Ann Fitzgerald: A community's fight for their post office offers hope for rural Ireland
Our local post office in Abbeyleix recently closed. But, fortunately, it immediately reopened 100 yards down the road.
What was previously a standalone outlet, has now, following a tender process, been incorporated into a corner of the town's SuperValu supermarket.
The post-office has been in the Connolly family for 60 years and departing postmaster Derry Connolly pointed out: "I am not of retirement age and I wouldn't be retiring at all if it wasn't guaranteed that the post office would continue in the town."
Proprietor of the SuperValu is Connell Breslin who also owns another branch of the chain 18km away in Rathdowney, where a similar consolidation will happen in a few months when the postmaster retires.
This is part of a nationwide pattern of retirements and incorporation of post offices into supermarkets like SuperValu.
A few days later I was standing at the nearby traffic lights when I fell into conversation with a local man walking his children to school.
He was sad at the move and described happy childhood holidays in Allihies (West Cork) when his phonecall home would be put through by the exchange at the post office.
He still visits Allihies and its post office, where his son spoke of getting strawberry bon-bons, "which, for some reason, are blue."
Unfortunately, the boy will no longer be getting blue bon-bons or bon-bons of any colour at the post office in Allihies, as I later learned that it, too, had closed a few days earlier. The furthest post office from Dublin is gone.
(A short film entitled, An Post Office Allihies: The Last Collection, by Balooz.com, can be viewed here online. It is a simple snapshot of the dissolution of rural Irish society, chilling in its ordinariness and apparent inevitability.)
Allihies is among the 159 post offices earmarked last year for closure and all bar a few are now closed.
One of the few still fighting the decision is the village of Gurteen, Co Sligo, where locals have come together to form an action group and mount a spirited campaign.
They conducted a census of the village and found that it has a population of 512. An Post has said that a 500-strong population is needed for a post office to be viable.
The group points out Gurteen has 27 businesses employing over 170 people, the school has gone from a three-teacher to a five-teacher, while 86 new post office accounts have been opened since October. (Also, see SAVE Gurteen Post Office Facebook page.)
Even last week, they sent out Valentine's cards to members of the media, carrying the verse, "Roses are Red, Violets are Blue, We will save our Post Office, With help from You!"
A second reprieve for Gurteen is due to run out at the end of this month.
Our nearest post office, 5km away in Ballacolla, closed in 2014. Now the only time that most people stop in the village is at the traffic lights.
Government ministers have repeatedly rejected the notion of keeping post offices open for social reasons. At the same time, the establishment of a Minister for Loneliness is being mooted.
I'm not joking!
Such a post has already been created in the UK last year, to tackle what Prime Minister Theresa May described as, "the sad reality of modern life".
Here, Senator Keith Swanick and Mayo GP, one of the authors of a report on the issue, last week called on the government to do more to tackle the "epidemic" of loneliness.
As well as a ministerial post, he has called for €3m to be allocated for initiatives, research and awareness.
It is ironic that such calls would be made to the State at the same time that another of its arms is shutting down existing social hubs.
Go Gurteen! You are a beacon of hope for rural Ireland.
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