Disappearing banks a signifier of the changing face of Irish towns

The banks were always a key part of the development and growth of towns and villages across the country. In my home town, we had three banks. The Bank of Ireland (where my dad was the porter for a quarter of a century; the Munster and Leinster Bank (later AIB ), and the Ulster Bank. All three were housed in fine solid buildings from a different age. Buildings that marked their importance in the town.

I was also aware of the great burst of life and energy that banks gave towns such as mine. Football and hurling clubs, badminton clubs, drama groups, scouting organisations all benefitted from a fresh intake of blood into the town every so often. Back then, a bank transfer was as exciting as the football transfer window. If the word went around that there was a new lad or lady in town, every group that had an opening was put on alert. The everchanging flow of bankers and guards stopped us getting set in our ways

I worked summers in the banks alongside my dad. Every second Friday would see the bank open a sub-office in Cong; Back then in the days before Securicor vans, we just brought out plastic bags of cash and walked up the avenue in Ashford to drop them what they needed for the week.

The same in Clonbur where the market was held on the same day as the monthly fair, normally the last Thursday in the month.We had a brass sign that read Bank of Ireland - Open on Fair Days and this caused great amusement among American tourists who assumed that the branch opening depended on the weather being fair.

And if the banks had an impact on the demographics and social mix of a town, what impact did they have on the psychology of a town? It was a sort of recognition that a place mattered if it had a bank and a post office and two churches of differing denomination. Places to be rather than places to be from.

That is why this week’s announcement by Bank of Ireland and the recent announcement by Ulster Bank have resonated on the psyche of the towns involved.

When you look at the commercial realities of it, you can see the reasoning for the decisions. The declining usage is oft quoted, but this was not aided by the policy of the banks in recent years to make face to face banking all the more difficult for customers, with long queues, and a seeming lack of privacy and discretion. I hated seeing elderly people being asked in queues if they were lodging or withdrawing, and the appalling security risks that were presented to them upon leaving the premises.

The deal with An Post will soften the blow, but post offices are from Venus and banks are from Mars. Although it is still all to do with the toing and fro-ing of money, post offices were places you bought stamps and postal orders to send away when you were ordering something inane back in the day. But these are changing too and maybe in time they will replicate everything we used to do in banks. Thankfully, communities too still have the credit unions and the great work they do by approaching matters with a communal view in the places they serve.

But there is little doubt that a small part of a town has been lost with the closure of a pillar bank. Places once had post offices, Garda stations, banks, and ESB outlets, and many places have now lost the lot. Just another piece of old Ireland lost along the way.


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