Last week’s mild dust up over Bank of Ireland’s move towards faceless banking, and the shock and outrage it seemed to engender, took little heed of the number of stealthy changes which have already been taking place in retail banking.
Our friends in AIB have for some time been quietly implementing, without a word of public comment, a policy of ensuring minimum contact between customers and staff. Local branches have been fitted out with a bank of automated machines to accept your lodgement, issue you with a receipt, and dispense to you whatever amount of cash you require, without ever having to bid a ‘good morning’ to a human figure behind a desk. It softens the blow, of course, to have an attractive female staff member on standby to guide the technically challenged through the procedure. But beware, that’s not going to last forever.
It’s all a far cry from those bygone, sedate days when the bank branch was an oasis of solemnity and whispered interaction between staff and clients. Banks, back in those days, were austere places where the vaulted roofs and panelled interiors reflected the understated seriousness of the business in hand. And they were places where only men of substance would find welcome; they were the preserve of the influential and the prosperous; they were not there to serve lesser beings.
And, for a long time until they began to behave like any other grubby trader touting for business, banks were permanent and unchanging and predictable and boring. They were solid and dull and unexciting, and their senior staff equally so. They were as staid as the entities they represented, pillars of society, stalwarts of the golf club, dutiful members of local charitable organisations.
Castlebar, for years and years, had three banks, up to the arrival of the johnny - come - lately Ulster bank. There was the National Bank, where Mr Darcy, grandfather of rugby international, Gordon Darcy, reigned; the Bank of Ireland, where the Mayo Motor Tax office now stands and the Munster and Leinster, on Main Street, long before its amalgamation with two other banks to form what is now AIB. (Strangely, history does not record the existence of a Connaught Bank, leaving the province once again in the role of national Cinderella).
Bank of Ireland, which was managed by Bernard McNulty, whose son Paul is now, in his retirement, a successful novelist, was the most interesting building of the three. It was reputedly haunted, because Fighting Fitzgerald of Turlough and Timothy Brecknock, an Oxford educated lawyer, were hung there in 1786. They had been found guilty of the murder of Patrick Randal McDonnell, head of the Mayo volunteers.
It was unthinkable back then that, in the course of half a century, banking would be turned on its head and that new banks would arrive on Main Street and, in many cases, disappear just as quickly. There came National Irish and Halifax, ACC and Rabobank, all of which moved on leaving vacant shopfronts and adding to the general tone of dereliction.
Just as abruptly, Lucan’s historic landmark bank, the imposing building on Rock Square which had become the Convent of the Sisters of Mercy, was demolished one Saturday night by a builder’s bulldozers, leaving a gaping hole which remains to this day an unfilled eyesore on the Castlebar skyline.
Like it or not, banking is changing forever in the era of smartphones and apps and the access to internet business. Soon there will be no need for bank branches or premises. Business will be conducted from home in front of a screen, and bank officials will go the way of the dinosaur.