‘Local post offices mean so much more to the heart and soul of rural Ireland than the high speed broadband the government has promised so many times and still shows no sign of ever delivering’, writes a recent arrival from London to rural Sligo, Trudy Prescott.
Last September, an article in an Irish national newspaper appeared under the headline proclaiming that the ‘Death of Rural Ireland is a Myth.’
It was about the closures of rural post offices and the reaction from the local communities on losing ‘retiring’ postmistresses who are regarded as heart and soul of the local communities, and the loss of business inevitably connected to a trip to the post office (visits to hairdressers, cafés, pubs).
The tone of the article was that rural life was doing quite well, thank you very much, that wealthy ‘immigrants’ from the cities are relocating to ‘rural’ Ireland and that the times-they-are-a-changing so just stop whingeing.
It insisted An Post is fully justified in its rationalisation (ie encouraging retirement) with the underlying presumption, all the while, being that ‘progress’ is being enabled.
The then Telecommunications minister Denis Naughten was quoted as saying that ‘local communities’ are ‘voting with their feet by flocking to German stores’ or in other words ‘it’s all your own fault’.
That was astonishing to me on several levels (I’m US-born of American/Swedish parentage and for 35 years have been an immigrant in the UK, and, more recently, in Ireland).
I was surprised at first that the remarks had not been challenged for their totally unacceptable ethnic-labelling. Secondly, that the remarks had been made by one EU member state’s minister in relation to another EU member State. Ireland hasn’t voted for Brexit and with sterling’s self-inflicted decline the EU market is vital for Irish farmers.
Most importantly Lidl and Aldi (Mr Naughten’s presumed targets) proudly buy Irish produce and draw attention to their local sourcing in prominent signage and packaging.
My groceries come complete with an introduction to, and photograph of, the local farmer who produced them.
I know I am not alone.
These ‘German’ grocers, of whom Mr Naughten was so disdainful, employ Irish personnel, have Irish hauliers deliver the produce, buy Irish diesel, and pay Irish taxes – there is no need to appeal to the European Courts here for clarification of taxes due.
Anyway, the matter which prompted me to write this (I am a historian, so please indulge me, in this age of the internet) is that MY local post office recently closed.
I had been away for a few days and when I returned, Charlie, my postman, and source of all information concerning things of local importance, having backed the An Post van down my long rural lane at promptly 09:11 hours, as always, stood shaking his head.
He told me: ‘While you were away, the Dromard post office closed’ and Eva Kelly had ‘retired.’ Dromard’s closure had been preceded by Templeboy’s. What next?
The boot (shoes don’t survive around here) was now on my foot.
I treasured my trips to the post office where a spry Eva Kelly and would impart her wisdom on the need to keep active and stave off the effects of ‘old’ age.
I’ll admit to being 63 years old. I’d also just moved four tons of gravel the hard way, by shovel and wheelbarrow, to repair my lane and Eva is my senior and had a hip replacement last year.
Eva was the first neighbour I had met beyond my dear McDonnells, whose sheep kindly mow my pastures, and who provide (never unsolicited) essential advice to surviving in the remote Ox Mountains, which put the ‘Wild’ in Wild Atlantic Way.
The post office was at the front of Eva Kelly’s house and she had inherited the business from her father. These days that would not comply with regulations, so her son won’t be taking over.
When I was new to the area it took me quite some time to twig that local etiquette demanded that I should have waited at the house’s entry door for the person at the counter to finish their business, and not form an immediate queue, like ‘city’ folk do.
Despite this faux pas, every person who turned, business completed, always gave me a smile and cheerful hello or nod.
I was so looking forward to doing it the right way, standing waiting my turn at the front door but that is not to be.
With sadness, I passed the little white-washed outbuilding opposite her house (now without the green mailbox where there is just a shadow on her wall), and the gravel area that provided a time-honoured pull-over to park. There won’t be any jockeying for space at 16:20 hrs to catch the last pick up.
I continued further down the road to Beltra, and braved an unfamiliar place and face.
Upon entering, I discovered that the normal lunch time hour (13:00-14:00) had been ditched and I was entering during the new regulated 14:00-14:30 break. Another faux pas.
Nevertheless, I was cheerfully helped by Evelyn who had neglected to lock the door to bar my unregulated entry.
Because of my American accent (which when I was a Metropolitan Police constable in London was often mistaken for an Irish accent) I really didn’t want to be taken for someone just passing through and never seen again and gave my identity: ‘I live at Maureen Phillips’s Carrowcullen.’
I always get the same open response: ‘Oh you are the one who has been doing it up. I had heard. I’m so glad to finally meet you. Welcome to the parish.’
If I post a letter further down the road, in Ballisodare, I buy a stamp and that’s it. I did it the other day, I won’t again.
In rural Ireland, local is local. It is a sense of place. It is a connection with others around you through the soil – good, bad, or whatever – on which you stand. I am Carrowcullen.
I bought a derelict farmhouse but have inherited the sense of place from a locally-revered able hand, now passed, with whom I had the honour of discovering I shared so much. At least I had that discovery.
I hadn’t wanted to intrude. That I was welcome to engage with Maureen Phillips, again is due to local word-of-mouth; Peter Davies, a neighbour, who when I first came, still did a daily walk calling on all the neighbours, and whose car, now as it passes, pauses if an unfamiliar vehicle is parked in the lane (‘just keeping an eye out’) had let me know, after pursuing enquiries on my behalf (unbeknownst to me), that I was welcome to call.
I treasure the memory of that one visit, including discovering a shared love for the stonework exposed during the renovation, the delight with the birdlife (including when they come calling into the house), and the concern with the factors that affected Carrowcullen’s very fabric and contributed to its dereliction. And she shared two tales of Lough Achree and the invitation to chose which to believe.
This sense of place is not a myth. It’s what binds people together.
Newspaper coverage of the post office closure during the summer’s ‘silly season’ had provided readers – entire local communities – to briefly have a voice and be heard.
To dismiss those voices by suggesting rural decline is a ‘myth’ and then blame the local communities themselves for the demise of their local post offices and their local well-being is completely unacceptable.
I’m an academic who has analysed myths.
This isn’t a myth.
This is rural Ireland.
This is reality.
Wellies on the ground.
Fighting to survive with arms-tied in an Internet age where, unlike the roll-out of post-war electricity, the government simply has not delivered the nation-wide high-speed broadband it promised over and over again.
It should listen and respect those voices.
Without a shared and grounded sense of place, then, ultimately what are we at all?
American-born Trudy Prescott is a former police constable with the Metropolitan Police in London who moved to Carrowcullen, in Sligo where she is a writer, historian and academic.