Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Athy's Credit Union

I’m returning to a subject I first wrote about 740 Eye’s on the Past ago, or to be perhaps more accurate in terms of time, 15 years ago.  Then Athy Credit Union was celebrating it’s Silver Jubilee and this week the celebrations are for the 40th anniversary of this most unique of local institutions.  Over the years Athy has seen several financial institutions open and close and in our time we can recall the closure of the Provincial Bank in Duke Street and the Hibernian Bank in Leinster Street.  Further back the Local Loans Fund operated out of premises at Emily Square.  When it closed I cannot say, but I can recall it’s name painted on the facade of the house, visible, even if badly faded, as I made the daily trek to and from the Christian Brothers School in St. John’s Lane. 

Another long forgotten part of Athy’s story was the Athy Literary Magazine published in 1838 in which a local correspondent raised for what I believe was the first time the need for a Mont de Piete in the town.  Not quite a Credit Union, the Mont de Piete lent small sums of money to the poor on the security of pledges.  Very similar you might say to a pawn shop, of which there were a few in Athy at that time, but in fact the Mont de Piete was intended to be a more cost effective source of borrowing for those who needed it.  The Local Loans Fund was something in a similar vein.  How or when it was established in Athy I have yet to discover, but it does appear to have made a significant impact on the local population during it’s period of operation.

The Credit Union in Athy was established following a meeting in the Old Folks committee rooms at 82 Leinster Street on Friday, 17th March 1968.  The meeting had been arranged, by whom I do not know, but in any event notice was given of a talk to be delivered by Michael O’Doherty of the Irish League of Credit Unions.  No doubt the talk was intended to raise the profile of the Credit Union Movement amongst the locals and perhaps lead to the setting up of a Credit Union Branch in the South Kildare town.

The need for Credit Unions in provincial Ireland 40 years ago may not now be so apparent when banking facilities are readily available.  Back in the 1960s however banking was the preserve of the select few and between the rarefied atmosphere of the local bank and the dismal interior of the pawn shop there was little or no alternative.  The Credit Union Movement offered to many for the first time an opportunity to borrow monies to meet emergencies or to plan for a better future.  No wonder then that Michael O’Doherty’s talk on St. Patrick’s night 40 years ago elicited a response which would result in the founding of a Credit Union office in Athy.

Every Credit Union branch operates under the guidance and control of it’s directors, all of whom are elected annually.  The first directors of Athy Credit Union were Jim O’Flaherty, Pat Fay, Richard Mulhall, Patsy O’Neill, Christy McMahon, Paddy Keane, Donal Murphy, Dermot Griffin, Jim McEvoy and John Quirke.  Some weeks later Paddy Casey and Frank English were co-opted to the Board of Directors.  Jim O’Flaherty, an official in the local Post Office, was elected the first Chairman, with the Vice-Chairmanship going to Donal Murphy.  Paddy Keane was the Branch Secretary, with Jim McEvoy as the first Treasurer and Patsy O’Neill as Assistant Treasurer.  Reading through the names of the first directors you will have noticed that the gender imbalance prevalent in Irish society of 40 years ago and for long afterwards was reflected in the Credit Union all male Board of Directors.  I am happy to record that in this, the 40th year of it’s operation, Athy Credit Union is now headed and for the very first time by a female Chairperson.  Marian Foley of Bert, Athy is the current holder of the position and has the honour of leading the local Credit Union in celebrating it’s 40th anniversary which commences on Thursday, 11th September with Mass in St. Michael’s Parish Church at 8.30 p.m. followed by a buffet supper in Athy Golf Club.  I understand that a bus will bring guests from the Church to the Golf Club and an open invitation is extended to all members of the Credit Union to join in the celebrations that night.

The first directors appointed in 1968 spent almost 12 months studying and understanding how a Credit Union operated and visited other established Credit Unions to gain experience of practice and procedures in what was essentially a banking operation.  On Friday, 31st May 1969 at 8.00 p.m. Athy Credit Union opened it’s doors for business for the first time using a room in the Courthouse in Emily Square.  The use of the one time Corn Exchange was made possible by Tadgh Brennan, the then County Registrar in Naas, who had started his professional career as a Solicitor in Emily Square.  At the end of it’s first year of operation Athy Credit Union could claim members savings of almost IR£5,000.

As the Credit Union business grew, more extensive premises than the one room then available in the Courthouse was required.  Towards the end of June 1971 No. 3 Emily Row, which in my very early years in Offaly Street was occupied by the Dempsey brothers and previously used by them as a delph shop, was bought by the Credit Union.  In the latter years No. 3 had been a sweet shop, operated by Mr. and Mrs. Brophy and as such competed with Kitty and Patty Websters’ shop two doors away, and Mona Sylvesters which was almost directly across the narrow street in Emily Row.   The premises was bought by the Credit Union from the Brophy family and for some years it’s business was carried out from the refurbished 3 Emily Row.  Further expansion of the premises was needed to cope with the increasing needs of the 1980s and this resulted in the purchase of the former Tierney family home at No. 4 Emily Row.  The two houses were then the subject of a major rebuilding programme to provide the up to date facilities available in the Credit Union building today.

The story of the Credit Union down the years has been one of continuing success and today it deals with savings of approximately €29 million and borrowings exceeding €16.5 million.  It has contributed enormously to the social and economic development of the town of Athy and nowhere is its influence better felt than amongst the many hundreds who for one reason or another find themselves unable or unwilling to partake of the services of the Irish banking conglomerates.  Congratulations and thanks are due to the many local men and women who over the last 40 years have made huge voluntary commitments to the Credit Union movement in Athy. 

We are now in the middle of the Athy Photographic Survey which commenced on Sunday last and great strides have been made by many people, particularly the members of the local Photographic Group in photographing events and happenings in Athy during the week.  It is hoped that as many local families as possible will get involved in the project by photographing at least their own family gathering or perhaps the house in which they live.  The Heritage Centre looks forward to getting as many photographs as possible of life in Athy during this one week in September so as to have for future years a photographic archive which will undoubtedly be of great interest to future generations of historians and townspeople.

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