WATCH: Meet the volunteers working tirelessly to keep their village shop open
One community banded together to reopen a local shop after their post office was closed down, writes Alan O'Keeffe
Word of the closure of a local post office and shop is an all-too-frequently shared item of bad news in many villages. But the tale of how one local community reacted will give hope to others facing a similar fate.
People in the adjoining villages of Moone and Timolin in Co Kildare had seen local businesses close in the past and were resolved not to lose a valuable local focal point.
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They raised an army of volunteers to take control of the shop and start a cafe as a community hub. Locals rolled up their sleeves to keep the premises in Moone open and protect their community spirit. Those willing to work a couple of hours each week include farmers, teachers, a solicitor, a garda, an electrician, an insurance worker, and many people who work at home and elsewhere.
"When the post office and shop closed down we re-opened the shop the very next day. That was crucial," said Anna Moore (39), chairperson of the Moone and Timolin Area Committee.
They knew many small rural villages lost the hearts of their communities with the closure of small post offices and they were determined it would not happen to them.
The retiring post mistress Bernadette Wall decided to accept a redundancy package offered by An Post to close the post office. Their small grocery shop would not be commercially viable without the post office on the premises.
Ms Wall and her husband Tom fully supported the community's initiative. They agreed to hand over their premises for a small rent, along with equipment, and they provided some training for the volunteers.
Up to 40 people had come forward to volunteer a couple of hours a week to join a roster to keep the not-for-profit community shop open.
The community decided to also run a cafe business in the premises to encourage locals to socialise together.
When the Walls closed the post office and ended their involvement in their shop on September 30 last year, the locals reopened the premises the next day on October 1.
"Not allowing time to pass with no community hub was very important.
"The closure of any post office can mean people no longer have a community hub. What we have done has brought us all closer together," said Ms Moore.
"We are doing our best to serve the community with things such as a community noticeboard for local activities and jobs.
"We have a roster of 35 volunteers with 20 regular volunteers doing two to four hours a week.
"We are open weekdays from 9am to 1pm with a day off on Saturday and 11am to 1pm opening hours on Sunday. We keep the shop open for two hours on Friday afternoons during school terms to allow children to come for sweets," she said. The community also provides employment for one man under the State's Tus community work placement scheme.
Local electrician Dan O'Keeffe said the Government had "washed its hands" of local communities when it obliged An Post to run the nation's post offices as commercial businesses.
He said communities should always fight to keep open their social hubs and the Government should do more to protect local communities. He hoped for funding from Kildare County Council to enhance the premises. Local people have already used their skills to do improvements on the premises.
Eamonn O'Neill said the role of post offices as hubs for their communities was vital. The premises in Moone was being used by a number of groups, including a book club and a Scrabble club.
Vincent Farrell is 77 years old and has lived locally all his life. He was "sickened" by the unwillingness of An Post to keep a post office in Moone.
He said people in old age should not be forced to look for transport to other towns and villages to collect their pensions.
Making the weekly journey to one's own post office kept older people in touch with other people.
Noreen Kilraine, who is part of a local women's club, said rural communities facing the closures of social hubs must take positive action to protect their community spirit.
"We are all only as good as the sum of our parts. Community spirit is important. A good happy community spirit raises all boats. It's good when people stick together," she said.
The community was delighted to hear that Narraghmore in County Kildare village had just opened its own community shop after losing its post office. Throughout Ireland, a number of rural communities have opened community shops.
An Post's public affairs manager Angus Laverty said: "The post office in Moone, County Kildare closed under the terms of a national post office consolidation programme which arose out of a breakthrough agreement between An Post and the Irish Postmasters Union.
"Both An Post and IPU agreed that the consolidation of the network and the subsequent transfer of business to neighbouring offices was essential to the sustainability of the overall network and the continued provision of services in local communities.
"A retirement package was drawn up which enabled post masters to retire from the business.
"In the case of Moone, local business transferred to Ballitore post office and other post offices in the area."
He said An Post was investing €50m in post offices nationwide. Each retirement of a local postmaster or postmistress will be treated on "a case by case basis" in each community in terms of future viability of local services, he said.
The post office network was developed when people were less mobile and more dependent on local services.
Society had changed and people often now choose to drive to bigger towns for their shopping and to use electronic banking services rather than visit their local post office, he said.
Kildare County Council's senior executive officer Mairead Hunt said communities are invited to make applications for funding for town and village renewal projects.
Initiatives aimed at combating rural isolation that bring "social rewards" are often eligible for council support, she said.
The number of Irish post offices has fallen from 2,300 in 1984 to around 1,000 at present. More than 150 had closed under the redundancy scheme since the beginning of last year.