ATMs are a dark reminder of our crushed dreams


The reintroduction of tenners in Bank of Ireland ATMs is a sign of the times

The news that Bank of Ireland would be increasing the number of €10 and €20 notes in their bank machines in the coming months is what we journalists call “a sign of the times”.

In recent years tenners have apparently only been available in rare Ulster Bank and AIB cash points, and finding bank machines that give out the smaller notes has been something of a struggle (although there are rumours about new bank machines that distribute IOUs and sing sad songs in Irish).

During the boom, of course, bank machines only distributed €50 bills, gold krugerrands and investment mortgages. You’d drunkenly stagger to the bank machine and be presented with several options: “withdraw €50”, “pirate booty” or “purchase unfinished off-the-plans apartment in Cape Verde”.

In those halcyon days some people didn’t even see denominations less than a 50 as real money. Many had shredding machines for disposing of tenners and smelting equipment for small change. Sometimes on Saturdays we had a big money fight on O’Connell Street.

In recent years this behaviour looks silly, and once more the cash point has become a dark repository of our nation’s crushed hopes and dreams. The future seems to be predicated not on Irish freedom, “the children”, or rocket cars, but whether “the bank machines will work in the morning”.

So for such cool, calculated pieces of technology, ATMs sure do elicit strong emotional responses. Some of my darkest moments have been at bank machines. There is nothing worse than discovering bank charges have reduced your anticipated tenner balance to an unwithdrawable €9.95.

“You have insufficient funds for this transaction” is up there with “I don’t love you any more, Patrick”, or “presented by Craig Doyle”, or “I don’t love you any more Patrick, presented by Craig Doyle” on the list of all-time most devastating phrases.

Did John Sheppard Barron know what he was doing to us back in the optimistic 1960s when he first invented the Automated Teller Machine? Probably not. When the machine debuted outside a Barclays in Enfield on June 27th, 1967, the first person to use it was cheeky Reg Varney, star of On the Buses. Reg died in 2008 just as the economy began to tank. Coincidence? I’m no statistician, but the answer is clearly “no”.

Irish cash machines began to proliferate in the early 1980s and were greeted by columnists lamenting the loss of the personal touch and criticising banking institutions for desecrating their architectural facades. The first Irish ATM was apparently at Stillorgan shopping centre and was a large cardboard box in which a non- unionised clerk sat doing a robot voice (the last part is probably untrue). Now these machines are everywhere. I have one in my sitting room.

The words “Automated Teller Machine” conjure up an image of something far more impressive than a bank machine. When I picture an Automated Teller Machine as opposed to an (ugh) ATM, I imagine a robot with an old fashioned clerk’s cap and bendy arms (like the robot from Lost in Space) distributing money through a circular hole in some glass while speaking in a robotic 1920s New York accent.

This amazing robot teller wouldn’t, like the cruel, impersonal ATM, coldly tell me “you have insufficient funds for this transaction” when I request a 20. No, the ATM would hold me tenderly and stroke my hair. Then he’d give me a tenner, or maybe some small change, and say something like,“hey, toots, buy yerself something pretty . . . possibly a Cadbury’s Chomp” .

If the reintroduction of tenners in Bank of Ireland cash machines is a step in this direction, I welcome it.