Irish Lives: fight for a postal lifeline

Marty Coyne, a quadriplegic, and his neighbours in in rural Galway campaign to reopen their Cleggan post office, downgraded several years ago to a ‘postal agency’

Marty Coyne’s story of emigration is typical. Born and raised in the west of Ireland, he moved to London during the economic downturn in the 1980s. Coyne lived in the city’s Irish haunts, spending a few years in Kilburn before buying a house in Neasden.

When the Irish economy picked up, Coyne moved home to Cleggan, Co Galway, a harbour village with a population of about 260.

That was in May 2005. Two months later, while working on a property, he had the accident that would leave him requiring constant care.

“I was doing the first-floor joicing and I hit a knot with a four-inch nail,” he says. “I went to pull the nail out and the joice went down. Whatever way I was over it, I went with it. If I landed face down I wouldn’t have been too bad. But I landed on my back and I damaged the spinal cord.”

Coyne, now a quadriplegic, is one of the Cleggan residents campaigning to reopen the village post office. The facility, located in Cleggan's only shop, closed last Friday after the tenancy of the premises changed hands. A notice from An Post informed customers that they could transfer their Social Protection payments to Claddaghduff, 3km away.

Cleggan’s post office was downgraded several years ago to a postal agency, which only processes payments from the Department of Social Protection. But locals say people depended on it.

“A couple of miles means a lot to the likes of people here,” says Noirín Higgins, owner of Oliver’s pub and restaurant. Pensioners and others with disabilities will struggle to travel to Clifden and Claddaghduff to pick up their benefits, she adds.

Agencies out

An Post says postal agencies, of which there are only about 125 in the country, are no longer part of the plan for its national network. Where a contract expires or is broken, the usual approach is to close the agency. “Accordingly, there are no plans to renew the former agency at Cleggan,” said a spokesman.

Cleggan is 10km from Clifden and a 90-minute drive from Galway. Tourists arrive during the summer to catch the ferry to Inishbofen, but the place goes into hibernation in winter.

“The minute the kids go back to school, it’s like turning off a tap out here,” says Coyne. He adds that the closure of the postal agency will be “another nail in the coffin” for the village.

The outlet was based in Coyne’s shop, where Joe Rogan, from Ballina, Co Mayo, has just taken over the lease. Rogan says the closure came as a shock and is a concern for the business.

“The post office is a big part of it,” he says. “You’re guaranteed 50 or 60 extra people every Friday. And if they come in they will get cigarettes, they’ll get something. You need that.”

Stay relevant

There have been more than 200 post office closures across the State since 2007. Earlier this year, An Post reported an operating profit of €5.9 million for 2014, compared with a loss of €11.4 million in 2013. Chief executive Donal Connell has said the business has to adapt amid declining mail volume to stay relevant.

Politicians have voiced frustration at the way the company chooses to close outlets and at its level of engagement with local communities. It would be “easier to decipher the third secret of Fatima” than An Post’s strategy on closing post offices, said Mayo Fianna Fáil TD Dara Calleary in 2012.

Closures have galvanised rural communities across the country. Two candidates have already been confirmed to contest the general election on a post office and community platform, and another six expected to enter the fray before polling.

Thrive and diversify

In June, a report led by entrepreneur Bobby Kerr said post offices could thrive if they diversified into other areas, such as providing financial services and collecting local authority payments.

That’s unlikely to be much comfort to the residents of Cleggan. An Post says its focus now is on “maintaining a vibrant post office nationwide network”. Smaller postal agencies simply don’t factor into that.

For Coyne and other local residents that represents a blow to Cleggan and to the people who relied on the postal agency as a social outlet as much as anything else.

“I look at the positives rather than the negatives,” Coyne says. “But this is a big negative on me and on the village.”