Fifty Years At College Green

In 2006, when I had had my account at Ulster Bank, College Green for fifty years I wrote a longer version of the following piece. I thought it might be suitable for the Bank archive so I sent it in to the manager.  A few weeks ago, six years later, my mobile phone rang and a voice said ‘My name is David Moore, I’m the new manager at College Green’. I swore to myself, and thought: ‘the shyster’s going to cancel the overdraft.’ He went on: ‘on 11th May we will be marking the 150th anniversary of College Green and at it we would like you to read the piece you wrote for the archive.’ I agreed.

It was an early morning event with breakfast. There were seventy or eighty people there most of them ‘suits’. When I was called on to speak I told them I was still having new experiences: I had never had breakfast in a bank before and I had never addressed a gathering of this configuration before. I apologised that I was inappropriately dressed as I was not in possession of a suit and had not been for many years. Then I read the following:

Dublin Street Scene 1950s

Dublin in the 1950’s was a dismal place.  It was a black and white city with green buses.  The economy was stagnant, unemployment endemic and there was a haemorrhage of young people emigrating in search of work.  I left school at the age of 15 in 1955 and was fortunate to get a job.  I counted bumpers, mud wings, gaskets, piston rings and a myriad of other car parts in the spares department of Brittains of Portobello Bridge, the assemblers in Ireland of Morris motor cars.

After fifteen months, in October 1956, through the good offices of my late headmaster, and through no fault of my own, I secured a job in The Scottish Provident Institution, a Life Assurance Company at 36 College Green, (which by coincidence is the premises in which Ulster Bank College Green Branch started before moving to the present building).  The company asked for details of my bank account into which to pay my salary directly.  I was amused at this request since my wage at Brittains had been £2  5s 0d per week, which came nowhere near to funding my hectic social life, let alone leaving some over to put into a bank.  I now had a salary and not a wage and I needed a bank account. I opened one at The Ulster Bank, College Green because I had known a couple of clerks who had worked in the Wexford branch where I had been born and brought up; Paddy McQuillan and Johnnie Honner, later manager in Monaghan. I have had my account at College Green without a break ever since – fifty six years, despite having lived during that period in Dublin, Belfast, Chicago, Laois, Dublin, Wicklow and Dublin again.

The entrance to the bank off College Green was as it is today, but there was no revolving door.  In those days bank robberies only happened in films.  Customers had to push one of the two large heavy doors with brass knobs, still there, but now permanently open during banking hours. In the 1950’s banks were open to the public 10.00 am to 3.00 pm and closed for an hour for lunch.  The banks’ attitude was:  ‘It’s a privilege for you to bank with us and if you want to do business you’ll have to get here when we’re open.’  This changed when banks became avaricious.

Inside the doors there was a high, wide, formidable mahogany counter, straight ahead of the entrance.  To the left it curved down the side of the banking hall where there were compartments divided off from each other by partitions.  Each compartment had a tall stool that the clerk sat on when not dealing with customers.  The whole atmosphere was dull, sombre and of serious intent, designed, I assume, to communicate to customers that there would be no levity or frivolity in the stewardship of their money; that it would be in safe hands.

Early Days at College Green

Wouldn’t you think they’d take off their hats entering the reverential precincts of a bank?!

At first my business with the bank was conducted through the medium of a deposit account on the balance of which, in theory, I would earn interest.   Living permanently beyond my means, however, I don’t believe I ever earned more than a few pence in interest. Always desperately in need of a few bob, optimistically, I often checked to see had my salary been paid in a day or two before the last day of the month, but the canny Scots didn’t part with their money a day too soon.

The compartment for deposit accounts was manned by one L.F.O’Hare.  He was then a man, I estimate, in his thirties and in banking terms, to say the least, he was not a high flyer.  He was tall, sparsely built; he wore a navy blue suit and looked for all the world like a Leitrim farmer on his way to mass. He was gentle, kindly and patient with my too early enquiries as to whether my salary had arrived.   When it did finally arrive, I would complete a withdrawal form, Mr O’Hare opened the giant ledger on his desk, dipped the nib of his wooden handled pen into the inkwell and in a slow laborious hand he made the deduction from my account.   I presented my little red deposit book, in which he recorded the lodgement of my month’s salary and my withdrawal of all but a couple shillings of it which I left behind in order to keep the account open. In about a year, to mark my promotion from office boy to junior clerk, I opened a current account commensurate with my newly elevated status.

After five years as a small cog in the machinery of commerce, I entered Trinity to study for ordination.  This left me more strapped for cash than ever.  I survived, just about, on grants from the Church, grants from Trinity, a little help from my mother and the prospect of earning money in Christmas and summer vacations.  In my first year I worked at Christmas in the Post Office sorting mail and in the summer in a factory in Manchester, a sweat shop, extruding rubber surrounds for car windows and doors.

In my second year I was offered a job working on a building site in Canada.  I would have free accommodation with an uncle.   The problem was, the fare to get there.   I needed £90, a significant sum at the time for an impecunious student.  I took my courage in my hands and approached Norman Murray, a senior official in College Green, whom I knew only slightly.  I had never seen Norman in a compartment dealing with the public. He seemed to me to spend his time walking around at the back carrying a sheaf of papers in his hand conducting business and  talking to people, like a labourer wandering around a building site carrying a plank.   I needed £55 for the return student charter flight to New York and £35 for a Greyhound bus ticket to get to Canada and to travel around North America before coming home.  I thought an extra tenner would help with general expenses, and make a nice round figure, so I asked Norman if he could give me an overdraft of £100. He furrowed his brow and asked me a number of searching questions about the job in Canada.  Eventually he agreed to give me the £90 for my fares, but he wouldn’t give me the extra £10 to make up the round £100.  Within a few weeks of arriving in Canada I paid off the £90 of my first of many overdrafts with The Ulster Bank, College Green.

Later I came to know Norman well and never let him forget about the £10 that he wouldn’t give me in 1964.   He disclaimed all memory of it!  He made up for it, however, many times over later on by the following concession.

College Green Today

If my memory serves me rightly The Ulster Bank was the first Irish bank to advertise.  Until then banks considered it infra dig to tout for business publicly, and needless to say in no time the other banks followed suit.  One autumn in the mid 1970’s, by now a respectable country rector, I saw an Ulster Bank advertisement on the back of a rugby programme offering accounts free of bank charges to first year university students if they kept £100 or more balance in credit.

Norman by this time was manager in College Green, so one day when I was in the branch I called to his office.  I told him I took a dim view of the Bank offering young whippersnapper students free banking.  I had had my account there for over twenty years and if it was in credit the Bank used my money free of charge and if I was overdrawn I paid the Bank hefty interest and I still had to pay fees.  Norman furrowed his brow again, but this time into a smile and made no response.  He reached for the telephone, asked me my account number, got through to the machine room and told them to take all charges off account no: 7849824. I haven’t paid bank charges since!

Over the years my account was seldom in credit except for that period required in order to maintain an overdraft.  Hilary, my wife, and I lived on a clerical stipend and a part-time wage of hers.  We sent two children to boarding school and saw one through university and survived all with the help of The Ulster Bank.  When the overdraft got to its limit we paid it off with a personal loan and then, as Julie Andrews sang in The Sound of Music we would ‘start all over again.’

Recently we got a personal loan to replace our ancient and dilapidated drawing room suite. I have a pet hate: filling in forms. I would nearly have foregone the suite rather than fill out the monster dossier that the bank sent me.  Through the good offices of the excellent and humane manager, Anne Doody, I finally got through the form. We had our new suite! It has been this humane and personal touch, exemplified by Anne and after her time by Eileen O’Donoghue, that has oiled the wheels of my humble dealings with this major financial institution.

My father had had an account with Ulster Bank, Wexford. When I was a curate in Belfast from 1967 to 1970, Ronnie Kells, later Chairman of the Bank was a parishioner.  Hilary was at school with Janice Went a sister of a another Chairman, David Went, whom she remembers as a small boy making sandcastles on the little beach at Sandycove Baths; so one way and another The Ulster Bank has had a high profile in our lives.
In these days when financial institutions are interested primarily in big corporate accounts, I suspect that my small, overdrawn personal account earning no fees may be a damned nuisance to the Bank.  But since I intend to live to be eighty-four, ‘the Ulster,’ College Green will have to tolerate me for another twelve years or who knows, maybe even longer!

May 2012

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