Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Athy's Penny Bank

Banking administration in Ireland has changed, and not for the better, within the last few years.  Long standing bank customers are now faced with extraordinary and ridiculous requests for passports, driving licences and utility bills to prove to bank officials with whom they have been dealing for years that they are who they claim to be.

I had experience of this quite recently when local officials in the bank where I have banked for over 30 years required me to prove who I was before I could operate another account.  This prompted me to question the difficulties facing the customers of St. Dominic’s Penny Bank, which is closing this month, should they wish to use any of the existing financial institutions to open saving accounts.

The Penny Bank is a much valued facility, especially useful for those people who might not be able to avail of banking facilities in our local banks or credit union.  Quite a lot of those people do not have driving licences or passports and consequently will not be able to meet the financial institutions requirements to allow savings accounts to be opened.

I am told that the Penny Bank opened in 1984 and for the last 30 years has provided what is essentially a social service for those unable to avail of main stream banking facilities.  A meeting in the Dominican Priory on 22nd March 1984 chaired by the late Fr. Jim Harris, Prior of St. Dominic’s on 22nd March 1984 agreed to open a Penny Bank.  Present at that meeting were Margo Gough, Ivan Bergin, Donal Murphy, Jack O’Rourke and John Neavyn who acted as Secretary.  The Penny Bank opened for the first time on Saturday, 7th April 1984 from 5.30 p.m. to 8.30 p.m. manned by volunteers Michael Ryan and Tom Walsh. 

Trustees of the Penny Bank were appointed and that role was undertaken by Donal Murphy, Ivan Bergin and John Neavyn.  Appointed as promoters were Patricia Murphy, Maureen Ryan, Peter Grant, Paddy Rochford and Tony Foley.  Ann Handy worked in the Penny Bank Office for many years and in 2003 Phyllis Fennin took over the running of the office with the late Kevin Watchorn.  In recent years St. Dominic’s Penny Bank has been open 6 days a week with Patricia Holligan and Ann Robinson helping out in addition to their normal duties in the Dominican shop.  During the 40 years of the Penny Bank’s existence five Dominican Priors have been in charge of the local Priory.  Fr. Jim Harris, Fr. Con Roche, Fr. Jim Dunleavy, Fr. John Heffernan and the current Prior, Fr. Joe O’Brien.

I understand that the Penny Bank has several thousand customers, all of whom benefit from the Savings Scheme which pays out substantial monies in the weeks prior to Christmas.  The money saved by the local people and made available to them in the lead up to the festive season brings enormous benefit to local shops.  It would be difficult to estimate the value to our local economy of the Penny Bank’s savings money spent in Athy each December but it must be millions of euro rather than thousands.

What will happen if the Penny Bank is not continued?  It cannot be continued by the Dominicans as regrettably the Friar’s preachers will in time be leaving Athy after more than 750 years of service to our community.

The Penny Bank must be saved.  It is a vital service for families who cannot avail of banking facilities.  If it is allowed to die those families will either lose the incentive to save or perhaps keep their savings at home.  Either will be a cause of concern.  Without the regular savings entrusted to the Penny Bank the loss to the local economy will be enormous.  If people, especially elderly people, continue to save and retain their savings by way of cash in their homes issues of personal safety will be a concern.

There is undoubtedly an urgent need for the community to come together to examine how best to retain the Penny Bank in Athy.  There should be no question of its dissolution without every avenue being examined as to the feasibility of retaining what is an essential social service.  It is also a vital local service and a community already facing the loss of its Post Office and its replacement by a sub Post Office should act immediately to stop this further erosion of services in Athy.  The townspeople need to act to help  regenerate the town which has so many natural and manmade assets of sufficient quality to justify its claim to be one of the best situated provincial towns in Leinster.    

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