This special edition newsletter was prepared on behalf of the Bray Drugs Awareness Forum and examines four significant studies on cannabis related harms. The aim of this newsletter is to provide in lay terms what each of these pieces of research found, and how this might be of use when working with or talking to young people around/about cannabis use. The newsletter can be downloaded below.
This poster will be presented at the symposium 'Masculinities, roles and transitions' at University of Leeds on May 10th, 2016.
I recently presented at the 5th Dublin PubhD event in the Stag's Head pub. PubhD is a speaking event set in the friendly environment of the pub. It's essentially gigging for PhDs! It began in Nottingham in January 2014, and since then spread to other cities, arriving in Dublin in April 2015. The format is simple you have to present your PhD in 10 minutes or under, in lay language.
My PubhD talk -
“Irish Masculinities and Illegal Recreational Drugs”
Clay Darcy, PhD Candidate, School of Sociology, UCD
Stag’s Head, Dame Court, Dublin 2.
Hi everyone, I’m Clay. I’m a PhD candidate in the School of Sociology, UCD.
My research explores two topics, or areas of interest – Irish masculinities and illegal recreational drugs.
To help explain my research, I want to tell you how I began my PhD, and why I am really interested in these two topics. I have been working as a specialist youth worker for a number of years now. I deliver drug education and prevention programmes to young people, sometimes in schools and sometimes in youth groups or youth clubs. A number of years ago, a young male in one of these youth groups attempted to take his life. I had worked with him and his group of friends for over a year and a half, and I felt I had developed a good relationship with them. However, I never saw his suicide attempt coming, nor did his friends or family. Thankfully his attempt was unsuccessful, and he is now ok. However, at the time it had a real impact on me, especially because of the way it affected his group of friends. They really struggled to come to terms with his action and they felt huge guilt. They were upset they hadn’t recognised their friend was in difficulty, and they wished they had been able to prevent his suicide attempt. This really got me thinking about why men often seem to find it difficult to express emotion, and why some men don’t disclose when they are in distress or difficulty. This is what sparked my interest in masculinities and men’s studies, and it became the topic of my master’s thesis.
At the same time, while I was delivering drug programmes, I noticed more young males seemed to be using drugs than females, and that males and females seemed to use drugs differently and for different reasons. This got me thinking about why exactly males tended to use drugs more than females, and I was curious about what motivated the males to use drugs in particular ways or in particular contexts. I became curious whether some men’s drug use may have contributed to them feeling more like a man, and whether this might explain why more men were using drugs. And so, I began my PhD studies to explore these types of questions.
I started by formulating research questions and carrying out a review of the literature. What I found in the literature was men are much more likely to use illegal drugs than women, and in Ireland, men are more than twice as likely than women to use cannabis, cocaine and ecstasy. These three drugs are generally regarded as recreational drugs, in other words, drugs that people tend to use socially and during leisure time. The literature revealed men are much more likely to develop drug problems, and be in treatment for drug use. However, my interest lies in recreational drug use and not problematic or addicted drug use, but the literature didn’t reveal what factors influence men to recreationally use drugs. In Ireland, we have a good idea of how many people are using illegal drugs but no one has explored what men’s recreational drug use means to them, as men. There is a real absence of research on the gendered meanings men and women attach to drug use. However, there is lots of research exploring how for some men, alcohol contributes to their notion of what it means to be a man, but there nothing to suggest whether men’s recreational use of illegal drugs might be similar or different to alcohol.
Once I had a grasp of the literature, I refined my research questions and research design; I sought ethical approval from my college to begin fieldwork. I decided I wanted to talk to different groups of Irish men, to gather their views on drugs, and find out why they think men recreationally use illegal drugs. I also wanted to talk to men who have used or do use illegal drugs, to try find out what their drug use means to them as men, and find out if their drug use in any way related with their notion of what it is to be a man. I decided I needed to gather data in two different ways, firstly through focus groups with a diverse sample of men, and secondly through in-depth interviews with a focused sample of men who have or do use illegal drugs socially or during leisure time.
I have just completed the first part of the fieldwork and data analysis. I have completed 9 focus groups (the first a pilot) with 44 men in total, ranging in age from 18 – 85 years. There was a diverse mix of life experience, social class and occupation types among the men, however, all were white Irish and to best of my knowledge heterosexual.
This is what the focus group data reveals:
The men’s notions about masculinity and what is it to be a man was quite complex and varied. There seems to be a shift for some men away from traditional notions of masculinity, however, for many participants their notion of what it is to be man was rooted in traditional ideas. Many of the research participants subscribed to the idea that a man should be a provider, a protector, that he should be tough and capable. Many believed men shouldn’t publically express emotion, and that men had to maintain a front, especially among other men.
The men expressed very mixed views about the recreational use of illegal drugs. Unsurprisingly, some men were very anti-drugs whilst other’s were much more liberal, but this depended on whether the men had exposure to drug use through social circles or personal use. In general, there was a perception that cannabis is a relatively harmless drug in comparison to others, and to use cannabis is relatively normal. But this again depended on the men’s level of exposure to drug use. Some men did disclose information about their own drug use; this mostly consisted of smoking weed or hash.
One participant, an older man from a rural area, shared a funny story about a young man who was nervous about a date he had planned with a woman. The young man had approached the older man and asked him whether he might be able to source some ‘blue fellas’ or Viagra. The young man wanted to be ‘in order’ for his date. The older man obliged and managed to procure two Viagra for him. Sure enough the young man went on his date, but not long after he rang the older man shouting and screaming, saying ‘what did you give me?’ his date was ‘ready for it’ but his head was pounding and nothing down there would work. The focus group found this quite funny and had a good laugh about it. But for me this revealed another aspect of how men using drugs contributes to their notion of what it is to be a man. It seems this young man felt strong self-expectation he must perform, and perform well. He was using drugs to try boost his sexual performance.
Interestingly, many participants tried to understand men’s recreational use of illegal drugs by comparing it to alcohol. Some participants were of the opinion that one man’s recreational use of illegal drugs is similar to another man’s recreational use of alcohol. This is important because there is a really strong link between alcohol and masculinities, so if men view certain illegal drugs as being similar to alcohol, then for some men, these illegal drugs may contribute to masculinities in a similar way that alcohol does.
Participants spoke of different groupings of men who use drugs. Based on participant’s accounts, I have identified five patterns of masculinity. By a pattern of masculinity, I mean the ways in which different groups of men try to be men. Masculinity is something that has to be done or achieved, and there are many ways someone might try to do masculinity. The five patterns that emerged through the focus group data, describe how different groupings of men accomplish masculinities through different means, and how groups of men relate to other groups of men. Significantly, in the eyes of some participants, men’s recreational use of illegal drugs may contribute to or retract from these five patterns of masculinity.
In other words, many focus group participants were of the view that men’s recreational use of illegal drugs may contribute to or retract from some men being men. Some participants observed or knew of men who engaged in competitive drug taking. These men would compete with other men to see how much drugs they could take in one session, or who was best able to maintain control while intoxicated. Participants were aware of some cannabis using men, who would try to out smoke other men. These men would try to smoke their competitor under the table. Again, this is another example of how some men’s recreational use of illegal drugs contributes to their notion of what it is to be a man. In the eyes of others, competitive drug taking men who are able to consume large quantities of drugs and maintain control, are viewed similarly to men who are able to drink heavily and maintain control.
However, this is still only one part of the story, I have for the most part gathered the views of non-drug using men. What I need to do next is begin to interview men who were or are recreational users of illegal drugs, and find out what their drug use means to them as men. Trying to recruit men to take part in this part of the research is going to be challenging. Maybe if anyone here tonight knows of a man who occasionally uses an illegal drug during their leisure time, they might talk to them about my research, and see if they would be willing to take part. It would of course be in the strictest confidence.
Thanks for listening and being a fantastic audience!
© Clay Darcy, September 2015.
Train-watching (aka ‘railfanning’) men and plane-watching men are synonymous with England, men who (allegedly) stare at goats synonymous with America; however, in Ireland if one looks in the right places you can find the men who stare at beer! I recently witnessed an animated conversation between two men that sparked my attention and got me thinking about these beer gazers. The conversation I witnessed brought to my mind a quintessential image associated with old Irish pubs: a lone man sitting at the bar or small table staring into a cold pint of beer or stout. Usually this man is silent and still, occasionally he might throw a comment or two to the bar man or fellow beer gazer … if he feels obliged or inclined.
Some might describe this conversation as a ‘competitive argument’ (Campbell, 2000: 572). I believe this conversational excerpt offers huge insight into these two men’s constructs of masculinity, and reveals something about the men who stare at beer. Both of these men are Irish and both are professionals, however, the First Man (FM) is older than the Second Man (SM) by about ten years. The FM appears to have a very clear and distinct idea of what a ‘real’ man is – his idea is traditional and one that conforms to normative hegemonic ideals. Such a man is strong, independent and confident, he can go anywhere he pleases by himself – he doesn’t need handholding or the support of others.
According to the FM, a real man is really a lone wolf; he is autonomous and can do difficult things on his own … like drinking beer or reading a paper! The FM’s comments serve to question and undermine the legitimacy of the SM’s masculinity; the FM implies that the SM is not a real man. The SM does not challenge the FM’s views, and takes a subordinate stance. The SM although being a confident and outgoing person, for whatever reason, would not enter a pub by himself. Without being able to ask the SM, it’s difficult to speculate why this is. He may be a ‘sociable drinker’ as we refer to it in Ireland, preferring the company of others when drinking or he may ascribe to a different masculine construct. The SM appears to have a very clear distinct view that pubs are not places for lone individuals, especially when you are not a regular of the pub. The pub domain can be an intimidating place; anyone who has ever walked into an Irish pub (especially a rural one) and had the entire pub turn on their bar stools and stare at you will understand completely!
The above conversation reveals much about the everyday gendered interplay between men, and demonstrates the hierarchical nature of masculinity and how hegemony asserts its power. This conversation is an example of what Hugh Campbell (2000: 565) refers to as ‘conversational cockfighting’, where men try and assert dominance over each other using verbal exchanges, wit and specialized local knowledge. The FM’s comments illustrate the culturally embedded association between masculinity and the pub, and offer some understanding of the men who stare at beer.
The men who stare at beer, are possibly not just staring at beer, they are publically displaying a specific type of masculinity. They are pub performers in a sense. This masculine construct historically distilled in Irish pubs is often referred to as ‘traditional masculinity’. This masculinity is hardened, solitary and free from the influence of women. In compiling an oral history of Irish pubs, Kevin Kearns interviewed many Irish men with this type of masculine construct. Kearns (1996: 40) states that Irish pubs were the ‘last bastion of male supremacy’, and that many [older] Irish men (crusty old regulars as Kearns calls them) regarded the pub as a ‘holy ground’. One man described the social rules of the pub to Kearns in the following way ‘it was a sort of religion among the men that a woman wouldn’t be seen in a bar’ (John Greenhalgh, age 82, In: Kearns, 1996: 40).
The men who stare at beer are remnants of a bye-gone era, where pubs were strictly masculine in domain. The pub was mythologized as a sacred space and this ‘holy ground’ served to exclude women and legitimize men’s hegemony. The SM from the conversation above is not a beer gazer, and his comments serve to demonstrate a noticeable cultural shift among younger Irish men. Younger Irish men are less likely to be beer gazers than older men. This shift may be subtle but does indicate a move away from traditional masculine constructs toward a more contemporary inclusive masculinity. Some might say that young Irish men are less like to be beer gazers and rather beer guzzlers, but that’s a separate blog altogether!
Campbell, H. (2000) ‘The Glass Phallus: Pub(lic) Masculinity and Drinking in Rural New Zealand’, Rural Sociology, 65(4), pp. 562-581.
Kearns, K.C. (1996) Dublin Pub Life and Lore – An Oral History, Dublin: Gill & Macmillan.
This blog featured was published in Lógr Magazin (June 2015) -
Darcy, C. (2015) „Muži, kteří zírají do piva” (Trans. Stašová, E.), Lógr, Vol. 16, 20-23.
It also feature on www.masculinities101.com in October 2014 - http://masculinities101.com/2014/10/01/the-men-who-stare-at-beer/
Recently my wife and I went for a stroll along a near by harbour and marina. We were enjoying each other’s company, happily taking in the fresh air, views of the yachts and fishing boats, the surrounding hills and mountains, and the deep dark sea. There was a strong breeze but the air was warm. We reached the end of the north pier and were looking down into the mouth of the harbour and over toward the south pier. There across the water on the opposite pier were three topless men. The men were jumping up and down, laughing and shouting; they were shadow boxing and shoving each other around. My wife and I watched them for a moment, not quite sure what they were up to.
The men began jumping up onto the pier wall, looking over the pier edge to the water in the harbour below and then jumping back down off the wall. They then resumed their messing around, jumping up and down, and beating their chests like hairless apes. It was clearer now they were psyching themselves up to jump off the pier into the harbour, some thirty to forty feet below. Never wanting to miss a photo opportunity and curious of the scene that was unfolding, I turned to my wife and said - “let’s watch for a minute!”
The men continued their sequence of actions; messing around, boxing the air and each other, climbing up onto the pier wall, looking over and down into the water below, then back down off the pier wall and goofing around again. I began to think this was all bluff and the men were not really going to jump. With my masculinity lens these men appeared to be putting on a performance for each other, and incidentally for the handful of people in their view within the harbor and marina. The tide was out, and to me, it didn’t look like there was sufficient depth of water below to allow for a jump from that height. I guessed the men might be considering this. If there was insufficient depth of water in the harbor, the men risked serious injury from the fall. Then before I had a minute to capture the moment, one of the men climbed up onto the pier wall. Shouting loudly, he jumped off the pier wall dropping down into the water below. The time between the man hitting the water and resurfacing seemed incredibly long.
Sure enough, he resurfaced and began swimming to shore. I thought his friends would fallow in sequence jumping next, but they did not. They waited until the jumper made it back up onto the pier wall having completing his very long self-indulgent glory run, cheering and whooping along the way. I wondered whether this was an individual test or group challenge that had been set. The men whooped and shouted, congratulatory slapping the jumper on the back at his return. The three men laughed loudly and the jumper expressively re-enacted his jump through mime. Then it was clear another man intended to jump. He began the earlier sequence of actions carried out by the first man; he jumped up onto the pier wall looked over the edge, back down off the wall, shadow boxing, chest beating, shouting, shoving … then he ran, climbed up onto the pier wall and jumped off into harbour below. This time my camera was ready.
Happily I turned to my wife - “I got it!” Knowing I had captured a perfect illustration of men partaking in a perceived test of masculinity. These men were taking a significant risk. There are many signs positioned around the harbor and marina explicitly stating diving is neither safe nor permitted. Engaging in rule breaking, carrying out a physically challenging task and taking a substantial risk all culminate in what Michael Kimmel (1997: 309) would describe as the “vigorous ways” men “demonstrate their hardy manhood”.
Kimmel (1997: 310) states, often “men’s bodies” are used as a “masculine testing ground”. These men were indeed publically testing their bodies, and the limits of their resolve. There was a certain ritualistic sequence to their pier jumping; the psyching up, surveying the field, the taunting / rallying from peers, more psyching up, the jump itself, the glory run to and congratulation from peers, and then the repeat of this sequence by the next man. However, it was the very public nature of this risky activity that fascinated me so. It reminded me of something Matthew Desmond (2007: 7) wrote: “the drama of manhood must be performed ardently, publicly, and without end, and one way this is accomplished is through activity that threatens male bodies”.
I am ever fascinated by social constructions of gender, and in particular men’s constructs of masculinity. The fact that many men have to engage in such risky behaviours and actions to accomplish a perceived state of manhood or manliness is bizarre to me. The scene my wife and I witnessed, demonstrates the very real and dangerous ways gender constructs are enacted by some men. As my wife and I walked away from this scene, I chatted on about masculinities, tests of manhood, and so on. Luckily I don’t need to test my masculinity like the men at the harbour because my wife reassured me by saying “you’d never need to jump off a harbour to prove your manhood like those doofuses … because I’ll happily push you off if you don’t stopping talking about masculinities and just enjoy the bloody walk!”
© Clay Darcy, July 2015.
This blog was originally posted on Masculinities101.com - http://masculinities101.com/2015/07/03/the-harbor-jump-men-testing-their-masculinity/ (03.07.2015).
Desmond, M. (2007) On the Fireline – Living and Dying with Wildland Fires. Chicago & London: The University of Chicago Press.
Kimmel, M. (1997) Manhood in America - A Cultural History. New York, London & Toronto: The Free Press.
I had a surreal experience recently. Imagine if you will a stereotypical Irish pub in the centre of Dublin dominated by men; one that is normally full of crusty old regulars propped at the bar watching football and giving out about the weather, politicians and the price of water. Now imagine the same pub swarmed by men in skirts … big hurley burley beer drinking macho men all wearing skirts … well that is exactly the scene I witnessed! And it got me thinking, thinking about masculinities (yeah, yeah I know I am always thinking about masculinities!).
Football fans might guess the context for this story. I was out for a social pint with colleagues and as it happened the Irish football team was playing in a European qualifier with Scotland, in Dublin. Scottish football fans had come over to the Irish capital in their droves for the match, and in traditional Scottish style many of our Celtic brothers donned kilts. After the match, Scottish fans flooded the pub my colleagues and I were socialising in. The atmosphere was rowdy but jovial. The Guinness was flowing like the Liffey, and the Irish and Scottish football fans exchanged witty jibes and taunts followed by loud bursts of laughter. I was too preoccupied talking sociology with my colleagues to have noticed the extent of this flood of men in skirts, until I turned around and went to the little boys room.
Toilets are one of the most gendered spaces in society; they are perhaps one of the few places that entrance to, is gender dependent. So it was unusual for me to walk into the men’s toilet and to witness four men in skirts relieving themselves at the urinal.
I squeezed in between these men, and have to admit I found it difficult not laughing at the scene that surrounded me. Here were four big Scottish men, all quite intoxicated holding their kilts up, one almost tucked under his chin, the others quite clumsily under their elbows as they relieved their bladders. So here I was, the odd one out, a trouser wearing Irish man with bobbing shoulders silently giggling, listening to thickly slurred Scottish voices - “this is the best piss of my life” said one man, to which his comrade replied “I don’t think I can stop [pissing]”. In typically Irish style, I did a good job at minding my own business and re-joined my colleagues.
It wasn’t until my train ride home, again surrounded by men in skirts, that I began to unpack my surreal evening. Most of us are well aware that skirts are gendered as feminine, we are socialised into this notion from a very early age; yet in this circumstance the skirt wearing men had transgressed gender norms and were successfully accomplishing masculinity. This for me highlighted how deeply complex notions of gender are, and how gender performances are negotiated through symbolic interaction. Moreover, for these men to successfully transgress normative gender practices and retain masculine status, they must in fact display a form of hyper-masculinity to mitigate the effects of wearing feminine attire.
And so, the skirt wearing Scottish men I witnessed in the pub, seemed to display an exaggerated masculinity. There was a noticeable difference to me in the behaviours of the Irish and Scottish men. Although on their own native soil, the Irish men seemed much quieter and timid in comparison to the skirt wearing Scottish men (and to any one familiar with a pub full of drunken Irish men this is saying something!). The skirt wearing Scottish men seemed to spread horizontally and take up more space, much in the same way that courting birds puff out their plumage, these men puffed about the pub laughing and shouting and spilling good Guinness. The men’s pissing comments whilst at the urinals also highlights this hyper-masculine performance; it was in effect a pissing competition, quite literally. Masculinity is accomplished through competition and comparison; men must compare themselves to other men and out do the competitor. Hence for these men, emptying their bladder was more than functional; it had become a symbol of masculine accomplishment. The more you’ve drunk, the more you piss and thus the greater masculinity demonstrated.
But other factors assist these Scottish men in retaining their masculine status whilst wearing feminine attire - primarily national identity and tradition. It is well known that on occasion many Scottish men wear kilts. Kilts are unique in style, colour and pattern, making them immediately recognisable. Kilts are usually dark in colour, sharp in line and adorned with parts of dead animals in the form of a Sporran (a pouch or purse like man-bag worn in front of the groin). The Sporran is usually held in place by a manly chain and acts as a visual reminder of the manhood it covers. It tells us that although this is a skirt, manly bits hide underneath! There is also the tradition of men in kilts going commando (and I don’t mean joining the army). This ensures that should their masculinity be called into question; it can be quickly reasserted and re-established by a quick flash of what lies beneath. These combined design elements; customs, practices and interactions help transform what is normally a feminine garment into a masculine one.
© Clay Darcy, June 2015.
For me this is an easy decision. I believe in equality, fairness and inclusivity. Marriage is something that should be available to everyone; it is not an exclusive commodity to be owned only by those who are heterosexual. However, marriage is currently owned. Owned by the Irish State, and yet not available to all its citizens. To me, it is the most bizarre notion; that marriage can only be availed by those who fit the traditional binary of male and female unity. Who am I to say that someone else’s love is invalid, or inferior, or illegitimate? For those who are currently married or in a loving relationship and who might be considering voting NO, imagine for a second, someone told you, your love was of a lesser kind; not real, and not worthy of the legal recognition of marriage. How would you feel?
Many no campaigners are declaring that the Civil Partnership Act (2010) affords the LGBT community similar rights as marriage. However, the advocacy organisation Marriage Equality has identified 160 statutory differences between civil partnership and civil marriage. Namely, civil partnership does not permit children with same sex parents to have the same rights as children with opposite sex parents who are married. Under the Civil Partnership Act (2010) a same sex couple cannot share legal responsibility for a child, this means that same sex couples cannot adopt as a couple. This means that only 'one partner can be the legal parent at any one time' (ICCL & Glen, 2012: 38). Moreover civil partnership does not afford same sex couples many social supports available to those married, and the Civil Partnership Act (2010) defines the home of civil partners as a shared home and not a family home (marriagequality.ie).
I think it is awful that in today’s society, so many people seem to want marriage to remain exclusive. Nobody should own marriage, marriage should be free. Free to all. Yet those that advocate NO are afraid of the ‘redefinition’ of marriage, as if the foundations of Irish society might crumble at the very notion of it. But the redefinition of marriage is not the only fear held by the NO campaigners. They also seem to be afraid of any family unit that is not the traditional nuclear. However, the reality of our social milieu is that many families don’t fit this traditional nuclear model. The blunt truth is, there is no singular type of family there are only families. And yet there is a hierarchy of families, traditional nuclear at the top and anything else subordinate – this to me is fundamentally wrong. Families should not be ranked, nor judged lesser because they are not the type of family you may have experienced. Another concern of the No campaigners is if the referendum is passed that school teachers will have to discuss families with same sex parents as part of the curriculum. Many children in Ireland have same sex parents, are we not to recognise these children's families because it doesn't fit with the 'fairytale idilic' held by many No campaigners?
A family is not just a mother and father; a family is so much more. It includes grandparents and great grandparents, siblings, uncles, aunties, cousins, in-laws and so on. Moreover, a family is not just parent(s) and child(ren). There are many heterosexual married couples without children, whether by choice or misfortune, are they not a family? Are they positioned subordinately on the hierarchy of families, below families with children? That certainly seems to be the message by many of those advocating a NO.
What this referendum has highlighted to me is the level of entrenchment of traditional sex role attitudes and narrow notions of gender normativity held by so many in Ireland. It also demonstrates the deep-rooted prejudice held by many toward any family outside of the ‘normative’ nuclear unit. I find this level of entrenchment and blinkeredness sad and disappointing.
I have friends and family who are gay. I know many others who are bi-sexual and transgendered. I would like them to be able to enjoy civil marriage as I do. To have their love legitimately and legally recognized through marriage in the eyes of the State. To be afforded the same legal rights as anyone else who is married. To have the opportunity to celebrate their love through a civil marriage ceremony in the company of their family and friends. I hope that May 22nd brings a wave of positive change to the shores of Ireland, a change towards a more inclusive, fairer and just society; where we are more opening in our thinking toward families and love. I am voting YES, and I hope you do too.
© Clay Darcy, May 2015.
All views expressed are my own.
Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) and Gay and Lesbian Equality Network (Glen) (2012) 'Know Your Rights - The Rights and Obligations of Civil Partners and other Same Sex Couples'. Url: http://www.glen.ie/attachments/Know_Your_Rights_-_Civil_Partnership.pdf [accessed 12.05.2015].
Marriage Referendum, Referendum Commission. Url: http://refcom2015.ie/marriage/ [accessed 12.05.2015]
Marriage V Civil Partnership FAQs, Marriagequality.ie. Url: http://www.marriagequality.ie/getinformed/marriage/faqs.html [accessed 12.05.2015]
I recently attended a meeting of a men’s group; in part to be a participant in a training session they were having, but also to meet some men that would hopefully be taking part in focus groups for my research. The idea was to meet the men in an informal session and build rapport, so that they would feel more comfortable during the focus groups at a later date.
I didn’t really know what to expect of the men’s group meeting. I knew one or two of the organisers of the event and I chatted with them as the men began to arrive, bustling about pouring coffee and tea while chewing on biscuits. Although I shared the same hair colour as most of the men (well at least those that had it) I was significantly younger in years. Worry crept into my head. These men wouldn’t want to take part in my research I thought. They wouldn’t understand what I was trying to achieve, or so my worries led me to believe.
As the room filled with approximately 20 men or so, I sat on the end of a brown leather couch with two older men. Another man sat to my left in an office type chair. We turned to each other and gave a nod, and like the beginning of most Irish conversations we commented on the weather. Once the formalities of cold snaps, frost and terrible winds had been addressed, the older man told me about his motorised bicycle. Now to be honest I wasn’t expecting this man to be cycling a bicycle at all, let alone a motorised one! He was a fascinating character, gentle in manner with deep piercing green eyes tucked in under bushy grey eyebrows.
The training began with a general introduction, then into the topic of multiple intelligence theory and an overview of learning styles. We then divided into group work, to discuss our own intelligence type and learning style. I was grouped with three men, all in their mid to late seventies. The man with the motorised bicycle, Des*, took the lead in the activity. He began by telling us his name and then went around the group asking the men theirs. We began our discussion and what unfolded amazed me. My preconceptions and assumptions came to the fore. I had under estimated these men. Although slow in movement, gentle in voice and quiet, these men were intelligent, sharp and thoughtful, with experiences behind them I hadn’t imagined.
After the group work, the training pushed on, and eventually we were to reflect on what we enjoyed doing, and what it was we did that we “lost time” in doing. My group reformed and Des took the lead. The man on the end of the couch, Tom, told us for him it was his work he enjoyed most and lost time in doing. He was an IT specialist, and had worked with computers since the 1960’s. The other men were impressed to say the least. They said they didn’t understand computers and although Des had done a course in them, he still didn’t know how to use one. Tom tried convincing Des and the other man Jim that they should try to learn how to use computers and encouraged them to get a smart phone! He then demonstrated how he could use his Sony smart watch to check emails and how he could voice command his smart phone. “Jesus! This is like Star Trek” Jim blurted, “Can you believe it?” We laughed.
Jim told us that he also loved work and before he retired would lose time in the shop he owned. Now he takes long coastal walks and “the scenery is beautiful” he told us.
For Des, he remember how as a young boy he would lose time in a little hermitage he made for himself. Near his childhood house, he told us, there was a thicket of brambles. He managed to drag a sheet of linoleum under the brambles to form a base, over which he scattered piles of pine needles. Over the thicket he draped a tarp. The brambles pierced the tarp, and Des said the light used to shine through in glistening rays. It sounded magical. It was here that time passed without notice for Des.
But Des told us then of how something really terrible had happened to him when he was sixteen. I was quietly aghast at his revelation, but the other men did not flinch, they just sat quietly and listened. We were all strangers to Des, yet he felt safe enough and comfortable enough to share this terrible misfortune that had befell him. Des told us, this incident had a terrible affect on him and “for ten years I went into myself, I didn’t do well”. But at the age of twenty-six Des started to come through his ordeal - “others had gone on and progressed; got degrees, families. I had just started to come round and had been left behind”. For him he began reading and writing. “I loved writing essays and loved reading. When I began reading I became interested in poetry, philosophy and theology. This helped me greatly”, he said. Des still writes and enjoys the art of Haiku – the Japanese art of short poetry. He said he’s also still waiting on all the royalties from his writings to start flooding in, but it hasn’t happened yet!
I was moved by Des’ story and impressed at how the other men had gently listened. Then their attention turned to me, it was my turn to share. I told the men of my love of painting, how I could get lost for hours while working on a canvas. The process of mixing paint and applying paint to canvas, I find thoroughly relaxing and distracting; it is a retreat into my own world. The men nodded and offered how they wished they too could paint.
After this group discussion, the room of men came back as a whole. The training wrapped up and an open discussion unfolded. The room was actually made up of three small men’s groups, who had come together for the morning to take part in the training. The facilitator invited each group to tell us about their men’s group and what their group does. The men spoke about trips they had been on, guest speakers who had given talks, activities they enjoyed and things they hoped to do in the near future. Discussion ranged from philosophy to film, health to rheumatoid arthritis. One man, Andrew, told us how, if he doesn’t change position every thirty minutes he completely seizes up “if you don’t use it, you lose it!” he proclaimed and the room laughed; he also told us he was “a grumpy old bastard” and one of the best exercises for older men was gardening, even though he “bloody hates it” himself!
The facilitator then invited me ‘the man who has come a long way to be here today’ to tell the men a little about my research, given some of them are going to be participants in some focus groups. I told the men in lay terms what I was up to and as I finished the men began talking. Some of the organisers were visibly surprised at the level of engagement and what began to unfold. My topic had caught the men’s attention and they began sharing their views on drugs and alcohol, and on younger men and the youth of today, to which the facilitator thankfully intervened “Oh now hold on! Hold it there men! Save it for the focus groups, wait until then! Jesus Clay, you’ll have no problem getting these men talking, you just wont be able to shut them up!” I laughed. “Brilliant!” I thought. My focus groups will be lively judging by the men’s reaction.
After the training was complete some men approached me to ask questions about my research and express their interest in taking part. We headed into another room for soup, sandwiches and cake. The conversation flowed from one topic to another and I did my best to take it all in.
This was the first men’s group I had attended and I must admit I really enjoyed it. I am use to working with young men who are often rough, rowdy and ready for action; however, this was a new energy for me. The atmosphere around these men was still, gentle and warm. These men were comfortable in their own skin, tolerant of each other, they weren’t trying to compete with each other nor assert themselves over one another. They were happy to be simply in each other’s company. I had arrived with my own preconceptions and assumptions but when I left, I brought with me new understanding and appreciation for age and what it brings with it. I actually wished I could have spent a little more time with these men, I enjoyed their company and look forward to hopefully seeing them at some of my focus groups!
*Pseudonyms used throughout.
Clay Darcy, February 2015
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