What's left to bank on in rural Ireland?

Today, the shutters come down on the Bank of Ireland, Glenamaddy, Co Galway, for the last time

Today, the shutters come down on the Bank of Ireland, Glenamaddy, Co Galway, for the last time. With paint chipping off its main door and rusting railings out front, it looks as if it has been winding down for some time.

Glenamaddy is often referred to as a busy market town, although the market is long gone. In its place are two huge supermarkets, which seem to do a brisk trade. So did the bank - one of two in the town - which makes the decision to close it all the more disappointing for an estimated 2,500 customers who have supported it through the years.

Such is the anger at the move that on September 15th, several hundred people took to the streets of the town to demonstrate their displeasure "at the high-handed attitude of the bank". Many were annoyed at the letter they received giving them three months' notice of the closure and informing them that their accounts would be "automatically integrated into Roscommon branch". Since Roscommon is 18 miles away and not served by public transport, elderly customers in particular were less than pleased.

The Dunmore branch of Bank of Ireland is closer, at nine miles, and the fact that it was not the chosen alternative, has given rise to fears that it is next for the chop. But Bank of Ireland says it has no plans to close the Dunmore branch and points out the Glenamaddy branch has been closely linked to Roscommon for some time.

Labour councillor Colm Keaveney believes the Glenamaddy closure is a vote of no confidence by corporate Ireland in rural Ireland and that the local community has every right to be up in arms.

"It was a short-sighted decision made by fat cats who have no understanding or appreciation of the fabric of modern rural Ireland. Loyalty plays an integral part in the society and economy of this area," he says.

So who made the decision and why?

"I did, for my sins," says Bank of Ireland regional manager John Keegan, who has fielded queries on behalf of the bank since the announcement was made. "This is not necessarily about profitability but about long-term business potential."

A source within the bank contradicts Keegan's mea culpa, saying the decision on Glenamaddy branch would have been made "at the highest level" and that Keegan "would be just batting for the bank".

The source believes the local community has a right to be listened to, and get answers from the bank. However, he concurs with Keegan's view of Bank of Ireland policy in rural Ireland, saying that the intention is "to review and expand rather than review and contract". He says the fact that Glenamaddy also has an Ulster Bank means that business is split, and this would have been a factor in the decision to close.

A relevant question in any small town, he says, is: have locals been supporting local business? "It's very easy to hop in the car and drive elsewhere to shop in Tesco or Dunnes. This is bringing about the decay and decline of the smaller town. Nostalgia is all very well," he adds, "but you have to drill down into the commercial vein to see what's really going on."

PRO of Glenamaddy Traders and Residents Association, Mary Worrall, dismisses this, saying local businesses have never had it so good, and the bank - in situ since 1921 - managed to make a profit in much leaner times. Nor does she accept the notion that the presence of the Ulster Bank sealed its fate.

"The B of I in Doneraile, Co Cork, is the only bank in the town and that hasn't stopped them pulling out."

The Doneraile branch is due to close on November 24th, just after Sneem, Co Kerry, on November 16th. All in all, by the end of this year, the Bank of Ireland will have closed 12 rural branches since November 2003.

Fine Gael TD Paul Connaughton thinks Glenamaddy is lucky to have a credit union. "One thing about the credit union is that it won't leave." He believes the lending restrictions on the credit union should be relaxed to allow it to provide a full range of long-term financial products. He hopes for a review of the legislation within the first six months of 2007.

"The greed that's in corporate Ireland at the moment ignores the need for an urban-rural balance. Both are important to the development of the country," Connaughton adds.

And as for the bank's customers, at least 70 per cent have voted with their feet. "You can hardly get into the Ulster Bank, with the number of cars parked outside," says businessman Joe O'Neill, who has switched banks after 50 years. As one-time owner of the legendary Sound of Music dancehall, O'Neill has witnessed more than his share of last acts.

This will have no long-term effect on the town, he says. "We'll live on without them."