PUTTING THE FEET UP Francis Gavin is pictured relaxing at his home in Westport after his recent retirement from Westport Credit Union. Pic: Michael Mc Laughlin
BACK in the day when Westport had a bustling harbour and horses and carts transported coal and flour up the Quay hill from the boats into town, it was a man called Johnny Gavin of Tubber Hill who held the record for bringing the biggest load. His son clearly recalls the amount: 31-and-a-half hundredweight (cwt). Well, it is not surprising that Francis Gavin would remember that figure. After all he has just taken early retirement from a lifetime (44 years) at the helm of Westport Credit Union where figures and sums may have had to be his forte but it was his compassion, kindness and conviction about the ethos of the Credit Union organisation and how it could be used to help its members that was always his priority and passion. It is no wonder he is known as ‘Uncle Francis’ locally, although some would say he should be beatified and called ‘Saint Francis of Westport’. However, by all accounts, Francis himself preferred to fly below the radar and do his job quietly and efficiently with little fuss.
Born on Tubber Hill in 1954, Francis Gavin hails from a well-known local family. His parents, Johnny and Mary B, who was from Liscarney, had four children. The second-youngest, Francis has a younger sister, Bridie Dunning, who still lives on Tubber Hill while his brother John, worked with Westport AIB for many years and Joe retired some time ago as Cork City Manager.
While his father, who just died over a year ago, was a carter by trade, Francis says he would be called ‘an entrepreneur’ these days.
“When we were growing up we had cows, pigs and hens in the yards behind the house and while my Dad was a carter, in later years he did haulage – bringing cattle and sheep to and from the fairs. He was, what I would call, an entrepreneur, and could turn his hand to anything. If someone wanted a car, or some galvanise, he would get it for them. One of his sayings was: “ New money will buy new stock.”
Francis’s recalls his father was ‘a stickler for time’, a trait he honoured.
“I always insisted the Credit Union would be opened on the dot of 10am,” he says.
For the decade after secondary school Francis worked at Mulloy’s Hardware (now SuperValu) and Seafield Gentex (Northern Feather). However, he had already started working at the Credit Union as a volunteer, aged 18, in 1972 and, ultimately, was employed part-time in 1981, working Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. By this time, he had taken over as chairperson, after the death, in 1976, of John James Flynn, whose daughter he would ultimately marry.
“It’s amazing how I met Angela. She worked in Dublin and was down home for the weekend and called in. There happened to be a fundraiser in the Sacred Heart School and Shaskeen (Irish traditional band based in the UK) were playing and I had bought two tickets to support it and I asked her to come.”
Her father was dead five years at the time but Francis was still adhering to a little rule-of-thumb that he had learnt from his mentor and which, like his own father’s aphoristic influence, would stand to him throughout his career.
“Back in the early days, the Credit Union used to be opened on Sundays and you might want to get out of there to go for a spin on your bicycle. But you could be a penny out and you’d say: ”Sure it’s only a penny.” I will always remember John saying: “A penny today, tuppence tomorrow. It’s either right or it’s wrong”.”
THE original Westport Credit Union was founded in 1964 in John Jeffers’s hotel (the Railway Hotel). It later moved to its longtime former premises on Bridge Street where at the time a Catholic Church inspired Emigrant and Employment Bureau was situated in a vacant premises owned by Mayock’s Bakery.
“The Credit Union eventually purchased the property and it was there until last May, when there were 12 people working there but we had cramped facilities and no back door,” observes Francis.
“When I took over as manager in 1981, the share balance was £169,000 and I remember Richie Joyce (Board of Directors and former Postmaster) saying if you get to one-half of a million, you will be doing very well. When I left in December, 2016 the share balance was €80 million.”
Indeed, Francis can recall waiting for six months to mark the thousandth member walking in the door, whereas these days there are 20 new members a week and a total now of some 11,500.
“In the beginning, our members were all from the urban working class, the small farmers from the area were usually clients of the Ulster Bank. Back then it was a totally personal interaction with character-based lending.”
“After the crash, the regulations increased in 2008, stifling much of the ethos of the Credit Union. Before a housewife could come in and apply for a €500 loan for Christmas and she would pay back a tenner a week. The regulations, with their stipulations for documentation, often meant her husband would have to become involved and her autonomy was gone,” he explains.
“I was often frustrated by these regulations in recent years and how the system deterred me from helping genuine cases who I knew would honour their debt.”
Legacy to community
WHILE this is a reality of an increasingly economised world, where computations come before community, profits are prioritised over people, Francis Gavin’s legacy to the development of Westport Credit Union will always be etched in old style values. Even if he pioneered the move to its new state-of-the-art property on the Mall, that poky little premises, where back in those early days, he built its counter, will always be a home-away-from home for him.
But the times have changed and he is happy to look at the future. For 2017, there will be more gardening at Carrabaun House and ‘good hard’ walking out the West Road with Angela (his ‘best friend’) who also retired in December, but still works from home as a sport therapist. There will also be more time to attend antique auctions and, most importantly, visit their three adult children, John (32) and twins, Wesley and Aimie.
“You know I never really worked a day in my life. I loved every minute of it – just helping the members of Westport Credit Union,” he tells The Mayo News before folding his newspaper under his arm and heading off to embrace another new day.