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The times, they are a-changin’

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CHANGE Brothers Micheál (left) and Padraic Walsh, who grew up in their family business at Killawalla Post Office and Walsh’s Shop. Their mother Maureen is in the background, completing final tasks before the post office closed for the last time. Pic: Neill O’Neill

Feature
Neill O'Neill

THE closing of Walsh’s Post Office in Killawalla on Friday, December 30, brought a large rural community together, to thank and support a family who were bringing an end to 127 years of continuous service to their locality.
However, the occasion was also much more than just a fond farewell. The very face of rural Ireland is changing at a rapid pace, and the erosion of customs and traditions over the last number of decades appear to many to be accelerating. In the battle of progress versus tradition, there is currently one clear leader.
In conversation with The Mayo News, Micheál (35) and Padraic Walsh (32), whose parents Michael, the longest serving postmaster in Ireland, and Maureen, had made the difficult and poignant decision to retire and bring the shutters down on a community institution in Killawalla the day before New Year’s Eve, spoke passionately, outlining that while change and challenges exist for rural Ireland, hope and community spirit still remain.
“There are two parts to this, the first is that they are taking away infrastructure from rural Ireland, because people do not want this infrastructure to leave here, but the bigger picture is that the community here has changed so much in the last 30 years,” explained Padraic.
“There used to be a time when the community would eat entirely out of this shop, their diet was different, the patterns of their days were different, this may have been their main social interaction, particularly for older people. That has changed now. It is not simply the convenience of going into town, it is the change of lifestyle, a generational evolution in a way, in their patterns, their diet, in everything that goes with rural life. It is the hands of time, of modernity, bringing sweeping changes to everything, and to expectations and lifestyle.
“That strikes me as a big thing symbolically, as all the rural pillar institutions used to be here, the post office and the shop, the old pub and undertaker and the small national school and the church. When I was in Killawalla NS there was 141 people on the roll there, now there is under 30 and that just gives you a little metric of the change and how rapid it has come. We closed that shop not because our parents were getting too old, but because the lifestyle was changing too much, we needed to change it into a convenience store such as a Spar, an old-school shop like ours, also selling animal feeds, that day is gone.”

Social hub
Outside of larger urban centres, people have always converged in their communities and socialised in different ways, explains Micheál, and that is why the closing of Killawalla Post Office, located in the heartland of a triangle between Westport, Castlebar and Ballinrobe, will have more of an impact than the mere inconvenience of having to travel further to collect a social welfare payment or post a letter.
“This shop and post office was a big social hub. In a rural community like this there are a lot of people who do not drink or smoke and we celebrate that as well, and those people spent a lot of time here, talking and interacting with others,” he outlined.
“It was a hub, the church was another and the pub a third, but now two of them are gone in Killawalla, the church in a way as the priest is no longer based here, and now the shop and the post office.
“Post-match analysis and rituals after the football every weekend went on for hours, it was as if people were in the pub. My mother would make a cup of tea, dad would be there behind the counter also, it was that type of closeness in the community. Older people are still living out that life, and they are going to sorely miss this institution.
“We need to maintain rural Ireland, we cannot ignore rural Ireland and the desire of people who want to remain rural and maintain the rural lifestyle, but on the positive side the pastoral council was established after we lost our priest in Killawalla, that was the community, people coming together, the community centre down there has been done up and is now hosting funerals, it is our own, we don’t have to go to town to do that, which is important. So there is that little bit of an entrepreneurial spirit in the community, where people are coming together and acting to better the community. All the new walls and village enhancements have been completed through schemes with the help and encouragement of the community council, so  the initiative is here in Killawalla and in other rural communities, there are many positives too.”

Generation gap
Padraic Walsh is a senior copywriter at the London base of one of the world’s leading advertising agencies - McCann. He has lived in the English capital since he was 21, and met his wife Laura there. He was recently commissioned to write a play for the BBC which will be broadcast later in the spring.
After a spell in Galway, Micheál Walsh has spent most of the last ten years in Dublin working in the financial sector, where he has set up a base with his partner Suzanne. He was returning after the Christmas break to a new role as a self-employed financial trader, having left a senior position with Northern Trust and having previously worked with global financial behemoth JP Morgan.  
Both are driven and excelling in their careers, and perhaps unsurprisingly, admit that the life of a rural postmaster was not for them once they reached out and experienced the world and began on their own individual roads in life. Though they return home as often as possible, and their loyalty to and love of their native place is inherently strong, theirs is a common trend among people of their generation.
It is clear that this is not a tale about individuals turning their backs on the way of life they knew growing up, plenty of people remain living close to home, though with different habits, desires and patterns than those of their parents. The crux of the matter here is about a paradigm and evolutionary shift in how rural Ireland is inevitably changing in the face of modernisation and a constantly evolving world.
“This kind of life [rural postmaster] is not viable. We have been giving a service to this community since 1889. It is just not viable anymore. There is a bit of push too, mam would not give this up, but there is an element here of jump or be pushed, rural post offices are facing huge challenges. The spirit here we feel is that ‘ye did well to hold on this long but are now holding back progress’,” said Padraic.
“There will always be people in rural Ireland, but when the current generation [his parents] goes, rural Ireland will change like never before, as everyone left will be dependent entirely on large urban centres. That was never the case and it was less so for each generation you go back. Our shop was open 9am to 9pm, it was busy, and it got harder on my parents as they got older, lifting barrels of gas and what not, but it also started changing as people’s patterns did, so they decided to close the shop and keep the post office. They were not going to keep going forever. When we were kids there was a queue out the door on a Sunday morning, everybody lived out of the shop. But rural post offices have challenges, there is speculation that An Post want to keep reducing the numbers of rural post offices, I feel that they don’t want this type of post office in the future.
“It will be a massive change for mam and dad, this evening was the last time after 51 years that dad will send the local post off on its way. He left school before he was a teenager and his routine and life is embedded in this post office and shop. It’s all change. The lady who came to close up the post office and do the official work here today was late coming as she got held up closing, a post office in Donegal also. They ask, ‘now that you can do it all online what’s the point of these post offices?’ Well, I’ll tell you the point, community and social interaction is the point, older people cannot be expected to do their business online. Rural Ireland is facing a whole new challenge when the generation of my parents are no longer here. On one hand, we are here today for the closing of a long established family business, but this is also about the closure of a community institution, imagine closing down the school?”

Impact
At this point a neighbour approaches Padraic, oblivious to the fact that he is being interviewed. Her words are telling.
“Anything we have we don’t appreciate it until it’s gone,” she states. “I will have to go to Ballintubber or Westport to post a letter now, ten miles in each direction. We thought it would always be there [Killawalla Post Office], but it is all changing now. Anything we have handy we don’t appreciate the value of until it’s gone.”
Padraic elaborates on her reasoning.
“This shop and post office, in all the years, has done so much unofficial community work, social work, counselling, if that was a government service it would cost the state a lot, there would be money involved. This is especially true of older people, maybe others who cannot read or write very well, this is not to embarrass anybody, but my parents gave them a sympathetic ear, and a helping hand with their forms, those people do not want to engage directly with officialdom, so we did it for them. That is not going to happen in big towns, or when they go into Westport. We are forgetting how community focused things were, now everybody sets it up as community versus progress, and you can’t be on the side of community, because progress in good.”

Friendship
Maureen Walsh reflected on her time serving the people of her locality, describing it as a ‘community of friendship much more than a community of customers’. Perhaps that is the key point. For all the conveniences and advantages, including the necessity to cut costs, of centralising services by local businesses or national organisations like An Post, the Walsh brothers, while accepting of change, have detectable lament in their voices as they come to realise that their children will never truly experience the life they knew. They are the last generation that will know the life of the rural shopkeeper and postmaster in Killawalla. It is the end of an era and an emotional day for all concerned.
“What was different here was you had the personal touch and people’s privacy was valued. This was another social outlet in the community and a huge bond grew from it,” stated Micheál.
“We were so in tune with people’s lives growing up here, seven days a week we were dealing with the local community, and all aspects of their lives and business. Through good times and hard times they [his parents] were here for people. Mam used to be a midwife in Castlebar, and all through the eighties and nineties people used to call here with all manner of medical ailments and it was ‘sure you know best, you’re the nurse’, and she would deal with it as best she could. People would come in with sick children and she would have to see them and offer advice as best she could. Dad was chairman of the group water scheme, he did the annual community dinner dance for decades, they played a role in the community.”
The brothers also mention the loss of the priest in Killawalla some years ago, and the fact that Fr Michael Tracey retired and moved home from the USA. The desire to keep local services in the church remains strong.
“He says Mass here now, but there is no priest assigned here by the diocese, Fr Tracey is doing his community a service,” states Micheál.
“There may not be as many people here now, but the community togetherness survives.”
Despite the challenges facing rural Ireland, and the hint of sadness that hung in the air in Killawalla on the last Friday of 2016, that is surely the most important message of all.

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