CROOM hit the headlines last week when residents staged a protest against the closure of their last bank. I was at home at the time, bracing myself as usual for the night of ‘the big wind’, but my sympathies were entirely with the people of Croom. The only account I ever had in the Bank of Croom was a stock of fond memories from my days as a reporter, but I do have a real concern that the whole country will soon be full of ghost towns – as distinct from ghost estates – if they don’t stop stripping by-passed local communities down to the bone.
I have one other reason to be grateful to Croom. I spent a full two months in the orthopaedic hospital there back in the summer of 1990, when I thought I was going to die from a broken arm. Nobody ever died from a broken arm, I was assured, but from my perspective it did feel like a near death experience. I even think I saw the light at the end of the tunnel. Actually I’d have lost the limb altogether due to a severe infection, if it weren’t for the skills of Surgeon Brendan McMahon, and physiotherapist, the late Mrs Geary. I sustained the injury while pulling a deep rooted weed in the garden. After a great show of force, both the weed and I went flying backwards at something close to the speed of light and landed on a rockery. I might as well have fallen out of an aeroplane, but the impact of the drama was lost in the telling. Nobody was impressed, but, as they say in the Dail, here’s the thing: I wouldn’t dream of attacking a weed now without the aid of a JCB.
Croom was then the centre of the Mid Western Health Board’s orthopaedic services and there was hardly a family in the region that wasn’t familiar with the pleasant town on the banks of the Maigue and the 19th century St Nessan’s Hospital - which apparently once served as a workhouse. The road to Croom was a well travelled one indeed. But even then there were ominous signs on the horizon. I vividly recall - shortly before my own sojourn in the town - the late Deputy Willie O’Brien from nearby Patrickswell, pleading with the CEO at a Health Board meeting to ‘leave us our only big industry’. There was a ring of truth to his words that some of us didn’t quite appreciate then, because even after the demise of the Maigue poets and the collapse of the Fitzgeralds, it was the hospital, and not the banks, that made Croom remain a household place name in the history and folklore of the Midwest. As I said, the road to Croom was a well travelled one.
But the road to Croom is not the same anymore, at least not since the town was by-passed over a decade ago and the hospital was subtly downgraded. I had occasion last week-end to pay a visit there for the first time in many years to see a friend who was a patient in the hospital. But, for the life of me, I couldn’t find the hospital. There were roads everywhere, but I couldn’t see a hospital sign, although I’ve been assured since then that there is at least one signpost. Not good enough, I have to say. As I was saying, I found myself on a wintry Saturday afternoon driving around a deserted Croom in a light fall of snow looking for a hospital where I had once spent two months of my life. Stop panicking, I said to myself, you’ve been here before and anyway, you’re thousands of miles away from the Bermuda Triangle!
I had come in off the nearby N20 after being bamboozled by massive green and white bi-lingual road signs that had too much writing on them to be scanned in a few seconds. If we must have bi-lingual signs, then maybe they should put the Irish and English versions in different colours, or at least make the type face more user-friendly for old age pensioners. All that white writing on a green background freaks me out when I’m on a national primary route. I nearly missed the exit and I was disorientated before I even arrived in the main street of the town.
The relief when I eventually saw a sign reading ‘Hospital’ was indescribable. ‘Hooray’, I said, as darkness began to fall, ‘I’m still in time for visiting hours!’ The sign, however, turned out to be a mirage. A couple of miles out the road, somewhere in the middle of horsey country, I realised that I was on the way to the historic village of Hospital, another place that holds fond memories of my other life. I’m not the only one, apparently, who, since the town was by-passed in 2001, ended up disorientated and travelling in the direction of Hospital while on the way to visit an orthopaedic patient in Croom. Even the Maigue poets, if they came back, would surely be lost! Maybe the County Council and the HSE would think of erecting a prominent sign on every road into Croom, indicating the location of the hospital. It’s still the reason why most of us visit the town.
Croom has a historic past and will, I hope, prove resilient to the loss of its bank and the assault currently being waged on the small towns and villages of rural Ireland. After all, it’s not every town, where the mention of a demonstration against the closure of a bank, could trigger so many associations and memories for so many people.