Address by Archbishop Dermot Clifford, Archbishop of Cashel and Emly to the Annual Conference of the Irish Postmasters’ Union

03 May 2008

3 May 2008

Address by Archbishop Dermot Clifford, Archbishop of Cashel and Emly to the Annual Conference of the Irish Postmasters’ Union, Mullingar

  • Greater use of Post Office services is vital as closures mainly affect the vulnerable and disadvantaged
  • Post Offices have an ‘existence value’ which symbolizes the continued well being of the local community
  • Surveys of public opinion on the role of Post Offices have overwhelmingly found that they provide valuable services and, in addition, play an important community role in facilitating local enterprise, networking, obtaining knowledge, information and advice
I regard it as a very happy coincidence that you have invited me to address you on what happens to be the Centenary of the Old Age Pensions Act 1908. This was down to British Prime Minister David Lloyd George. He may not enjoy a very good reputation in Ireland, but his pension was taken up here with alacrity. It made pensions of five shillings per week (25p or 32c in modern money) payable to persons over seventy years of age with incomes of under twenty-one pounds per year. Applicants had to prove that they had not been in prison within the last ten years, that they were not lunatics, and were not receiving poor relief that disqualified them as registered electors; also that they had been habitually employed in the trade of their choice.

F.S. Lyons, in his history, Ireland Since the Famine, tells us of the difficulty which faced the Pensions’ Board. “It fell to the Board to become the central pension authority under the Old Age Pensions Act of 1908, a task of fearsome complexity since the statutory registration of births had only begun in Ireland in 1864 and the Board had therefore to grapple with the inexhaustible fertility shown by a wide variety of Irishmen of indeterminate age in inventing what they hoped would be valid claims to a pension”.

The Old Age Pension, small though it now seems, gave the elderly men and women a new sense of independence. They were now able to give something to their family for their keep. It saved many of them from hardship and the stigma of having to go to the workhouse. It also provided you, the Postmasters, with the backbone of your business for the past hundred years!

I have a clear memory of my first visit to our local Post Office in Ballymacelligott, Co. Kerry in 1948. I was eight years old. I was given a shilling by my mother to buy four 2½ penny stamps and instructed to ask for some stamp paper with them! This would leave two pence for sweets but I was not to eat them all. I was also to go to the creamery next door for butter. I was to ask for a “two pound roll” but it was unlikely that the manager would give more than a single pound as butter was still rationed. The bill would be put on the creamery book.

I set out with my message bag and my shilling on a fine summer day to walk the mile and a half to the Post Office. I was given the pound of butter at the creamery and the Post Office was just across the wall as it had been the manager’s house in earlier times. It was run by two sisters in their late teens, Kit and Mary Mac. There were two counters at right angles; one for the Post Office business and the other for the general grocery shop. No self-service then! A girl from my class in school named Nora also came on the two same errands and she duly came into the Post Office. Three old men were collecting their pensions at the Post Office end. They had come today as they did every Friday in a pony and cart. They dressed for the role of old age pensioners in black clothes, black hats and walking sticks. When they collected their ten shillings they came to the other counter to buy tobacco…each pointedly turned his back on the other two when he took out his purse to get his money. Privacy in financial matters was strictly preserved then as now, even between old friends!

Kit, the Postmistress, and Mary had a kind word for everyone, old and young. The local news was exchanged in between the sounds of the office stamp hitting the pension books at one counter and the cash register ringing the charges on the other. Come to think of it, the phone never rang! A postman came in at the end of his round on his bicycle and reported on the morning’s travels, the large canvas bag hanging empty now. The girls enquired about an old lady who was sick. “She was up and eating her breakfast when I called” the postman said. Another woman had a new baby boy. The Post Office was a very pleasant place to be. There was no hurry, yet business was transacted efficiently. The business and the social side were catered for in a one stop shop. The footfall was heavy – hob-nailed boots on the men but lightened somewhat by the bare feet of the children!

The three pensioners invited us two children to “sit in to the pony and cart” as they smoked their pipes contentedly and the pony set out at a saunter. As we moved along slowly under the midday sun, suddenly Nora looked in her message bag and exclaimed, “Good God, the butter is melting!” She jumped from the cart and dashed for home. She was the only one in a hurry that long carefree summer day long ago.

There were three Post Offices in Ballymacelligott parish then. There were three other shops, one of which sold the newspapers. Now there is one Post Office because, fortunately, Kit’s son, Brendan, now runs it. He also has an auctioneer’s business which, I need not tell you, has been a considerable help!

The creamery is gone long ago and the Post Office shop is now the only shop in the parish. The parish is a very good example of a very rural area, a scattered population of around two thousand, including some recent arrivals from Tralee. The parish once had three priests, now it is lucky to have one, a very active young man as it happens. The Post Office itself has been modernised and the Postmaster now sits inside a re-enforced glass and steel cage designed for security in the age of Post Office robberies. There is a considerable footfall – to use post office terminology – all the time but the supermarkets in two local towns have affected the shop end of the business while the electronic payment of pensions and other social welfare benefits through the banks has had negative effects on the Post Office side.

Like 400 other local Post Offices among a total of 1,200 which still survive throughout the country it is not automated as yet. Technology, the busy lives of people where both spouses work outside the home and the attraction of supermarkets means that traditional business is being diverted from the Post Offices. You can now pay your ESB bill online, renew your TV Licence over the phone and have your pension paid into your bank account instead of going to your local Post Office. With Postmasters being paid per individual transaction, any drop in business means a loss of income.

When I am on holidays, I go to the Ballymacelligott Post Office most mornings to buy the papers and groceries. The Old Age Pensioners still come; they do not look as old to me now! Young mothers come with their children. There is still time for chat. But where else can a seventy year old have a chat with a ten year old today?

The Post Office network came into existence in the late 1800’s. It is the State’s main place of contact with the citizens in rural Ireland today. Every citizen is, in theory at least, entitled to have the services of the Post Office available to him or her at a reasonable distance. In theory again, every citizen in a remote rural area such as Kilcommon or Kilgarvan has as much right to this public service as someone who lives round the corner from the G.P.O. in O’Connell Street. The local Post Office is a vital link between the citizen and the State. In many places it is the only link left.

The presence of a Post Office in a village is considered very important by the people whether they use it or not. We know that from the reaction of the public to the threat of closure of local Post Offices such as Lombardstown in recent times. Similar public protests were experienced in France when closures were announced. As far as I know, there have been no surveys of public opinion done on Post Office services in Ireland to date. I was fortunate to be able to find a number of surveys done in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland by PostComm, an independent Commission. They were kindly given to me by the CEO of the Tipperary Institute, Padraig Culbert, whose late mother was Postmistress in Limerick Junction Post Office, now closed. Let me give you some of the findings now:

Perceptions about Post Offices in the Surveys. One way of examining the value of post offices to communities is to ask people about their perceptions of their importance. ERM and MORI, who conducted the surveys found that:

  • 97% of customers and 92% of residents feel that post offices have an important community role
  • 96% of customers and 89% of residents use post offices for services which are important to them
  • 90% of customers see the subpostmaster as an important source of advice
  • 73% see the post office as a place to meet friends
I believe that a survey of our Irish public would provide very similar results. I also believe that a similar study of the views of the customers, the public in general and the Postmasters could be usefully undertaken through an independent company.

Again, under the heading, Acting as a Focal Point:

The local post office often acts as an informal channel for community information and interaction:

  • subpostmasters can give advice or refer people to relevant local services
  • when people go to the post office, they become part of an informal social network and can exchange local knowledge and skills
  • some people use the post office to meet friends, so that the post office often becomes a focal point for organising or advertising local and social activities.

Post Offices have an ‘existence value’ like that of the village pub or school, which is seen by rural residents, and observed, as symbolising the continued well-being of those communities. It is this iconic status which is fundamental in understanding the emotional attachment to the local post office widely felt by the general public – often at odds with the extent to which post offices are actually used. This value attached to the post office as a focal point is particularly hard to quantify. The role subpostmasters play in rural communities was demonstrated in the finding that 43% of subpostmasters in rural areas hold other positions within their local community (e.g church warden, school governor or parish councillor).”

You yourselves can translate for the Irish Community where you play important roles. Only 5% of British Post Offices show a profit. But, the British Government have given a subsidy of one hundred and fifty million pounds per annum from 2000 AD to 2008 AD to maintain the network.

Post Offices act as a Focal Point then, giving purpose and a sense of destination to villages and townships. They provide information, formal and informal, and their closure calls into question the viability of life far from urban centres. Post Offices play an important but subjective and intangible role for many residents providing it with focus, purpose and a sense of viability.

One person whose Post Office has closed down considered the Post Office “as making a village”. This prompts the question, “what is the life of a village when the Post Office is closed?” The villages of Lattin and Cullen in West Tipperary, for example, have no shop since the Post Office closed when Mr Donie English retired as Postmaster. You can’t buy as much as a newspaper in the parish now.

The sad fact is that in many cases, the Post Office has seen off the creamery, the Garda barracks, the curate’s house, the corner shop and maybe a pub or two since the coming into force of the smoking ban and the strict licensing laws of recent times. The surveys from Great Britain and Northern Ireland stress the crucial importance of the Post Office for specific groups in the community. Many Post Offices have been closed down in recent years e.g. Northern Ireland has seen the number of Post Offices fall from 600 to 440 over the past five years or so. The number of our own Post Offices has fallen from 1600 to 1200 in the same timespan when Postmasters retired and no replacement could be found. Having a local Post Office gives a village or parish an identity. It could be described as the heart of the community.

Who are the main losers when a Post Office closes? They are the people who depend most on their local Post Office. They will be well known to you all, but I will give you the list; the infirm elderly, the disabled, the unemployed, carers, one-parent families, those without a car or public transport. Add in people with poor literacy and numeracy skills and newly arrived immigrants. These disadvantaged groups depend on the Post Office for their weekly benefit. The often pay their bills by instalments and thus avoid getting into debt. The Postmaster often gives them much valued advice on money matters.

This is why the St. Vincent de Paul Society expressed serious concern in January of this year regarding the closure of Post Offices in nine rural counties, including Leitrim and Cavan, Sligo and Westmeath where we are this afternoon. Thirty per cent of contract operated Post offices have closed in these counties since 2000 AD. Of course, all the closures are not in rural Ireland. Post offices have closed in areas of Dublin such as Clontarf, Killiney, Naul, Upper Drumcondra, Walkinstown and St. Margaret’s. This is very surprising to us down the country where we are inclined to think that we are the sole victims of closures.

When a Post Office closes, the vulnerable groups I mentioned have great difficulty getting to another one, usually in a town, where they may have to queue. They miss the independence which they enjoyed in their own Post Office and the personal service, not to mention the informal chats with neighbours.

Another benefit of the local Post Office is that the Postmaster “keeps an eye” on the regular customers. Earlier this year, when an old couple in Co. Roscommon died from carbon monoxide fumes from their kitchen stove, it was the Postmistress and her husband who raised the alarm. Ann and Cathal Byrne at Knockvicar Post Office had missed their regulars and called to the house to see if they were alright. Every Postmaster and Postmistress has a number of regulars on whom they “keep an eye” in this manner. What price could a community place on this form of caring service?

As we know, life in rural Ireland has changed enormously in recent years. People do not have the same amount of contact as formerly. Many are isolated. Loneliness is common among the elderly and indeed the younger generation sometimes. Never was there more electronic communication and yet never less face to face contact! The loss of so many of the services already mentioned, the pace of life among the working population where everybody is in a rush…almost too busy to bless themselves! A section of disadvantaged people are left out because of poor health or lack of money to enable them to participate in the life of the community. The local Post Office is one of the few places where they can still enjoy the healing power of human companionship.

The reason which An Post gives for closures is that when the Postmasters retire it has not been possible to find a new operator as no-one wants to take up the job. Kilcommon village is a case in point. When the Postmaster retired what was put on offer was a part-time office at €4,000 approximately per annum. Someone was expected to provide the building, light, heat, insurance and security for €4,000 p.a!! If you pay peanuts you don’t even get monkeys anymore! They are getting cute! To seriously expect somebody to take up this offer is “to think inside the box” – the post box in this case! Kilcommon is twenty miles from Thurles and twenty-two miles from Nenagh and only for the community bus service, named Ring-A-Link, the pensioners and the other groups would be marooned. A Postmaster told me recently that his family only laugh at the suggestion that they take up the position when he retires. There are better paying jobs to be had.

You will recall the observation in the British survey I mentioned that, while the vast majority of the general public in Britain saw the local Post Office as a symbol of the well-being which gave it “iconic status”, this was often at odds with the extent to which the Post Office was actually used. The same holds true in our own communities. The public should be given more encouragement to use the services of the Post Office. To ensure greater footfall, the services must be brought up to speed with modern technology. A fully automated Post Office might win back those who do all their business in the superstores. I was very interested to learn from Catherine Healy-Byrne that the publicity given to the possible closure of her Lombardstown Post Office has resulted in a very healthy increase in her business. When local people became aware for the first time of her difficulties they rallied to support her. She has not been given the computer yet however!

I take this opportunity to appeal to priests and people to follow the example of the Lombardstown people by using their local Post Office when possible. In doing so, you will be playing your part to keep these services available to the most vulnerable of your neighbours. Don’t make the Post Office a no-stop shop! It would help, of course, if all Post Offices had facilities to order passports, develop photographs, provide a range of banking facilities, purchase vouchers for city stores. They could even pay fines and nobody need know a word about it except the Postmistress! To echo the plea of the Chairman of Postwatch Scotland, Mr. Tom Begg, “Obviously, we wish to see the development of a fully modern and successful system of accessing postal services and cannot be expected to resist a well thought out modernisation programme. But we must be given the genuine chance to represent the needs of even very small communities of postal service users.”

To ensure the well-being of the community, the Postmasters must surely be assured of proper remuneration in the modern world. Otherwise, they will have lost the status they used to enjoy. They have proved very adaptable down the years. They are very inventive men and women. Before “co-location” was ever heard of, they were running a public-private partnership in the family home. They were “decentralised”, without being conscious of it, since they were regarded as the centre of their communities.

As I pointed out earlier, the Post Offices have had to cope with the competition on one side with the banks. Almost 50% of their main source of income, the Social Welfare contract, has gone to the banks. On the other side, they continue to fight hard with the ever larger supermarkets with whom they can not hope to compete in prices. One Postmaster, who has petrol pumps, feels under threat of closure because of the underselling of a supermarket chain in a nearly town. It is curious that the supermarket chain in question takes part in the Fairtrade movement to assist the coffee growers who are among the poorest in Africa and I admire them for this but, at the same time, they are closing down the local shops and petrol stations in the seven parishes all around. I wonder what will happen when there is nobody left to under sell?

The Post Office network ought to be preserved. Recall the short-sighted policies which closed down the railways and took up the rails in rural Ireland and the tramlines in Dublin. Our four sugar factories closed and we lost the capacity to grow and harvest beet. A few years on, a global shortage of food has become a serious threat. The carbon footprint will be lower and traffic will be less if we reduce the miles which potential Post Office customers travel to town to collect their payments and do some shopping. Given the facilities, rural Post Offices will survive because much more could be delivered and delivered well through them. Developing them as Community Citizen Information Centres, which they are already in fact, could go hand in hand with further expansion of their commercial services. They have provided a high quality of personal service and they have done so on a shoestring. They can continue to do so provided they are given the facilities which I mentioned above. One recalls the words of Winston Churchill to the Americans during World War II, “Give us the tools and we will finish the job”.

Throughout the past decades, many people have come to live in rural villages again. The experience of the Rural Housing Organisation set up by Fr. Harry Bohan created and continues this trend. As a result many of our villages have been rejuvenated in the Celtic Tiger years. Despite the fact that villages are being repopulated, not enough regard is being paid to the need to sustain the social infrastructure and to ensure balanced rural development and good spatial policies. The local Post Office must surely be an essential part of this form of rural development. It must not be forgotten either that there are many small businesses in rural Ireland and they regularly use their local Post Offices.

This week’s OECD Report pointed out that the number of State agencies had more than doubled since the 1990’s. “No official Irish statistics are available for staff numbers in agencies in Ireland either today or 10 or 20 years ago”, the Report said. “Agencies vary significantly in size and budget and it is unclear how much public funding they use for their own functioning, for further distribution or for investment. Neither is it known exactly how many staff they employ.” This reckless expansion in a statistical vacuum occurred at a time when more than four hundred local Post Offices throughout the State were being closed down!

We must not forget at this time that the Postmasters have been living in constant fear of robberies with violence in recent years. Some have been seriously traumatised as a result and they could not continue. Their Post Offices closed. Alan Cuniffe had taken over the Post Office from his mother, Muriel, in St. John’s Green, Kilkenny, only two days when he was shot dead by a robber whom he pursued. Alan was heavily involved in his community as a fundraiser for charitable causes.

“Being a Postmaster is a vocation”, one Postmaster told me last week. Like the Church, there is an obvious shortage of vocations at present. Farmers are also finding that their sons and daughters are reluctant to take on work on the land. But, like the village schoolmaster in “The Deserted Village”, the Postmaster has developed many skills. He is a financial advisor, a counsellor, a businessman and much else.

I began in Ballymacelligott Post Office in 1948. I shall end in Ballycullane Post Office, Co. Wexford in 2008. The Postmistress Myra Whelan retired last March. She had completed fifty years in that role. Her husband was a postman. They raised twelve children, one of whom is a postman while a second son does occasional relief work on another postal route. In an interview with the local newspaper she described the many changes she had experienced in her time. The attached shop had closed some years ago but the system was automated. She was fortunate in having her daughter, Joy, to succeed her in the post and so a probable closure was avoided. What was very heartening was that on the day of her retirement, the local community surprised her. They arrived in force with bouquets of flowers and “turned the place into a flower shop” as she described it! It was happy for her and for her family that her lifetime of service to her community was appreciated at least by the people who really matter. Whatever the powers that be may think, the local Post Office in Ballycullane is still at the heart of the community. Long may it remain so!

Notes for Editors

  • Archbishop Dermot Clifford is the Archbishop of Cashel and Emly and Chair of the Department of Planning and Communications of the Irish Catholic Bishops’ Conference.
  • The Annual Conference of the Irish Postmasters’ Union takes place in the Mullingar Park Hotel, Mullingar, Co Westmeath.


Further information:
Martin Long, Director of Communications (086 172 7678)
Brenda Drumm, Communications Officer (087 233 7797)