From the Gutters of Belfast to the Halls of Banking: A Personal Journey Through Changing Times…

Originally from Belfast, John Connolly now lives in Dublin and is retired…

When I was a child, my late brother, Paddy, was doing a message for my mother when he lost half a crown down a gutter in the next street. When he confessed to the deed and after he was soundly berated by my mother, my father was dispatched to retrieve the lost money. Paddy accompanied him to point out the exact place and I went along to see what would transpire.

When we got to the scene of Paddy’s crime, Dad lifted the cover and, seeing the coin resting on a ridge a fair bit below, took off his jacket before lying down on the road and stretching his hand into the drain. Alas, the half-crown was tantalisingly out of reach but with an effort he managed to just about touch it. Disaster then struck! He dislodged it, and it moved another tenth of an inch away, half on the ledge, the other half in imminent danger, if the wrong move were made, of plunging into the depths.

Dad stood up and just then a man he knew came along. After the problem was explained to him, he reckoned his arm might be that wee bit longer. So, he removed his coat and, his face scrunched up by the effort, he too tried to reach the coinage. Eventually, he had to admit defeat. Over the next hour or so, others came and offered their services but there was no-one of sufficient simian build to achieve success.

We returned home forlornly, knowing that Mother would be seeking whom she could devour because the half-crown had been the last money in the house until Dad’s weekly visit to the bureau the next day. Whilst there was sufficient food to keep us going, Paddy’s errand had been to get ten Woodbines and there wasn’t even a butt in the house to assuage Mum’s nicotine cravings.

It promised to be a long night…

Then a few hours later – a sixpence was found on the fireplace! I was then entrusted to go to the shop to gain title to five gaspers. I was informed that if I were to lose the money, then it’d probably be better if I were to leave home and seek my fortune in a far foreign field.

When I turned into the next street, I was amazed to see that the same drain grate which we’d left some hours earlier was a hive of activity. A number of youngsters were taking turns at attempting to save our half-crown from its looming fate in the sewers of Belfast city. It was dark but they were using torches and bicycle lights to illuminate their efforts.

I’m not sure whether they were successful, but I hope they were. A half-crown was a fair bit of money back then.

Fast forward a year or so and a much more serious monetary catastrophe struck, this time involving a pound note which went on fire. I cannot recall exactly how that happened but what I do remember is that there was less than half of the note remaining with, thankfully as it happened, the serial number intact.

What to do? It was decided that we would go the local branch of the Munster and Leinster Bank which was in a street on the other side of the road from Springfield Road barracks. They would know what to do. Why, they might even get us a pristine note in exchange for our ragged and charred article!

I went along with my father and we both stepped rather gingerly over the threshold. It was the first time I had ever been in a bank, and I suspect it might have been Dad’s debut as well.

We approached a counter and were greeted civilly enough by a man with a “Malone Road” accent. After explaining our predicament, and after he had consulted with unseen colleagues in the back office, the verdict was that they would give us a receipt for what was left of our note and would then send it to the Head Office who would consider the matter. If we would call back in a month, they would have news for us.

And they did! One month to the day later, we returned in a lather of nervous excitement and, to our delight, were given what I’ve heard described as a “crisp oncer”. We had jam with our bread that evening.

At this distance it seems somewhat unbelievable that back then banks, and the people who worked in them, were seen as objects of admiration, almost amounting to reverence. My father never had a bank account until he retired. That was for posh people. Cash was king, If you needed to send money anywhere you either registered it or invested in a postal order. If you received a cheque from anyone, the milkman would change it into cash for you.

In later years, I got a job with a computer services subsidiary of the National Westminster Bank and older members of my extended family were in awe for days.

I’m not so sure they’d be too bothered these days.

Last week (yet again!) the Bank of Ireland IT system crashed, causing considerable inconvenience to many – myself included. The ATMs, however, were in a generous mood, coughing out cash in large quantities. The word went around that this would be “free” money (it wasn’t) and in many places, queues formed, and in some cases, the Guards had to be called to keep order.

The same bank had declared half-year profits of over €1 billion a few days previously.

In common with other banks, they have been passing on ECB rate increases to their borrowers with alacrity whilst giving an average of only 8% of this to savers. Some might say that this is a form of larceny.

There are fewer branch offices than ever and most of them are little more than glorified ATM lobbies. Customers are really only a vehicle for the production of obscene levels of earnings for extremely well-paid bankers.

More and more, we are being discouraged from using cash. It is of course very convenient just to wave a debit or credit card for goods when out and about but the sinister side of this is that unscrupulous governments might be tempted to levy a “once off” (pull the other one) tax on deposits to top off depleted coffers. In fact, I think this happened in Cyprus a while back.

I don’t want to go back to the edgy and often desperate days of working-class Belfast in the 1950s. Still, at least back then, you had a good chance of getting talking to someone in the Munster & Leinster Bank, assuming you summoned up the courage to enter its intimidating portals.


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