Investing in the people’s bank
Credit unions, sucked into a banking crisis that now threatens the viability of some, are the financial life-blood of many appreciative communities
“You’d bend over backwards to make sure someone gets the loan they need,” says Daly. “It’s a small community so you know how much a loan means to someone. In a bank, if someone has a high income and loads of security they’ll get their loan. With credit unions you might have someone on social welfare who really needs €600 for heating oil. It keeps them away from money lenders. And there are some people on social welfare who would be the first people in to pay their loans.”
There have been a lot of changes in Thomastown. AIB recently left town. “There was an 80-year-old man who got his pension from England and when AIB left he was left high and dry,” says Maria Maher. “We tried our best to get all the details and sorted it out.”
Recently Thomastown Credit Union merged with the smaller credit union in nearby Bennettsbridge. The current building, shared with FÁS, was formerly a shoe shop. As well as the aforementioned canon and cannonball, the reception area features paintings by members, some striking historical maps of Thomastown by local cartographer Tom Dack, memoirs by locals and a bulletin board advertising local events.
The atmosphere is unrelentingly friendly.
“They say they’re going to start rationing water,” says one visitor, complaining about the heat. “Thought I’d let you know the rain’s started!” announces another as she enters with damp shoulders. A third chuckles cheerfully as she withdraws some money. “I don’t know what happens but money seems to disappear on me fast and furious.”
Everyone compares the credit union experience to that of banks. While the credit union has become more professional, like a bank, the bank has not become friendlier, like a credit union.
“The bank I’m using at the moment, it’s like they don’t want you coming into them,” says Liam O’Keefe a local farmer and agricultural contractor. “That’s the attitude. It’s like they don’t really want to see you. I think it’s scandalous the way the banks are treating people.”
Liz O’Neill remembers her first loan. “£30 to go see Bruce Springsteen back in the 1980s. I was still at school doing a summer job and I was earning maybe £8. I said ‘I’ll give you back £8 every week’ and he said ‘No that’s not what it’s about! You give back a pound or two pounds.’ I wanted to go so badly, I’d have given him £8.”
Hannah Murphy is enquiring about an education loan. She’s about to start studying adult nursing at the University of West London. “It’s very important for things like this,” she says. Another woman wants me to mention the support the credit union has given to the local football team Thomastown United.
Many people are saving. Thrift is one of the core values of the credit union movement. They run savings clubs at schools and many of the people I meet have ways of balancing budgets that would make finance ministers ashamed of themselves. “Young mothers have it down to a tee,” says Maria Maher. “They’re amazing. They’re in the saving club and have maybe two loans within the one account and are well able to manage and budget with very little.”
Marie Hayes, who is currently unemployed, says she’d never have saved without the credit union. “It’s a bit different from the bank because once it’s in it you don’t want to take it out, you want to keep it there. Maybe it’s because you have to ask for it in the credit union.”