a 40-year career at sea. Tommy had a keen interest in far-flung locations, and he was known as a “dock rat”. “If you want to know a place, talk to the dockers.”
By 2016, it was time to come home. Tommy decided to take redundancy and like many other shedders who face retirement after a hectic life of working, raising a family and the joys and sorrows that those experiences bring, Tommy felt lost and depressed. “I had nowhere to go, and I missed the way of living on the ships.”
Tommy decided that he needed help. His doctor advised him to contact Waterford Estuary Men’s Shed in Passage East where he found himself a welcome addition. “I’m not good with a hammer and nails but I cooked breakfast on a Thursday morning.”
It was the shed that changed Tommy’s life. He had always had an interest in art and had sketched while at sea. He had a good visual memory, what he calls “seeing in mind”, and a love of colour.
Contrary to popular belief, men’s sheds are not just for the DIY aficionados amongst us – they embrace a range of talents, including the creative arts. Tommy’s shed began art classes. “I hadn’t done any art at all in 20 years,” but the classes rekindled this love and brought his talent to the fore.
Tommy has completed about 40 paintings and is now selling his work to friends and family. Much of his trade is very informal: “I post them on WhatsApp, my friends share them, and people buy them.” He’s happy to barter too – recently a local man fixed his roof in exchange for €30 and a painting!
Unfortunately, as can happen, life threw Tommy a curveball. “I was diagnosed with cancer just over a year ago. The shed was very supportive, and painting has helped me get through.” He finds he loses himself in his work and paints every day.
Despite the lockdown, Tommy feels the men of the shed “push me along”. After a life at sea, of international travel and foreign adventures, Tommy has now found a new, rewarding and productive way of living in his own corner of Waterford.