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Hilary Tonge,right, and Fiona McSweeney, seated, directors of Mna Ag Gaire pictured with participants in the skills share programme. Photograph by John Kelly

Mná-some place of welcome for everyone

SHE stared intently at the mobile phone clutched in her hand before the Zoom call burst onto her screen.

Answering the call, she was met with a face not seen in 50 years, and as they caught up on decades lost, the tears flowed.

This emotional reunion of friends was made possible through the voluntary efforts of those involved with the Mná Ag Gaire Women’s Shed in Ennis, a place to meet, share skills and combat loneliness for all women.

Helping women develop digital skills is just one of the many activities which have been ongoing at the women’s shed in the Tracklands Business Park.

Recalling the moment two best friends were brought back together, founder member Hilary Tonge says, “We’ve had a lot of women want to learn digital skills, particularly during Covid, they
realised they were isolated because they couldn’t get on their phones.

“A lady came into to us and all she wanted to do was to learn to use her phone, so one of our volunteers sat down with her once a week.

“Our volunteer said to her one day, do you realise you have messages on your phone? They contacted the person messaging her and it turned out it was an old friend.

“They did a Zoom call, they hadn’t seen each other in 50 years and all of a sudden her friend was in front of her and everyone was crying. All this because our volunteer just sat down with her and took the time to show her.”

This is one of countless uplifting stories detailing the positive effects of the women’s shed which volunteers shared when I recently visited them.

Hilary explains the shed aims to enhance the quality of life and well-being of women with measures directed towards tackling poverty, disadvantage and social inclusion among others.

Within its walls the women’s shed has offices, classroom spaces, room for wellness activities and skill-sharing, a kitchen, and an impressive craft space.

In recent times the women’s shed has also become home to a Ukrainian community hub.

Mary O’Brien became involved with the women’s shed through her voluntary work with Fáilte Isteach, a community project welcoming migrants through conversational English.

Up to 40 students a week attend classes at the shed with Mary telling us many friendships have been formed in the classroom.

She recalls one woman from Ukraine who had little English coming to the classes with her daughter.

“She was very shy and her daughter wanted her to get involved. Her daughter told us her mother was a seamstress, though I’d say from looking at her work she was more like a designer in Ukraine. We went upstairs to the craft area and I showed her all of the things we had.

“When she saw the sewing machine, she just went over, put her hands on it and took off the cover. It was just like she was transformed.

“She had found her home and it meant so much to her. I could see it in front of my eyes. It goes to show you that no matter where we are from, we’re all the same, we are all women.”

The idea behind Mná Ag Gaire was born after a group of like-minded women first came together to make PPE for care homes across Clare back in 2020.

Hilary recalls, “From that we had a cohort of women that really wanted to keep going and to have a women’s group.

“Our main objective was to get a safe space where we could all go and meet and craft and start discussions. It just grew from that little by little.

“The biggest thing we needed was to find a space, and luckily we found this building thanks to Seamus Durack.

“If it wasn’t for that I don’t know where we would be now. We thought at first, this place is huge, how are we ever going to fill this? But look at it now!”

Muireann Neylon joined the group because she felt this was a place she could “get involved, roll up my sleeves and be useful.”

“I wanted to do interesting things and meet interesting people. It was the opportunity for engagement and involvement that really appealed to me. This group is about engaging and doing.”

She describes the women’s shed as a place where all women can feel “safe and welcome”.

Fiona McSweeney first started working with the shed after setting up the Stitch and Time craft group, bringing women from the deaf community and hearing community together.

Her role has now expanded, with Hilary describing her as Mná Ag Gaire’s ‘Craft Co-ordinator’ and she has been volunteering to help set up the skill-share.

The skill-share involves women being encouraged to come together and share their varying expertise with others.

The programme has already seen participants learn new skills in crafts, art, cookery and fitness among others, with a new schedule recently launched.

Fiona says, “We have had women calling and telling us they feel they have no-where to go, they are lonely, they may have lost their husband.

“The thought of coming to a place like this and meeting others and sharing their interests is great.”

It isn’t just skills that are being shared by the women, she explains.

“This isn’t about getting crafts right or being perfect, it’s about coming together and having the chats. It’s about the doing rather than the end product.

“At the end of the day it’s more about the process and having a conversation. We’ve talked about awful deep stuff. It’s a good way to share the good, the bad, everything.”

She encourages women to take a leap and visit the women’s shed, whether they want to teach skills, learn or just sit and chat.

“I’ve absolutely seen the difference this place can make. There is one lady who comes in and she says this place is a lifeline for her.

“For some, it’s just about getting the confidence to go out. And it is hard, people have been knocked back over the last few years. But this is a safe space and you can just come in, have a sit down and a cup of tea. You don’t have to do anything at all.

“One elderly woman came in and on her first day she was so nervous, but now she is here knitting hats and doing crafts.

“It took her her a while, but she kept coming in which is amazing. It’s ok to be nervous coming in, we understand.”

One woman who did decide to come along to the shed is Betty Gallagher. Betty is retired and has been going to the women’s shed for just over a month.

She explains, “I worked all my life and then all of a sudden, I wasn’t. I spent a bit of time at home and thought ‘this isn’t for me’.

“I saw the women’s shed on Facebook a few time and went to the Christmas craft fair and I was very impressed. I went to an open day, I only had an hour, but I didn’t want to leave.”

The active 70-year-old who also volunteers for a local charity is planning on trying “a bit of everything” at the women’s shed including quilting and upcycling.

“I want to upcycle a table, I’ve always wanted to do something like that, it’s my dream. This is all new to me, I don’t come from a crafting background but I’m looking forward to it.”

Many of the creations being made by the skill-sharing crafters will have pride of place at this year’s Mná ag Gaire Christmas Market which is set to be held on December 10.

The women’s shed is also looking ahead towards plans for the creation of a community choir as well as seeking funding for the development of its digital skills classes.

The non-profit organisation has received support in its activities from Clare County Council, Haven Horizons, the National Lottery Fund, Clare PPN, Clare Local Development Company and the Clare Immigrant Support Centre.

The group would love it if more volunteers came on board, particularly for the skill-share programme, as well as helping out in the office.

Support in improving access to the women’s shed for those without transport would also be appreciated.

“During the winter it can be quite cold and wet and a lot of women do not have access to transport. We are very close to the bus and rail station, but for those women that live just a few miles away it’s too far of a walk to come in and there is no bus service.

“If someone who drives a bus could volunteer for an hour to pick up some women from the outskirts even just on a Wednesday that would make life easier.”

For more on the Mná ag Gaire Women’s Shed and the Skill Share programmme check their Facebook page

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