MY very first financial investment was a couple of sixpenny saving stamps which I bought in my local post office in 1957. I was saving for a bike and my only source of income at the time was an occasional half crown from an elderly relation who visited us now and then and who, before opening her purse, would mercilessly quiz me on how I was getting on at school. The main reason why the nest egg never grew beyond an old shilling was because the questioning became more penetrating as I got older, and eventually, after being subjected to a series of impromptu mental arithmetic and spelling tests that I couldn’t answer, I had to go into hiding when she appeared. In a nutshell, my income course dried up.
Maybe that’s just an excuse for a life of minor profligacy, or maybe it’s an explanation for my failure to support the local post office when I got a chance. Now that there’s a threat to the entire network, I feel guilty.
We should have kicked up a major stink long before this when the first Post Office was forced to close its doors in rural Ireland. We should have gone back to the pony express if necessary, and told An Post where to go with its rationalisation plans.
Post Office closures are, unfortunately, a feature of the internet age, rather than a deliberate attempt to wipe out what remains of rural Ireland. In the US, extinct Post Offices are euphemistically known as DPOs – Discontinued Post Offices. But they’re all victims of the same malaise. When everyone goes online to do business, there isn’t much left for the Post Office to do, although Grant Thornton has come up with some worthwhile suggestions for new business, in a report commissioned by the Post Masters Union. The Government could, for instance, have given the contract for issuing the new driving licenses to the Post Offices, instead of forcing people to travel long distances to the new centres. But that would have made things too comfortable for us.
For some of us, however, the Post Office is still our only recourse for communication and social interaction, seeing that many of don’t even have a proper Broadband service and lots of us don’t even trust the internet for financial transactions. Some of us are still paranoid about wiping ourselves out with the press of a button.
It pains me dreadfully to see traditions being overturned and post offices being closed, but spare me, please, the tired old argument about the effect of such unwelcome developments on the health of rural Ireland. Rural Ireland has been in its death throes for decades, and I couldn’t even count the number of final nails that have been put in its coffin. I have a funny feeling that it is far more resilient than the banshees would have us believe, and I have no doubt that it will survive whatever dastardly plans An Post may have in mind.
Certainly, the Post Office was never just about the mail service. It was a social and economic essential in the fabric of our lives as well as being a link to the world and a lifeline to the future. A neighbour, whose husband was working in England in the grim‘fifties would go to the local PO and book a trunk call to Birmingham. Ryanair would get you there in person today in the time that it took to get through, but at least the woman got a cup of tea in the kitchen while she was waiting. And long before Mary O’Rourke lured us all into buying Eircom shares, the Post Office gave us savers a sense of altruism, the likes of which I have never experienced since. I was saving with Oifig an Phoist and was part of a national endeavour rather than a greedy commercial venture. The postmistress said I was a patriot. The sad thing is that it could have been the makings of me if I hadn’t outgrown the Post Office and developed a ‘get rich quick, or forget it’ mentality by the age of ten.
That’s the trouble with rural Ireland today. There aren’t enough patriots to save it from the decimation that supposedly threatens on all sides. Even now, when it’s reportedly dying from a thousand post office cuts, no-one would dream of abandoning his e-mails and writing a few letters to help the cause. When villages lose their post offices, nobody stands up and says ‘to hell with An Post, we’ll form our own co-operative of post offices like Horace Plunkett’s creameries’. Local election candidates have, to be sure, included post office rescues in their manifestoes, but apart from bashing the Government over its attitude to rural Ireland, there are very few practical suggestions on how best to retain the service for the benefit of rural dwellers and the coffers of An Post.
Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte, on the other hand, says we’re imagining the whole thing. ‘Phantom post office closures’ is how he describes the controversy, saying that there is no plan to close hundreds of Post Office. Well, if that’s the case, Pat, where are my savings now? A couple of months after buying the stamps, I tried to withdraw the shilling to invest in the sweet shop next door.
I was turned away because there wasn’t enough in the account to justify a withdrawal. Now, I learn that the post office I once knew is no more. It closed a year ago and nobody even told me. There’s a phantom shilling in the DPO, but at least the rural world around it is alive and kicking, and seems to have survived what everyone thought would be a mortal blow.