Bank of Ireland closure brings out true grit in Abbeyfeale

There is still optimism in the Limerick town of about 2,000 people that lies a stone’s throw from the Kerry border

All day last Saturday, people queued along Abbeyfeale’s Main Street to buy their last bag of penny sweets or iced bun from “the Willy Wonka” of the town, Ann Lyons’s shop, before the shutters came down on 41 years in business.

Lyons, who had been in a wheelchair since the age of five, died in December. Keeping the business going after her death “just wasn’t viable”, says her nephew, JP Ahern, who runs the family pub next door, DP Lyons.

Two days later there was a second blow to the Limerick town, as Bank of Ireland announced that it would be closing its branch on The Square, one of 103 planned closures nationally. Seven of those branches are in Limerick. The double whammy left many feeling despondent about the future for Abbeyfeale, a market town of about 2,000 people, a stone's throw from the border with Kerry.

The closure of the sweet shop prompted waves of nostalgia, but the bank leaving town "will have a tsunami effect", predicts Fine Gael councillor and farmer Liam Galvin. The population of the wider catchment area is about 5,000 people. "They were all coming into town to do their shopping and to use the two banks."

He worries that in the future they'll go 20 minutes in either direction, to Listowel in Kerry or Newcastle West in Limerick. Galvin looks up and down the street, counting the businesses that are no longer here. "I'd say 25 pubs have closed in the past 15 years."

On paper, Abbeyfeale is struggling. Many of its challenges are the same as those facing other towns: migration to the cities; the lure of out-of-town retail; online shopping; the shuttering up of traditional family-run businesses as the older generation dies, and the bottom line no longer makes sense to the younger generation. And now, the accelerating effect of a year of Covid-19. Abbeyfeale suffered one of the sharpest increases in commercial vacancy rates last year, with 4.4 per cent more units empty at the end of 2020 than a year earlier, according to the GeoView commercial property report. One in five units are empty, well above the national average of 13.5 per cent.

Conflicting narratives

But despite this, there is optimism in the town. Generally, there are two conflicting narratives of the future for rural Ireland – the notion of inexorable decline or the vision of post-Covid resurgence. Both are to be found along Main Street in Abbeyfeale, depending on who you ask.

Maurice O’Connell, a business consultant and head of Abbeyfeale community council, is one of the optimists. Where else, he asks, “can you park your car on the main street and be walking distance from an equestrian centre, a multi-award-winning town park, two national schools, a state of the art secondary school, a theatre and a 40km greenway?”

He predicts the pandemic will see a resurgence in people moving back to rural Ireland and believes the empty bank buildings should be given over to communities. He’d like to see the empty branch – which operated as a bank for 120 years – converted to a museum or community centre. A co-working space is soon to open in another former bank building.

"If the town was on its last legs, and it was a dying community, I wouldn't even be talking to you. But this is a very vibrant place," says funeral director James Harnett. He cites the €9 million traffic management plan; access to the 36km Great Southern Trail greenway, which runs from Abbeyfeale northeast to Rathkeale, and the German Kostal factory that employs 1,000 people between its two operations in Abbeyfeale and Cork.

More money

Galvin, too, is broadly positive about the future. The traffic management plan will mean “all new footpaths and a new road. There’s a car park going in there,” he says, gesturing to an unoccupied pub. More money is being spent on rural Ireland now than ever, he says.

Walking through the town on Wednesday lunchtime, Abbeyfeale doesn’t feel like a place in decline. There are a number of empty units, but several have recently acquired “Sold” signs. Locals believe some of these will end up as apartments. There are people out walking and a steady flow of traffic along the N21.

A group of Tidy Towns volunteers are weeding and collecting litter. One of the volunteers, Jimmy Cahill, had two jobs before the pandemic, both gone now – he worked as a caretaker of the town park and in a pub. He's downbeat about the future, worried that the bank branch going will mean people "will go to other towns to do their banking and shopping. And the next thing, this town is going down."

Next door to Ann Lyons’s shop, JP Ahern is airing out his pub, as he has done daily for the past year. He picks a sparkling pint glass off the counter. If the restrictions were lifted tomorrow, he’d be ready to open, he says.

He is a customer of Bank of Ireland, but will move his business. “I still need to be able to get change. I can’t pull 20 cent coins of the sky. Paddy Power’s are great to me, but they need their own 20 cent coins.”

The closure of his aunt's business after her death was a tough blow at the end of a hard year. He'd have loved to keep it going, but the numbers didn't add up. "The coronavirus pandemic hasn't helped." It accelerated trends that were there anyway. "While it's great to have the likes of Tesco and Supervalu, they have destroyed the centre of the small towns," he says. It irks him to hear Bank of Ireland cite Covid as a reason for the branch closures: it's an insult to businesses which are really struggling in the pandemic. Still, he's optimistic.

‘Good businesses’

“Abbeyfeale is still a good town. You can go up and down the street out there, and people will tell you the town is f***ed: this place is closed, that place is closed. But I have to be optimistic, because I have a young family. There’s good businesses in the town still open and trading.”

Just up the road, sisters Margaret Browne and Norette O'Riordan are packing up Facebook orders in their large shop, Heavenly Gifts, which stocks everything from jewellery to baby clothes. O'Riordan's "blood is boiling" over the branch closure. "If somebody came in here to spend money, would I say use a machine?"

For her, it’s another sign that “small country towns are being left behind, big time”.

The closure of click-and-collect has hit businesses like theirs hard. Browne lists off the overheads that still have to be paid during lockdown: “We have to meet our loans, our insurance, our phone, our Visa machine.”

“The bank aren’t going to give us a digout,” O’Riordan adds.

Browne's son, John, is helping to paint the shop. He moved back to the area from Abu Dhabi four years ago and is teaching fifth class in a national school in Castleisland.

He’s one of a group of four friends who have all moved back over the past couple of years, he says. “Myself and my brother, we want to try and improve the town. It’s our ambition to get a chamber up and running. The future can be bright – there’s a lot of potential here. One thing Covid has done is make people appreciate what they do have in their town.”

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