It looks like a proper bank – red sandstone walls, sash windows, steps up to a big front door, and black wrought iron railings enclosing the space to the front.
It has the air of a building that would have been entered in reverential fear in times past. Words would have been spoken discreetly, in subdued tones. Fraud or embezzlement would have been difficult in an establishment where each customer would have been recognized by each member of staff from the most junior clerk up to the manager. The manager would, of course, have stepped out of his office to greet personally certain of the customers.
The bank would have been part of the fabric of local life. The manager would probably have gone to school with other prominent citizens of the town. He might have sat in the next pew to the police superintendent at church on a Sunday; he might have played in the same rugby team as the schoolmaster; he might live in the same street as the doctor who would have looked him over once a year and told him he was fit and well.
To have got a job in the bank would have to have done well, to have found security, to have woven oneself into the life of the community.
Standing on the pavement in the late afternoon, it was difficult to imagine the scene perhaps forty or fifty years ago. The street almost devoid of traffic; the manager driving home in his Irish built Austin Cambridge; a solitary Garda treading his beat towards the barracks; shops being closed up for the day and workers heading home: the images are of stability, of security, of predictability.
Reading the headlines in Irish Times, the image of the bank in decades past seemed, for a moment, very inviting. The bank manager in those times belonged to a financial system very different from the one which has led us to the point of financial collapse. It was the Letters page that provided a sobering reminder of the realities of those times: a resident of a Protestant-run home recounts experiences similar to those of the women in the appalling Roman Catholic-run Magdalen laundries.
However bad the financial situation, the standard of living for every person in the State is hugely better than the poverty endured by hundreds of thousands in the 1950s. But even if there were not greater wealth, to have escaped from the oppression of those times represents a great step forward.
Archbishop McQuaid ran Ireland for thirty years and his reign enabled his Protestant counterparts to keep their own communities firmly in check. Church of Ireland clergy were not averse to actively intervening in people’s lives, telling them where and where not they might go, and with whom they might mix. Clerical dominance of society led to a culture of secrecy and abuse.
Walking out of that bank branch fifty years ago, what would the staff have made of the community in which they lived? Fifty years on, how many would choose to return to those times?