A Joycean link to the ICS

An Irishman’s Diary on 150 years of a building society

“While it was overtaken by other building societies, which expanded enormously in the 1960s and 1970s, the Irish Civil Service Building Society did well enough to build itself new offices embracing its old headquarters in Westmoreland Street. It also acquired as a flagship the castellated Edwardian jewel at the apex with D’Olier Street known as Purcell’s Corner.” Photograph: Frank Miller

“While it was overtaken by other building societies, which expanded enormously in the 1960s and 1970s, the Irish Civil Service Building Society did well enough to build itself new offices embracing its old headquarters in Westmoreland Street. It also acquired as a flagship the castellated Edwardian jewel at the apex with D’Olier Street known as Purcell’s Corner.” Photograph: Frank Miller

Tue, Aug 19, 2014, 01:01

The 150-year-old ICS building society, which ceases to trade on September 1st, came within a draft of figuring in James Joyce’s Ulysses.

Near the end of the novel, Leopold Bloom muses on his dream home Flowerville. Seeking a loan to buy it, he peruses the terms offered by the fictional Industrious Foreign Acclimatised Nationalised Friendly Stateaided Building Society (incorporated 1874).

Some 30 years ago a Joyce scholar examined the galley proofs and found that the prospective lender mentioned therein was the real-life Irish Civil Service Building Society, whose offices were in Westmoreland Street close by the old home of this newspaper.

He wrote to the society, of which I was then a director, and our knowledgeable secretary Austin Dorgan confirmed that the terms recited by Bloom corresponded to what the society offered on June 16th, 1904, the original Bloomsday. Why Joyce made the late amendment in his text is a mystery, as many other real persons and institutions feature in his narrative.

The society, founded in 1864, had, like Joyce’s fictional building society, been incorporated in 1874. It aimed to provide housing finance for civil servants, many of whom had come from England and so were familiar with the co-operative building society movement emerging there.

Its first president was the great engineer William Dargan while Alderman Martin, principal of the builders’ providers T&C Martin, was vice-president. The directors included the architect father of the future unionist leader Edward Carson and the pioneering educationalist Sir Patrick Keenan.

Although it was founded to cater for civil servants, the society soon spread its custom wider. Starting from premises in College Street, it moved to Sackville (now O’Connell) Street in 1875 and then back across the river to Westmoreland Street seven years before the original Bloomsday.

While the solid Protestants who ran the society probably greeted Irish independence with apprehension, they secured their position by co-opting EP McCarron, the head of the department of local government, to the board. He became its chairman in 1950. Fred Clarke, whose father and wife had also worked for the society, was his chief executive. Catholics were then recruited regularly but, until the 1980s, most of the board were Protestants.

While it was overtaken by other building societies, which expanded enormously in the 1960s and 1970s, the Irish Civil Service Building Society did well enough to build itself new offices embracing its old headquarters in Westmoreland Street. It also acquired as a flagship the castellated Edwardian jewel at the apex with D’Olier Street known as Purcell’s Corner.

Unlike other building societies its voting shares were quoted on the stock exchange. This made it vulnerable to a takeover. In 1984 the Bank of Ireland pounced with an offer of shares valued at three times the market price of the society’s shares. Our chairman, the former lord mayor Maurice Dockrell and all the board except the present writer, thought it was an offer too good to refuse – and so it was until the crash reduced the bank’s shares to a small fraction of their former value.

Meanwhile, the society, which Bank of Ireland had undertaken to maintain as a separate entity and to mutualise by giving all savers a vote, was taken on a roller-coaster by its new masters. The name was changed to the ICS, so obscuring its origins, and it moved to the IFSC, expanding exponentially as it also serviced the ill-fated mortgage business of the bank. Its own business was confined largely to the broker channel it pioneered in the 1980s.

Like the Bank of Ireland itself, the ICS suffered from mortgage defaults after the crash and has had to report losses such as were never known before in its long history.

In 2010 the troika decreed that the bank should dispose of the ICS. Rather than do this, the bank has decided to wind up ICS altogether, having got government approval to appropriate all its €5 billion mortgages and its deposits. It is, however, selling the ICS brand and €250 million mortgages to a new enterprise called Dilosk.

So, like John Brown in the song, the Irish Civil Service Building Society may be dead but its ghost goes marching on.

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