Death of a post office: ‘Another door shuts in rural Ireland’

Rosita Boland witnesses the final day of the local post office in Ballindine, Co Mayo - pop. 349

Postman Paul Mullaney collects the final post on the last day of business at Ballindine post office. Photograph: Keith Heneghan

Postman Paul Mullaney collects the final post on the last day of business at Ballindine post office. Photograph: Keith Heneghan

 

9am-11am

It’s just before 9am on a Friday morning, and I arrive at the post office in Ballindine, Co Mayo, at the moment the first customer of the day is departing. Tom Huane has already been in to collect his pension.

This is no ordinary Friday, however. August 10th is the final day in business for a post office that has been in operation for as long as anyone in the town can remember. Ballindine post office – or Baile an Daighin – is one of 161 rural offices that will close over the next couple of months, as part An Post’s “consolidation” of its resources.

Ann Moran has been postmistress here for the past 10 years. She comes out from behind the counter to shake my hand, just as the morning presenter on Midwest Radio reads out her words of thanks and farewell to all her customers that she emailed to the station the day before.

“It’s my customers that I am going to miss,” she tells me. “I couldn’t let the day go without thanking them.”

Throughout the day, Moran greets every customer by name. She inquires, variously, after their health, the state of their hips, their children, how they have been coping with the hot weather, and whether they might make it to Knock for the upcoming papal visit. She knows everyone and, of course, everyone knows who she is.

The modest interior of Ballindine post office is full of reminders of the community it serves – population 349 in the 2016 census.

There is the Expressway timetable for the route 52 bus that stops daily on the village’s Main Street, on its way to and from Galway and Ballina. There is a sign for the local GAA lotto, currently at a considerable jackpot of €16,100. There is a notice offering a 10ft by six foot trailerful of “good dry turf” for €400. There are leaflets for the forthcoming novena in Knock around the papal visit, and several copies of the Mayo Advertiser freesheet.

Until yesterday, the “honey lady”, Renate Klee, who sold a few jars of her honey through the post office each week, also had her home-made cards on sale here. She removed them the previous day, but four of Margaret Jennings’s home-made fruit cakes at €5 each are still in a basket at the side of the counter. Moran herself has set out plates of Roses and After Eights on the counter for her customers today.

Paddy Glynn helps himself to one of the Roses. He is in to buy phone credits and post letters. “Another door is closing on our Main Street today,” he says. “Small villages are dying. It’s goodbye to rural Ireland.”

Mary Higgins has come in to say goodbye to Moran. “Ah sure, it’s not goodbye,” Moran says. “I’ll see you passing.”

I follow Higgins outside to talk to her, but she starts crying, and is too upset to say more than, “I’m so sad today,” before apologising and walking away in tears.

Patrick O’Connell has come in for his pension. “I’ve done all my business in here for the last 40 years,” he says. “It’s a very sad day.”

A little girl in a Mayo shirt comes in by herself with a pink purse and her post office savings book. She empties a fistful of fivers and a noisy pile of coins onto the counter and lets Ann count them out for her. It’s birthday money she’s lodging. “I wanted to come here today, because today is the last day, and then the post office will be gone,” she tells me solemnly.

Marian Brogan is posting a parcel to her son in South Africa. “There’ll be an emptiness here on the street from Monday.”

Maura, who doesn’t wish to give her surname, but tells me she is 79, walks to the post office from her home in Ballindine. “We don’t have a car, so I won’t be able to walk to Claremorris post office.”

The Ballindine postmark franked on a letter on the last day of business at the Co Mayo post office. Photograph: Keith Heneghan
The Ballindine postmark franked on a letter on the last day of business at the Co Mayo post office. Photograph: Keith Heneghan

Services will transfer to Claremorris once Ballindine closes; a distance of eight kilometres. “The post office means more to me than collecting a pension,” she says. “It’s a meeting place. And on Fridays you might go for lunch and treat yourself once you’re out. This means another door will be closed on the main street.”

11am-1pm

Moran inquires if I would I like a tea. Or a coffee? There is no kettle in the post office, but twice a day a staff member from the nearby Borderline bar and restaurant walks down with a mug of coffee. “I photocopy their menus for them in exchange,” she explains. “It’s all a community effort here.”

She picks up the phone and calls in two mugs of coffee.

Sure enough, some 10 minutes later, Rebecca Kearns arrives in, carefully carrying the mugs of coffee, and two fairy cake buns.

Kearns has a summer job waitressing in the bar, and is also Moran’s niece. She has a modest hand-written menu with her: what’s on offer today in the Borderline for lunch includes egg mayonnaise, grilled gammon steaks and battered cod. Moran makes half a dozen photocopies.

There’s a small crowd of people waiting to be served. They chat among themselves while they wait; the topic is the closure of the post office.

“It’s a sad day.”

“This shouldn’t be happening.”

“What can we do about it?”

“It’s a bit late now.”

“Somebody wanted it closed.”

“They really want to get rid of the old people as fast as they can out of post offices.”

At one point, Moran’s mother, Kathleen Kearns, who also lives locally, comes in to get her pension for the last time. “I have to look after the queen!” Moran jokes. Kearns is accompanied by her grand-daughter, Sarah, who videos the two of them on Sarah’s phone.

Not long after that, Ballindine’s former postmistress, Nora Hynes, who worked in the job for 18 years before Moran took over in 2008, arrives in. “I used to have five or sometimes six bags of post a day,” she says. Moran has already told me most days it is now just one, while pointing out all the other services the post office now offers in addition to sending letters.

A man who sees my notebook initially mistakes me for a politician. “You’re here too late to save the post office!” he scolds me. I explain I’m a reporter.

He tells me he is 81, but he doesn’t want to give even his first name. He is very, very upset. We are standing outside on the street. He directs me to look at the red and green Mayo bunting hanging nearby. “We should have black flags up there instead today. Today is the blackest day there ever was in Ballindine. The post office was the pulse of the town. I hope whoever made the decision to close it rots in hell.”

“Ann is a real lady, and helpful to everyone,” Rosemary Dunne tells me; recounting a particular story of how Moran recently went out of her way to assist a confused older person with an unwrapped parcel they had brought for posting. “She is dearly loved and will be sadly missed.”

Dunne was born in Ballindine and still lives here. “There were eight pubs. Now there are three. There were two hardware shops. Gone. The Garda barracks. Closed. The dancehall and picture house. Gone. And now no post office either.”

Amy McGrath comes out of the post office crying. “Ann really is a pillar of this community, and in rural Ireland community is everything,” she says to me, between her tears. “The post office is about the person behind the counter as much as the services it offers. My mother was very ill last year, and Ann always inquired after her. She is genuine, kind and compassionate. And she is a local. We will go to Claremorris post office now, and we will be strangers there.”

Some of the people coming into the post office throughout the day do not have any transactions to carry out. They are coming in solely to wish Moran good luck, to thank her, to say goodbye, while also acknowledging it’s not her who will be going anywhere; it’s the post office that won’t exist anymore.

I begin to lose count of the number of time she opens the door that separates the counter side from the rest of the post office so she can come out and give her customers a hug. Many of these well-wishers also have cards, or flowers, or gifts with them.

“The tears will come yet,” Moran says to me at one point during the morning, in a rare lull in business. They’ve already come, is the truth. More than once, I see her ducking her head down behind the counter to wipe her eyes.

2pm-4pm

The post office closes for an hour for lunch, from 1pm to 2pm. Moran goes home to her house, and I go to the Borderline, where the menu I saw photocopied an hour or so previously is on the table in front of me.

When the post office reopens at 2pm there is a definite atmosphere of something counting down swiftly; something ultimately indefinable ending forever.

“We’ll get broadband eventually in rural Ireland, but you’ll never get back a post office that has closed,” says Bernie O’Gara. She has come with her toddler son, Harry, to say goodbye to Moran. “I married into the village two years, and I knew nobody,” she tells me. “So I made a point of sending a birthday card to everyone I knew, as an excuse to get out of the house with the baby. Ann was my saviour. I got to know everyone in the village through chatting to them in the post office. I’d be here for 20 minutes at a time.”

Postmistress Ann Gilmore closes the door of Ballindine post office at the end of its last day of business. Photograph: Keith Heneghan
Postmistress Ann Moran closes the door of Ballindine post office at the end of its last day of business. Photograph: Keith Heneghan

Éadaoin Townley and her husband, Colm Ó Conaire, have dropped in together on their way back to work.

“Ann acted as an anchor in our community,” Townley says. “You could order a birthday cake and it’d be dropped into the post office for you to collect. The post office was all about old-fashioned communication. Every village needs a few focal points. This was one of the things keeping it alive.”

“It’s easier to go to a post office than a bank, especially when it’s in your own village,” Ó Conaire says.

They leave just as Stacey Prendergast and her mother, Tina, arrive in a sweep of glamour. Tina Prendergast sticks her head in the door and calls Moran out. “Stacey wants a photo,” she says, and Moran laughs and runs outside.

Stacey Prendergast is all dressed up in her lovely dusty pink deb’s dress and silver shoes; her hair in a pretty updo. She is about to get on a coach at 3pm with the rest of her former classmates to go to their debs’ dance in a hotel in Co Meath.

The coach can wait. It won’t go without her. What’s more important is that she first shows Moran her dress, and has a photograph of herself taken with Moran. “Isn’t it great to be young like that, and going off to your debs,” Moran says, giving her a kiss after the photo is taken.

From time to time, I hear customers at the counter asking if “the Lotto” will be running this week. It isn’t, they are told. Puzzled, I ask Moran what they mean: surely the Lotto always runs?

“We had our own bit of fun with the Lotto here,” she explains. “On Fridays, when people were getting their pension, some of them would give me a euro for a syndicate for the Lotto that week. I’d write their names down, and buy the tickets. We never won the Lotto, though.”

In a corner of the post office is a small round table and a few stools. This serves as a social hub for customers – not just older ones – who want to stay on and chat for a while. Many of them do.

The people collecting their pensions all say that Friday is a big social day for them; the day they go out and have the chat with everyone, do some shopping, maybe go for coffee. Or have their hair done.

“Fridays have always been a busy day for me, and I have no doubt that numbers will drop now. Those customers won’t be here anymore; they’ll be in Claremorris,” says Muriel Costello, who has a hair salon in the village. “I think the post office closing will lead to more closures here.”

Costello is chatting to Helen Morley in the post office. “Our big gripe is that we did not get enough notice of closure that we could campaign to keep the place open,” Morley says. “We only had a fortnight’s notice. It’s very convenient this is happening when the politicians are all on their holidays.”

As the hours pass, I observe that some of Moran’s customers, mainly older men, are people of few words. Yet almost all of them before they leave make the effort to find some words to express their dismay and grief at the loss of their post office, and to thank Moran for her service. It usually starts with a clearing of the throat, after they have completed their final transaction at the counter.

These are some of the things Ann Moran’s customers tell her on her last day as postmistress of Ballindine post office.

“I’m sorry to see it go, I tell you.”

“Good girl yourself. We’ll meet again on the road.”

“You were always in very good form, I give you that.”

“Thank you for everything, and the best of luck to you.”

“It’s a shame, so it is.”

“You’ll be sorely missed.”

“So today is the day of judgment.”

“The best of health to you.”

“Was it 10 years you were here? Don’t the years go by.”

“What are we going to do without you at all at all?”

“God bless you.”

4pm-5.30pm

The photographer has arrived. This last part of the day is much quieter than earlier on. Most pensions have been collected. There are some 150 social welfare payments processed every Friday in this post office, and most of them are now completed.

Things are winding down. Moran uses the time to do the paperwork she needs to get ready for the collection, and all the other final bits and pieces she needs to do. Rebecca Kearns arrives from the Borderline with another mug of coffee; the last of the day, and the last ever she’ll deliver to Moran here.

A customer wishes postmistress Ann Gilmore (left) well after she locks up on the last day of business at Ballindine post office. Photo : Keith Heneghan
A customer wishes postmistress Ann Moran (left) well after she locks up on the last day of business at Ballindine post office. Photograph: Keith Heneghan

From time to time, the landline rings. It’s yet another customer who couldn’t make it in in person, calling to say goodbye and good luck. I tell Moran it’s clear to me she is a very popular member of the community. She looks up from franking letters.

“When you’re in the public eye, it doesn’t cost anything to smile at people,” she says simply. “And the older generation, especially, really appreciate that. I have really enjoyed my job, but that’s because it’s the people who make it for me. And it’s the people who are really going to suffer from the loss of their local post office. I know it will have a profound effect on the community.”

Phil Townley, Éadaoin Townley’s mother, comes in to say goodbye. “Everyone knows Ann,” she says to me. “I knew her as a child. That shows you how long I’ve been around.”

Close to 4.30pm, a local man, Matty Masterson turns up, camera in hand. He wants to document the last collection of post from Ballindine post office. The post box outside will remain open for collections at 4.40pm, but items mailed there from today will now be franked in Claremorris. Every post office has its own stamp, with which each piece of outgoing mail gets franked.

We go inside, and Moran produces the Ballindine stamp. She franks two pieces of paper for Masterson, and the inside cover of my notebook as souvenirs for posterity, with the date. Baile an Daighin, 10.8.18.

I ask what will happen to this stamp at the end of the day. It will be returned to An Post, along with all the other items to do with the day-to-day running of the post office.

The last box of mail Moran will ever get ready is waiting on the little round table for collection. Promptly at 4.39pm, An Post employee Paul Mullaney draws up in his van. He has a few quick words with Moran, and removes a collection scanning point object from the wall. He is all business-like, loading up the envelopes and parcels in the van. Then he opens the post box and swiftly empties it.

He is gone by about 4.41pm, and although the post office is not due to close until 5.30pm, the dynamic has now changed completely. Some sense of urgency is past. The post has gone, and with it, so much else.

Gráinne O’Malley arrives in with a letter shortly afterwards, but she’s too late. “The post is gone,” Moran says, suddenly looking devastated. She’s been smiling and cheery and chatty almost the whole day, but now she is no longer any of those things.

The photographer and myself stand outside in the street for a while, to give Moran some space. I don’t ask her any more questions. I don’t go inside any more. I don’t approach any more customers.

Eventually, Moran appears in the doorway. It’s closing time. She carefully pulls the door of Baile an Daighin’s post office out after her, locks it and walks away.

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